No one had ever seen anything like it in their lives. Elderly Indians living along the Missouri in Dakota Territory said the river had never been higher. Settlers in the valley bottomlands further south said the same thing – this flood dwarfed every previous flood – even the deluges of 1844 and 1867. It wasn’t just the height of the flood crest that impressed Indians and whites alike, it was the force of the water – and the huge blocks of ice carried by the river’s rapid currents.
When the flood of 1881 first came roaring down the Missouri Valley, it pushed a wall of ice and debris out to its front. That fast water and ice behaved like a battering ram, punching holes in buildings, knocking down fences, and snapping trees in half. After that initial, powerful pulse passed downstream, more ice followed in its wake. This second wave of ice swept the valley floor clean, scooping up almost everything in its path. Cattle, cordwood, hogs, and trees fell into the river. Once there, the Missouri pulled the growing mass of flotsam toward mid-channel, where sharp-edged ice cakes mixed it and mashed it.
On the night of April 6, a huge ice jam below Yankton gave way. The next morning, residents of that town walked, or rode horses and buggies, to the riverfront to watch in awe as the Missouri paraded past. Some of those present may have imagined the great piles of ice and trash in mid-channel as a bedraggled army on the march – tattered flags fluttering in the breeze, wooden rifles thrust at odd angles into the air, bayonets glistening in the morning light – all of it accompanied by a low rumbling sound. The river had triumphed – at least momentarily – destroying everything so dear to Missouri Valley settlers – their dreams of prosperity, their property, and even their houses of worship.
Every adult who saw the river that day knew that if he or she somehow found themselves in the river they would die. The Missouri, and its ice, would snuff them out in an instant, batter their body, and then unceremoniously dump their corpse on a sandbar, or stash it, crocodile style, under a log. Maybe, sometime in the summer, after they had ballooned to twice their size, someone would spot them bobbing on the waves and they would finally get a proper burial. Otherwise, the fish, birds, and other river critters would have them. The Missouri had no respect for civilized decorum.
Stories of heroism, determination, and tragedy emerged from the flood of 1881.
On March 31, Bismarck Mayor George Peoples learned that a group of men were stranded by high water and ice in the valley south of town. He decided to take a skiff out onto the Missouri and go in search of them. After gliding downstream on the treacherous river, Peoples discovered the men in a grove of trees, water raging all around them. He gingerly steered his boat toward the trees and rescued all the men. Peoples then saw another man atop an ice jam who had apparently become so overwhelmed with fear that he could not move. Peoples left his skiff and walked out on to the unstable, jumbled blocks of ice, knowing full well that the jam could give way at any moment, tossing him into the frigid waters, where he would die within minutes. Fortunately, the ice jam held long enough for Peoples to guide the shell-shocked man back to safety.
When the first freshet hit Bon Homme Island (18 miles northwest of Yankton) the settlers there had to flee the onrushing floodwaters with only the clothes on their backs. Just before the high water overtook them, the group reached a small promontory located on the northwestern tip of the island. Once there, they huddled together, hoping the river would not rise high enough to carry them away. The eight men and two women spent three, long, cold nights atop that precarious little knoll before escaping to higher ground on the nearby bluffs.
The Missouri encircled scores of houses with high water and blocks of ice before the occupants could flee to the bluffs beyond. Families up and down the valley got trapped in their homes. All they could do was wait – either for the river to drown them or for someone to rescue them.
Soon after the flood struck, some Yankton men organized rescue parties, which set out from that town in yawls to search the flooded countryside for survivors. The search teams passed from submerged farm house to farm house, often risking their own lives as heavy ice flows pushed up against their wooden boats. When crews reached a house, they checked for signs of life. On numerous occasions, crews had to cut survivors out of their houses by opening a hole in the roof. Had it not been for the heroism of these selfless men, the death toll from the Great flood of 1881 would have been far higher.
Unfortunately, not everyone was rescued. Some settlers died when the river blasted through their house in the middle of the night, carrying them away in the darkness. Others died when the cold water rose above their rooftops, either drowning them in their own homes; or, if they had taken refuge on the tops of their houses, dumping them into the frigid river, where, if they were lucky, they drowned before they died from hypothermia.
South of Yankton, a settler named Inch got stuck in his farm house by the rising floodwaters. Not long after the Missouri inundated the lowlands around Inch’s place, a cold snap re-froze the river’s surface. Rather than wait for rescue, Inch decided to leave his flooded house and walk across the newly-formed ice to his brother’s nearby farm. He apparently walked some distance from his house before the ice gave way, dropping him into the water up to his chest. Inch tried to lift himself out of the water by grabbing the ice that surrounded him, but the thin ice kept breaking apart. He then decided to walk in the water, smashing the ice to his front as he went along. But the going was slow and eventually he tired; and that’s when the cold began to close in on him. At some point, Inch must have realized that he had gone too far to turn back, and had not gone far enough to make it to his brother’s place. Days later, a crew from Yankton found him. Inch was still standing in the river, encased in ice.
The flood of 1881 was the greatest flood to strike the Missouri Valley in the nineteenth century. It inundated Indian communities and white settlements from the Yellowstone confluence through the state of Missouri. Mandan, Dakota Territory, (located directly opposite Bismarck on the Missouri’s west bank) took a pounding from ice and high water. When the flood hit, an estimated 400 residents had to take refuge on the bluffs to the west of town, where they spent several dreary days waiting for the river to subside so they could return home.
Further south, the Missouri literally wiped the town of Green Island (opposite Yankton) off the map, destroying nineteen of the town’s twenty buildings, including two of its churches. The Missouri also pushed water into low-lying areas of Yankton. In addition to the buildings damaged at Yankton, several steamboats at the town’s boatyard were lifted off their moorings and carried downstream, only to be deposited in the lowlands far from the river’s main channel.
The Missouri hammered Vermillion. One hundred and thirty-two of the town’s buildings were either completely destroyed or sustained damage. Following this catastrophe, the surviving residents wisely chose to move the town to the highlands to the north.
The worst of the flooding along the Missouri occurred between the mouth of the James and the mouth of the Big Sioux. The floodwater emanating from those two streams, when combined with the water coming down the big river, filled the Missouri Valley to the brim. Most of the farmers living along that reach lost livestock, equipment, and stored grain. Dakota Territorial Governor Nehemiah G. Ordway estimated that 7,000 people in southeast Dakota Territory had been displaced by the flood. At the height of the flood, about 1,000 of the refugees crowded into Yankton.
At Sioux City, the high bank along the riverfront kept the town safe. Some low-lying areas sustained a little damage, but overall the town remained unscathed. Directly across the river from Sioux City, the town of Covington sank beneath the waves.
At Omaha-Council Bluffs the river spread far and wide, covering the entire valley floor. Floodwaters damaged hundreds of houses in Council Bluffs. At Omaha, three packinghouses (Boyd’s, Roddy’s, and Thrall’s) suffered water damage, as did the lumberyard along the river’s edge. As the crest passed downstream, the Missouri sent a foot of slushy water into the streets of Hamburg, Iowa; and at East Atchison, Kansas, 1,000 people had to abandon their homes to the floodwaters.
The flood of 1881 was actually two floods. The first flood came immediately on the heels of ice-out in late March and early April, when ice jams dammed the river at a number of locations along the valley and then forced the backed-up water to pour out over the adjacent bottomlands. The second flood resulted from the melting of the deep snowpack (up to four feet in some locations) across the Midwest and Northern Plains. This flood reached its peak in western Iowa and eastern Nebraska in the last week of April.
Agricultural settlers contributed to the flooding in two significant ways.
In the decade before the flood, settlers had converted tens of thousands of acres within the Upper Missouri Basin from prairie to cropland. The former prairie had had the ability to absorb far more snowmelt and rainwater than the new cropland. For example, a study done in the 1930s revealed that runoff amounts on barren, cultivated soil could be far higher than on land covered with prairie grass. On one test plot runoff on the cleared parcel was forty-four times higher than on the prairie parcel. Even pasture land and land covered with wheat stubble had dramatically higher runoff rates than prairie.
Deforestation also played a big part in the 1881 flood. Settlers had been felling the forests in the Missouri Valley and along its tributary streams for years prior to the flood. Forest tracts had not only helped to slow, and store, potential runoff, they had stabilized the Missouri’s banks with their roots and trucks – which meant the big river was less likely to dramatically, and violently, alter its course during periods of high flow. Additionally, the leaves, decaying branches, and plants covering the forest floor maintained the soil’s porosity. Removal of the forests, and the loss of forest litter, decreased the ability of the land to hold runoff.
In the decade before the flood, western Iowa and southeastern Dakota Territory experienced exponential population growth. In 1870, the population of Dakota stood at 11,776; almost all of those inhabitants lived in the southeast corner of the territory. By the end of 1880, Dakota’s population had climbed to 98,268, an increase of 734.5 percent over the previous decade. The greatest increases in population occurred in the eastern and southeastern part of the territory – especially within the Missouri, Big Sioux, Vermillion, and James River valleys. Minnehaha County’s population (along the middle Big Sioux) grew from 355 in 1870 to 8,251 in 1880. Yankton County (along the Missouri and James rivers) jumped from 2,097 to 8,390 during the same decade; Hutchinson County (along the James) saw its population rise from 37 to 5,573 between 1870 to 1880; and Turner County (along the Vermillion River) went from 0 to 5,320 residents during that same decade. Northwestern Iowa experienced similar population increases. In the 1870s, Lyon County saw its population rise from 221 to 1,968; Sioux County’s population went from 576 to 5,426, and the number of Plymouth County residents increased from 2,199 to 8,566. All of these Iowa counties abut the Big Sioux River.
The above settlement numbers may explain why the greatest devastation during the flood of 1881 occurred in the Missouri Valley between Yankton and Sioux City. Land clearing for crop production, in conjunction with the rapid melting of the winter snow cover, caused a veritable ocean of water to descend the Big Sioux, Vermillion, James, and Missouri rivers in March and April 1881.
The agricultural settlers rushing into Dakota and western Iowa – and all across the Midwest – possessed a tremendous appetite for wood. They used wood for a host of purposes, including the construction of cabins, shingles, barns, barrels, sheds, and fences. They burned wood to heat their homes and cook their meals. They employed wood to make bridges, plank roads, and boardwalks. Not surprisingly, the first business enterprise usually erected in a new settlement was the saw mill. On average, settler families burned dozens of cords of wood (a cord equaled a stack of wood eight-feet-long, four-feet-high, and four-feet-wide) per year to cook their food and heat their cabins and frame houses.
But settlers weren’t the only ones who required huge amounts of wood. Steamboats operating on the Missouri burned up to twenty-five cords of wood per day – all of it coming from the valley bottomlands. In addition, the trains crisscrossing eastern Dakota in the 1870s burned wood too. According to the U.S. Government, wood consumption in the United States peaked in the 1860s and 1870s.
Evidence of deforestation in the Missouri Valley and its environs comes from eyewitness accounts. The Yankton Press and Daily Dakotan reported on April 1, 1881, during the first flood of that year, that J.S. Presho had lost a “considerable” amount of cordwood on his land on Smutty Bear Bottom (near Yankton). Three days later the paper noted that a Mr. Cullum had lost 800 cords of wood on his land and “other settlers also lost large quantities.” Settlers throughout the Missouri Valley, like Cullum, cut more cordwood than themselves needed in order to sell the excess to passing steamboats. According to an U.S. Army officer sent to the flood zone in late April to assess damages, Missouri Valley residents living between Pierre and Sioux City lost approximately $500,000 worth of cordwood to the river’s high waters, an amount equal to almost $12.5 million today.
Much of the cordwood hauled off by the Missouri in the spring of 1881 had likely been cut during the winter months of 1880-1881, to meet settler, and steamboat, requirements in the coming year. Therefore, if all of the cordwood lost in the spring of 1881 represented only one year’s worth of harvest, which is probably a conservative estimate, settlers had been cutting down an incredible number of trees year after year, not only in the Missouri Valley, but in its tributary valleys as well. The end result of all of that deforestation was a higher, more erosive Missouri River.
Americans in the nineteenth century often held God, Mother Nature or the weather responsible for the floods that washed away their towns, farms, and crops; but a fair bit of the blame for the flood of 1881 rested squarely on the shoulders of settlers. Their environmental ignorance, economic self-interest, and devil-may-care attitude toward land use created in the spring of 1881 what one newspaper writer at the time called “The Monstrous Missouri.”
 New York Times, “Reports of Floods and Storms,” April 8, 1881.
 New York Times, “Heavy Floods in the Missouri Valley,” April 1, 1881.
 Yankton Press and Dakotan, “The Monstrous Misouri,” April 4. 1881.
 Yankton Press and Dakotan, “More Wetness,” April 5, 1881.
 New York Times, “The Flooded Missouri Valley,” April 2, 1881.
 New York Times, “General Telegraph News: The Flooded Missouri Valley, Bottomlands Covered with Ice and Water, Sufferings of Refugees,” April 14, 1881.
 New York Times, “Aid for Dakota, Gov. Ordway Appeals to the Public for Contributions for Dakota Sufferers,” April 19, 1881; New York Times, “Swollen Western Rivers, Widespread Damage Caused by the Floods,” April 29, 1881; New York Times, “General Telegraph News, The Flooded Missouri Valley,” May 13, 1881.
 New York Times, “The Western Inundations,” April 24, 1881; New York Times, “Western Rivers Out of Bounds,” April 23, 1881; New York Times, “The Floods in the West, Great Areas Under Water in Minnesota,” April 28, 1881; New York Times, “Swollen Western Rivers, Widespread Damage Caused by the Floods,” April 29, 1881.
 New York Times, “Western Towns Deluged, Disastrous Floods in Minnesota, The Rivers Rising Rapidly, A Better Prospect at Omaha,” April 25, 1881; New York Times, “Swollen Western Rivers, Widespread Damage Caused by the Floods,” April 29, 1881.
 J.E. Weaver, “Comparison of Runoff and Erosion in Prairie, Pasture, and Cultivated Land,” Bulletin 11, Conservation Department of the Conservation and Survey Division, University of Nebraska, (Lincoln: State of Nebraska, 1935), 8-9, 13, 14, 20.
 Ibid., 21.
 William C. Hunt, Census Bulletin, No. 47, Twelfth Census of the United States, Population of South Dakota By Counties and Minor Civil Divisions, (Washington D.C.: GPO, 1901); https://www.iowadatacenter.org/archive/2011/02/countytotalpop.pdf
 Yankton Press and Daily Dakotan, “The River,”April 1, 1881; Yankton Press and Daily Dakotan, “The Monstrous Missouri,” April 4, 1881; New York Times, “Swollen Western Rivers, Widespread Damage Caused by the Floods,” April 29, 1881.
[Above Photograph Courtesy of the Council Bluffs Public Library]