The History and Mystery of Elk Point

The recorded history of Elk Point dates back to the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804. Captain William Clark recorded in his journal a “Great deel of Elk Sign” at this campsite along the Missouri River. In spite of that significant journal entry, no one today can pinpoint the origin of the name Elk Point. Depending on the historian, Elk Point was named by the Native Americans who hunted in this area, or it was named by the French fur trappers who preceded Lewis  & Clark’s Corps of Discovery, or it was named by Captain Clark himself, or by Eli Wixson, who had come from Sioux City, IA, to build the first cabin in 1859 and become Elk Point’s first citizen. Whatever the origin, this community was officially incorporated as Elk Point on January 10, 1873.

Eli Wixson,  came to Dakota in 1859, and settled at the present site of Elk Point. He was the first white man to settle in this portion of Dakota.

The Lewis & Clark Legacy

History notes that the Lewis & Clark Expedition made camp in or near Elk Point on August 22, 1804 . Elk Point was first settled in 1859 along the Military Road running from Sioux City to Fort Randall in the Dakota Frontier, making this community one of the oldest in South Dakota.

Equally mysterious is the exact location where Lewis and Clark camped on August 22, 1804 and again on September 3, 1806. Because of the shifting of the Missouri River channel over the last 200 years, the actual campsite may vary one-half- to one mile from Captain Clark’s compass readings. However, Captain Clark reports in his August 22 journal entry that the Missouri River “bends to the East and is within 3 or 4 miles of the River Soues (Big Sioux River),” as estimated by a sighting of the bluffs above the Big Sioux. One thing is certain – the Missouri River has carved many channels and left many natural berms in its geological history.

One such berm curves through the western end of Elk Point – about three miles from the Big Sioux River – and forms a “point” in what is now Heritage Park, a 15-acre garden and pond area bordered by Interstate 29.

This geologic footprint so effectively reinforced the oral history of Elk Point that in 1937 a 77-year-old graduate student named Edward Elliott Collins included the Lewis & Clark episode in his historical thesis of Union County. Collins came to the Dakota Territory with his family in 1864 and combined his first-person accounts of Union County history with the accepted oral histories of Elk Point. Collins records in his thesis that Lewis and Clark “made camp that night by a lone tree on a point of land on the river’s north bank. This camp was about half a mile south and a quarter of a mile west of the present site of the Elk Point water plant, on the Eli Wixson farm, later owned by Charles Stickney.”

The location described by Collins would put the campsite in Heritage Park

The Corps of Discovery enters Dakota, 1804

From the Journals of Captain William Clark:

20th August Monday 1804

“Sergeant Floyd much weaker and no better. Made Mr. Faufonn the interpter a fiew presents, and the Indians a Canister of Whiskey. We set out under a gentle breeze from the S.E. and proceeded on verry well. Serjeant Floyd as bad as he can be no pulse & nothing will stay a moment on his Stomach or bowels. Passed two Islands on the S.S. and at the first Bluff on the S.S. Serj. Floyd Died with a great deal of Composure, before his death he Said to me, “I am going away” I want you to write me a letter.  We buried him on the top of the bluff ½ Mile below a Small river to which we gave his name, he was buried with the Honors of War much lamented, a seeder post with the (1) Name Sergt. C. Floyd died here 20th of august 1804 was fixed at the head of his grave. This Man at all times gave us proofs of his firmness and determined resolution to doe Service to and honor to himself… after paying all the honor to our Deceased brother we camped in the Mouth of floyds River about 30 yards wide, a butifull evening.”

21st August Tuesday 1804

“We Set out verry early this morning and proceeded on under a gentle Breeze from the S.E. passed Willow creek one ½ M. above Floyds River at 1 ½ Miles higher & above the Bluff passed the Soues River S.S. this river is about the Size of Grand river and as Mr. Durrien our Soues intptr. says “is navagable to the falls 70 or 80 Leagues and above these falls Still further, those falls are 20 feet or there abouts and has two princepal pitches, and heads with the St. peters passing the head of the Demoin, on the right below the falls a Creek coms in which passes thro Clifts of red rock which the Indians make pipes of, and when the different “nations meet at those quaries all is piece.” Passed a place in a Prarie on the L.S. where the Mahars had a Village formerly. The countrey above the Platt R. has a great Similarity. Camp. on the L. Side, Clouds appear to rise in the West & threten wind. I found a verry excellent froot resembling a read Current, the Srub on which it grows resembles Privey & about the Common hight of a wild plumb. The two men Sent with the horses has not joined us as yet.”

22nd August Friday 1804

“Set out early wind from the South at three miles we landed at a Bluff where the two men Sent with the horses were waiting with two Deer, by examination this Bluff Contained Alum, Copperas, Cobalt, Pyrites; a Alum Rock Soft & Sand Stone. Capt. Lewis in proveing the quality of those minerals was Near poisoning himself by the fumes & tast of the Cobalt which had the appearance of Soft Isonglass. Copperas & alum is verry pisen, Above this Bluff a Small Creek coms in from the L.S. passing under the Clift for Several Miles, this Creek Roloje a name I learned last night is M[ ]s Seven Miles above is a Clift of Allom Stone of a Dark Brown Colr. Containing also incrusted in the crevices & shelves of the rock great qts. Of Cobalt, Semented Shels & a red earth. From this the river bends to the East and is within 3 or 4 miles of the River Soues at the place where that river Coms from the high land into the Low Prairie & passes under the foot of those Hills to its Mouth. Capt. Lewis took a Dost of Salts to work off the effects of the arsenic, we camped on the S.S. Sailed the greater part of this day with a hard wind from the S.E. Great deel of Elk Sign, and great appearance of wind from the N.W. ordered a vote for a Serjeant to chuse one of three which may be the highest number. the highest numbers are P. Gass had 19 votes, Bratten & Gibson.”

Old Military Road

Before the railroads ran through South Dakota and before the homesteaders flooded the Northern Plains, the U.S. Army ran a westward supply line over 100 miles from Sioux City to Fort Randall, where the Missouri River flowed eastward to become the common boundary between the Territories of Nebraska and Dakota.

Fort Randall had been built in 1857, and in 1859 Eli Wixson built Elk Point’s first home and modest trading post close to this military supply line. In 1862 Wixson built a more elaborate hotel and post office on the site now occupied by one of Elk Point’s signature buildings – the Masons’ Building constructed in 1889 on the corner of Douglas and Main.

In 1865 the U.S. Congress authorized the construction of three sanctioned wagon roads through Dakota. The wagon trail from Sioux City to Fort Randall was exceptionally wide between the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers because of deep rutting during the wet spring and winter seasons. A stagecoach trip from Sioux City to Elk Point – a distance of 25 miles – could take 5 hours or more.

The old stagecoach line between Elk Point and Sioux City eventually became part of State Highway 77, authorized by the State of South Dakota in 1919. As Interstate 29 became the dominant artery of commerce, Highway 77 was taken over by Union County. But markers along the Old Military Road remind us of the history that took place over this former wagon trail.

Texas Cemetery, Dakota Territory

In the summer of 1989 Governor George Mickelson celebrated 100 years of South Dakota statehood by leading a Centennial Wagon Train from the Texas Cemetery, the only remaining evidence of a territorial community called Texas that flourished as a rough steamboat town on the bank of the Missouri River in the 1860s and 70s.

How it got the name Texas is one of the secrets of the dim and distant past. But according to fragmentary reports, it was a small town with a hotel and other business places. Steamboats used to land there, tying up to the big cottonwoods on the river bank. A sawmill furnished lumber for many of the buildings in Elk Point six miles to the north.

Stories abound about this now phantom town. The Texas community was said to have included former African-American slaves from Texas who found their way up the Missouri River during and after the Civil War.

Indeed, Union County was established as Cole County in 1862 but shortly thereafter changed its name to Union County in support of the Northern states during the Civil War.

The demise of this steamboat town parallels the introduction of rail transportation through Elk Point in 1873. How many are buried in the Texas Cemetery is not certain. Many of the graves have no markings. Several stones have been damaged by vandals. What remains is a testament to the pioneers who first ventured into the Dakota Territory and built the modern state of South Dakota.

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