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Arts & Life

Union County

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Union County Historical Society
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A gathering of Union County settlers, Aug. 1914

Union County is located in the far southeastern corner of South Dakota bordered by the Big Sioux River on the east and the Missouri River to the south.

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The Lewis and Clark expedition camped at Elk Point on August 22, 1804. An election was held to select a replacement for Sgt. Floyd, who had died of illness several days earlier. Lewis and Clark stayed at Elk Point again on their return trip to St. Louis.
A fur trader named Adolf Mason was the first white settler in the area. He arrived in 1855 and set up his operation and home near present-day McCook Lake. Mason left for a time so Christopher Malone, a fur trader who also came to the area in 1855, is considered the first permanent white settler. The only white people allowed in the unorganized region at that time were those with a government permit or those who were connected to a Native tribe by marriage.

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Lewis and Clark's campsite is memorialized in an Elk Point city park.

White settlement became legal in the area in 1858, sanctioned by a treaty between the U.S. government and the Yankton and Yanktonai bands of the Oceti Sakowin, the Sioux. The Yankton ceded some 11 million acres between the Big Sioux River and the Missouri River in return for about 400-thousand acres of land in and around present-day Charles Mix county.

Union County was established in 1862 and was first named Cole County in honor of Austin Cole, a Dakota Territorial Legislator. The name was changed to Union County in 1864 because residents wanted to make it clear that they sided with the Union in the ongoing Civil War.

The first county courthouse in Dakota Territory was built in Elk Point. Other towns in Union County include Beresford, Alcester, Jefferson, and North Sioux City.

The first homestead deed authorized by the Homestead Act of 1862 was granted to Mahlon Gore at five minutes past midnight on January 1, 1863, the date when the Homestead Act signed by Abraham Lincoln went into effect. Gore’s filing was definitely the first in Dakota Territory and it might have been the first in the United States.

Fort Brule was built in 1862 as a refuge for settlers fleeing the Dakota War.

Fort Brule marker
Fort Brule marker

More: What follows is a transcript of a radio segment that aired live on SDPB on Monday, February 7, 2022.

Lori Walsh:
The formal organization of Dakota Territory in 1861 punctuated a white settlement process that had been unfolding for decades. That organization was, of course, based on the establishment of county governments a few at a time. Well, today on Images of the Past, we're going to launch a series of segments about South Dakota's counties and look at some of each county’s milestones, points of pride, and some unique stories. SDPB producer, Brian Gevik, is with us in the Kirby Family Studio in Sioux Falls studio. We're going to kick things off with a look at Union County in the state's southeast corner. Brian Gevik, welcome. Thanks for being here. All right. Union County. Where is it first?

Brian Gevik:
Union County is in the very far southeastern corner of South Dakota. It's that little finger of land that keeps us from being a boring rectangle. It's got the Missouri River on the south side and it has the Big Sioux River on the east side, and it has quite a lot going for it in terms of ag land.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah.

Brian Gevik:
Just variety of landscapes, really. It's one of the 14 counties that were set up in 1861 when Dakota Territory was actually organized, but there were people in and out of there a lot earlier than that.

Lori Walsh:
Right. So let's talk about some of the people who were there before white people - European people - show up at all because this very much part of the story.

Brian Gevik:
It is. I'm going to limit it though, just to the people who were there at the time of settlement and for some time before that, without looking too far back into prehistory, if you will. The Yankton Sioux were the predominant band of the Oyate and in that part of Dakota at the time, which had various political boundaries of Nebraska and Minnesota. It had gone through a whole number of different political subdivisions, but the Yankton Sioux were the original inhabitants and occupants. They agreed in 1858 to turn over some 11 million acres, basically everything in eastern South Dakota, from the Minnesota border to the Missouri River, in exchange for somewhere around 400,000 acres, not too far from Gregory County and including areas like Wagner and so on.

Lori Walsh:
Okay, so why? It's really an important story-

Brian Gevik:
It is.

Lori Walsh:
How these treaties came to be. It wasn't out of the gracious agreement between indigenous people and the white men who were coming.

Brian Gevik:
Right. There was a leader named Struck-by-the-Ree, a Yankton leader, and he had traveled to Washington DC in 1857 to try to work something out, because his whole life, he'd seen more and more white people coming in. He, especially after having seen what the United States was all about, he just thought, "We can't fight it." I’ll read this quote if you like-

Lori Walsh:
Please. It’s quite compelling, yeah.

Brian Gevik:
He's credited with saying, "The white men are coming like maggots. It's useless to resist them. They are many more than we are. We could not hope to stop them. Many of our brave warriors would be killed, our women and our children left in sorrow, and we would not stop them. We must accept it, get the best terms we can get, and try to adopt their ways."

Lori Walsh:
Hm. All right. In the interest of time, more about Union County, tell me some of their points of pride today.

Brian Gevik:
Okay. We can start with the fact that Lewis and Clark stayed there. They camped right near where the city park is now. They camped there both going up the Missouri and coming back down. The first sanctioned US election was held there. Lewis and Clark needed to replace the late Sergeant Floyd with someone. So, and this surprised me. It's like the men in charge could have just picked a guy and said, 'Okay you're a corporal, now you're a Sergeant,' but apparently they had an election and they're proud of that in Union County.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. Yeah.

Brian Gevik:
Now this one, I really like. The first homestead claim in Dakota Territory was filed at five minutes after midnight on New Year's Day, 1863. It's possible that this was the first homestead claim in the United States. It definitely was the first one in Dakota Territory. So that's quite something to think about, that the first place to actually be set up under the Homestead Act of 1862, was in Union County.

Lori Walsh:
Yeah. You found some really quirky and eclectic stories that kind of give us an idea of what it was like to live in Union County long, long ago, including just a blizzard. And a haystack.

Brian Gevik:
There was a guy named Dick Mundy traveling by horse between Elk Point to Hawarden. There was a blizzard. He stopped to take shelter at a haystack and the wind shifted so he moved around to the other side and there was this woman standing there and she said, "Well, come on in," and she opens the door and they had a two room cabin just covered with hay so it looked like a haystack. And in a blizzard, well, why not?

Lori Walsh:
Someone was burrowing into our house!

Brian Gevik:
Yeah.

Lori Walsh:
It's probably a good idea to just open the door and say, "Come on in too."

Brian Gevik:
Yeah.

Lori Walsh:
Why is it called Union County? It wasn't originally.

Brian Gevik:
It was not. It was originally called Coal County after a territorial legislator. But the people who were living there decided that they wanted to show their solidarity with the Union, the United States government, so they changed the name so that everybody would know who side they were on.

Lori Walsh:
Okay. People can follow along with this project online. Tell us a little bit about that because I'm all in already.

Brian Gevik:
Well, we're going to be doing blog posts, we'll continue with the radio things, and we're going to kind of intersperse this with other Images of the Past segments as we go forward.

Lori Walsh:
Images the Past coming to a county near you. You can find more online at sdpb.org/imagesofthepast. Brian Gevik, thanks so much for being here.

Brian Gevik:
You bet. Thanks, Lori.