Discover Bon Homme
Discover Bon Homme

History of Bon Homme County

The Louisiana Purchase was created when the treaty was signed in 1803 by President Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte which doubled the size of America and gave access to the Mississippi River trade route and the French port city of New Orleans. Thirteen new states were created from the treaty signed on April 30, 1803 which included land which stretched from the Gulf of Mexico north all the way to Canada and from the Mississippi River west to somewhere near the Rocky Mountains. Over 800,000 square miles for $15,000,000 or $18.75 a square mile or only about $0.03 per acre. This unbelievable purchase included all or a part of the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana, with maybe small parts of Texas and new Mexico. What a bargain.


Lewis and Clark, who were commissioned to explore the new lands, noted in their journal "passed a large island-----Called Bon Homme or Good Man----2nd September, Sunday, 1804"---on their expedition up the Missouri River. This journal entry is what may have caused the county to be named. Bon Homme is the French word translated to mean "Good Man" which leaves speculation that natives had given this name to someone that had lived on the island prior to the exploration of Lewis and Clark and named the island in his honor.


Bon Homme County is bordered on its southern side by the Missouri River (Lewis and Clark Lake). The permanent streams in the county are Choteau, Emanuel and Snatch which all drain into the Missouri River and Dawson which drains northeast into the James River.


The first trading post in Bon Homme County which did business with the native Indians was built at the mouth of Emanuel Creek in about 1815. This is located west of Springfield and east of the Bottom Road. The trading post was run by Emanuel Disaul, a French Canadian. Emanuel Creek was named after him. He was considered a friend of the Indians and they treated him honorably and won their confidence and friendship. It is not known how long he operated the trading post or where or when he left the area.


Pierre Chouteau, Jr. was employed by the American Fur Company in 1827 and started his own company in 1838. The fur company gathered robes and pelts from the Indians in exchange for trade goods. Chouteau's trade areas ran from Council Bluffs to Bismarck. Two central repositories for Chouteau's robes and furs were at Fort Pierre and Fort Vermillion.


When the 1858 treaty was signed with the Yankton Sioux Indians, the members of the Sioux Tribe had one year to relocate west of Chouteau Creek at Greenwood which is located along the Missouri River bank in southern Charles Mix County; this left most of the land of East River Dakota Territory up for grabs for a new wave of pioneer settlers. A convention of non-Indians met at Bramble's Store in Yankton on January 15, 1861to try and officially organize Dakota Territory.


Dakota Territory was officially organized as an incorporated territory from March 2, 1861 until November 2, 1889. The Dakota Territory consisted of the lands of Montana, Wyoming and North and South Dakota. The Territory of Dakota was changing and by 1868 the only land left in the territory was the land forming the states of North and South Dakota and when these two states were admitted to the union on November 2, 1889, the Territory of Dakota was no more.


A document was signed by 478 pioneers in 1861. These pioneers made up almost all of the White people of the Territory of Dakota. On February 26, 1861 a bill was passed by the U.S. Senate to provide a temporary government for the Territory of Dakota, the U.S. House passed the bill on March 1. The bill was then signed by President James Buchanan within less than 48 hours before he left office.


The first territorial governor, William Jayne, came from Illinois and arrived in Yankton in March of 1862. Governor Jayne ordered a census of Bon Homme County. That first census listed 102 males and 61 females of non-tribal heritage.

Bon Homme County became organized in March of 1862 with the meeting of the first territorial legislature which met in Yankton. Bon Homme was nominated to be the territorial capitol but that honor went to Yankton. Bon Homme was then awarded a penitentiary but it was built in Sioux Falls. Finally the legislature made Bon Homme town the first county seat. It also was a stage coach station and had the distinction of having the first school in Dakota Territory built in 1860.


The first territorial officers included U. S. Marshall, W. F. Shaeffer; U. S. Surveyor, General George D. Hill; and U. S. Agent for the Yankton Sioux Indians, Walter A. Burleigh. Mr. Burleigh soon established a ranch and family residence in Bon Homme County east of the town of Bon Homme across from Bon Homme Island.

Zephyr Rencontre, an employee of the American Fur Company, established his own trading post in 1828 on Bon Homme Island. Rencontre was born in Missouri in 1800. He was of French ancestry and was married to a Yankton Sioux woman named Sulrado in 1837. He was regarded of high esteem among the Indian councils and became very involved with the government agents as they worked on the treaty of 1858. Due to his hard work with the treaty and his status among the Indian people, Rencontre was granted a section of land.


In the spring of 1858 a party of 14 young men (including one Negro), one woman and one child from Mantorville, Dodge County, Minnesota was headed to Pike's Peak. The group was led by John H. Shober, a lawyer. Other members of this group included John Remme, Edward and Daniel Gifford, Fred Carmon, John Mantle, John Tallmann, Thomas J. Tate, W. W. Warford, George Falkingberg, Lewis Jones, the African American, Reuben Wallace, Herman Stager, Aaron Hammond along with his wife and child. The group crossed the Missouri at Sioux City and headed west on the Nebraska side. When the group saw the most inviting land on the north side of the river in the vicinity of Bon Homme Island they cut down a large cottonwood tree, hollowed it out, named the canoe "Gentle Annie" and crossed the river to the Dakota side.


After landing and exploring the land area they decided to stay and establish a town. They built a town site cabin and then another building for their quarters. In June or July of that year, Alexander Redfield, U.S. Agent for the Yankton Sioux, and a posse descended on the group and chased them off of the property and back across the river to Nebraska. The posse burned the buildings and hauled the non-burnable material to the river and tossed it into the river. As the terms of the1858 treaty stated, the Sioux Indians had one year to relocate and this time frame hand not yet been reached.


In the spring of 1859, after the one year term of the treaty had been satisfied, the same group returned to Bon Homme along with Mr. Shober. Zephyr Rencontre sold the town site of Bon Homme to this group. D. P. Bradford built a cabin on the summit of the bank on the right side of the ravine running through town and John Shober built a cabin on the left side of the ravine. John H. Shober, Reuben Wallace, and Moses Herrick surveyed the town site in 1860. Herrick built a hotel and house which was the first structure erected on the town site after it had been surveyed. He also opened the first post office in the county on October 3, 1861.


The second group of pioneers arrived on November 12, 1859, in 13 wagons and many loose livestock. Included in this group was C. G. Irish and family; John Butterfield; Jonathan Brown and family; Frances Rounds and her two children (Cordelia and Georg T.); Joseph and Charles Trager; Ruel Gifford and family of three sons and two daughters; and D. P. Bradford and son Henry. Then the third group consisting of Nathan McDaniels and family; C. E. Rowley; and Laban H. Litchfield arrived at Bon Homme on December 26, 1859.


The first school was built of cottonwood logs cut down and built into a school house in the northwest section of the village in the spring of 1860. Miss Emma Bradford, the 16 year old daughter of D. P. Bradford, became the first school teacher in Dakota Territory and taught 10 pupils for three months in the spring of 1860 at Bon Homme. The pupils consisted of John and Anna Bradford, Melissa, John and Ira Brown; Ann, Mary and George McDaniels, and George and Delia Rounds.


Bon Homme was the county seat from 1862 to 1885. When the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad came into Bon Homme County in 1879 and Bon Homme was not included on its route, this was the start of the decline of the bustling Bon Homme County town of Bon Homme. The final nail in the coffin which caused the demise of the town was in 1885 when the county seat was moved to Tyndall. Many people left and the town became deserted and all that was left was the school house and the silent city of the Bon Homme Cemetery on the hill overlooking the Missouri River.


The first recorded burial in the Bon Homme cemetery was a four year old child, Sophia M. Brown, the daughter of J. S. Brown who died on October 27, 1859. The cemetery had not been plotted yet and it was in 1862 that the land was donated by Benton Fraley for cemetery purposes. Other burials had taken place years before because in the process of digging graves other graves with no markings have been discovered.


In 1862 during the Indian threat, all families were ordered to move to the stockade which was built at Yankton. A small garrison of soldiers stayed in Bon Homme to protect it. During that time, fights occurred between the soldiers and an Irish boy, J. Delaney was killed in a duel by a soldier named W. W. Warford, who had been drinking. W. W. Warford was the son of Mrs. Rounds by her first husband. J. Delaney had then been regarded as the first official burial in the cemetery. His death was the reason for the story that Bon Homme was such a healthy place that they had to kill a man to start a cemetery.


In the spring of 1873, George Custer's 7th Cavalry was camped on the west side of Snatch Creek. Seven of his soldiers died of typhoid fever that spring and were buried on the banks of the creek. In 1893 by order of the Cemetery Association the remains of the soldiers were moved to the Bon Homme Cemetery. In 1922 a large homemade cement block tombstone was built by William Thomas Harrison to mark the burials. Six of the soldiers were unknown and the seventh one was named A. Hirsch.


Veterans from many wars are buried in the cemetery including the Indian Wars, Spanish American War, Civil War, WW I and WW II. It is said that this is the oldest rural cemetery still in use today.


A board sidewalk, over one half mile long, connected the cemetery to the town site of Bon Homme. The Bon Homme Cemetery Association was organized in 1887. A group of Bon Homme citizens met at the Bon Homme Memorial Congregational Church and elected A. J. Abbott as chairman, W. H. Emmons, secretary, W. C. Bardwell, W. S. Cole and Alex Clark as trustees. The purpose of the association was to "own, beautify, preserve such lot or lots for a burying or a place for the dead."


On August 24, 1874 Walter Burleigh sold 2,500 acres of his ranch to the Hutterites for $10 per acre. Michael Waldner's group that settled in Bon Homme County became the first among all the Schmiedeleut colonists in North America to establish residency since the first group of 113 Hutterites left Russia on June 7, 1874 and boarded a train at Alexandronsh for Hamburg, Germany. The group sailed from Hamburg on the Harmonia on June 19 and reached New York City on July 5.


Bon Homme County has seventeen Congressional townships, and an area close to 540 square miles or 345,600 acres. Bon Homme County has its own continental divide with the creeks from Avon, Springfield, Tyndall, and Tabor south emptying into the Missouri River and the creeks from Scotland and Tabor north emptying into the James River.


First settlement was Bon Homme established in 1858.First white child buried in Bon Homme Cemetery, Sophia M. Brown, October 27, 1859.First marriage in Bon Homme in 1860, Mr. Samuel Grant and Miss Hattie E. Bradford.First school in Dakota Territory was built in Bon Homme in 1860. First teacher was Miss Emma Bradford.First post office in the county opened on October 3, 1861 and operated until March of 1903.First four counties established in March of 1862 by the first legislature held in Dakota Territory in Yankton.First official burial in the Bon Homme Cemetery was an Irish soldier, J. Delaney, killed in a duel in 1862.First white child born in Bon Homme County was Daisy Slater in 1868.


First saw mill operated by Hammond, Walsh & Co. burned down in 1871. First newspaper published in Bon Homme, Bon Homme County Democrat September 1876.

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