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Settlement Stories: Bon Homme County

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Euro-American explorers and traders had a strong foothold on the lands along the Missouri River in South Dakota well before an 1858 treaty between the Yankton Sioux and the U.S. Government authorized white settlement in 1858. What is now Bon Homme county was one of the more significant trading locations on the river well before Lewis and Clark visited the area in 1804. In fact, the county name, "Bon Homme," is the French translation of an honorary name given by the Yankton Sioux to a white fur trader working in the area during the 1700s. It's English translation is "good man." The fur trader's first-given name has been lost to history.

The first permanent white settlers to enter Bon Homme county did so before Dakota Territory was organized and before the 1858 treaty went into effect. What follows is the transcript of an interview from "In the Moment," SDPB's midday radio program. Host Jackie Hendry spoke with Bob Foley, the secretary/treasurer of the Bon Homme Heritage Association, which operates the Memorial Church Museum in Tyndall.

Jackie Hendry:

So let's start with the history of the county's name, if you would. I'm guessing it's French. Take us back to the French fur trading days and how the county got its name.

Bob Foley:

Absolutely. The Missouri River was a fur trade route. It was like the interstate highway at the time for trade goods. And Bon Homme County, the word Bon Homme was coined from an Indian phrase, and it referenced a fur trader, an unknown fur trader, we don't know his name, who befriended the Indians. He traded in the Bon Homme island area, or in an island in the Missouri River that's now covered up by Lewis and Clark Lake, but it would be between, if you're familiar with Bon Homme County, the the Springfield landing and the Bon Homme colony. From the Nebraska side, it would be across from the Devil's Nest area. And this was about a 4000 acre island and this was trader operated there. It was rich in furs. And he died and the natives referred to him as a good man, and because he was French, it carried the name Bon Homme. And we know this to be probably true because when Lewis and Clark ventured up river in 1804, they already knew of this place called Bon Homme island, so that's where the name came from and a bit of the background of why we believe that version of history to be correct.

John Shober

In 1858, there was a group of settlers or pioneers, you would call them, led by a fellow named John Shober, and they were from Dodge County and the town in Dodge County called Manterville, which is near Rochester today. And Shober, he's kind of an interesting person, but these early people fashioned themselves in kind of a Jeffersonian democracy model and they were like colonists. They were colonizing the new lands in the west. So these people who had lived around and in Dodge County for some years, decided to move on and they were attracted by the gold finds at Pikes Peak. So their intention was to travel from Manterville, Minnesota to Pikes Peak, and the way they did that, they crossed the Missouri River at Sioux City, where there was a ferry at the time, and then there was a trail that led along northern Nebraska and connected basically to the Niobrara River Valley in Niobrara and went west into what we now know as Wyoming. And then the trail went down the front of the Rockies. That was their path.

But then as they were on their journey, they camped one day in 1858 in near the Devil's Nest area in what's now Knox County, Nebraska, near Santee, and they looked across the river and they saw this Bon Homme Island, this rich place that was very attractive. So they cut down a big cottonwood tree and carved a canoe and paddled across the river, went to the island, and were so enamored with the location that they decided to abandon their plans for gold, to seek their fortunes in gold at Pikes peak, and they started a settlement.

However, as you mentioned in your intro, what we now know as southeast South Dakota was ceded to settlement by this 1858 treaty of Washington, Yankton Sioux Treaty of 1858, and it also established what was the Yankton Sioux reservation, which today comprises basically, it would be Charles Mix County. And the provision of the treaty did not allow for settlement in these ceded sellable lands until 1859. So the agent in charge of the Yankton Sioux reservation ordered or dispatched troops from Fort Randall to go to Bon Homme Island and evict the people and burn their cabins and kick them off.

So the people went back across the river and camped for that winter in the Devil's Nest area awaiting the next year when it would be legal for them. And in the meantime, another wagon train of settlers from Manterville arrived in 1859 and they started a community that soon became known as the Village of Bon Homme. Now, this village was not on Bon Homme Island itself. It was on the South Dakota shore. And the gravel road that leads down to the [inaudible 00:07:00] Landing is called Bon Homme Road in reference to where this small community was founded and existed for a number of years.

The Manterville people stayed and built up and then additional people came to Bon Homme, so the Shober party, the Manterville colony, was the first actual white colonist settlement in Bon Homme and it was coincident with some of the other settlements at Fort Vermillion and in Yankton.

Jackie Hendry:

Our guest has been Bob Foley, Secretary Treasurer of the Bon Homme Heritage Association. You can see a short blog post about Bon Homme County and find links to the Bon Homme County Museum's website at Bob, we only got to part of the story, so I'm excited for people to learn more, but thank you for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

Bob Foley):

Well, thank you very much for your interest.

hotel in early bon homme village
  • The Cogan House hotel, shown here in approximately 1880, served the village of Bon Homme from 1873 until 1885 when it was moved to Tyndall. The village is long gone.
  • Larger towns in Bon Homme county include Tyndall, the county seat; Tabor, Springfield, and Scotland.
  • Bon Homme county is home to the first Hutterite colony established in North America.
  • A significant number of Czech settlers began coming to Bon Homme county in the 1880s. Their descendants celebrate their Czech heritage with an annual event held in Tabor.


An overlay of historical features shows the locations of Bon Homme Village, Bon Homme Island, and North America's first Hutterite Colony.
Robert Foley