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The History of Bon Homme County - A Native Perspective

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zephier rencountre
Zephier Rencontre, a French trader who established a trading post along the Missouri River in 1828.
Courtesy: Skuya Zephier

On February 28, 2022, SDPB published an “Images of the Past” blog post about the history of Bon Homme County. The scope of story was intentionally limited to a period of time between 1858, when the first sizable group of white settlers came to the area, and the 1880s when more settlers arrived to create towns like Tyndall and Tabor. What follows is a response in the form of an article written by Skuya Zephier of Rapid City, a direct descendant of people living in the Bon Homme area during the 19th century. The article provides a more in-depth look at the region's history prior to 1858. – Brian Gevik, “Images of the Past” Producer

Skuya Zephier was born in the West. She is affiliated with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Yankton Sioux Tribe; Zephier was educated as a petroleum geologist but has stepped into creative writing. Previously published in World Literature Today, Ms. Zephier is currently writing the history of her family, the famed Zephier Rencontre and his sons.

There is more to this story. The creation of Bon Homme as a community was not done at the will of white settlers who happened upon desired land, but of traders, Indigenous peoples, those who lived among them, and yes, later white settlers who also lived upon the same land. We would do well to remember all our shared history and keep them all as one story, as people should live alongside one another as one community.

Years before 1858, non-Indigenous peoples had settled and lived in Bon Homme. We have the history of three such men: Louisel Registre in 1794(1), Emanuel Disaul in 1815(2), and Zephyr Rencontre in 1828(3). These three men were French, white settlers. Further, if we are distinguishing a long-term settlement, I refer to the South Dakota Historical Collections. Here, it records Zephyr’s journey up the Missouri River in 1826 and, “By 1828, Xavier (sic) settled on Bon Homme Island. Its first white settler- he built a trading post there and lived with his Dacotah wife and children in the area for forty years.” If forty years is not a settlement, I don’t know what is. John Shober - leader of a group of white people from Minnesota who settled in the area illegally in 1858 and again legally in 1859 - only stayed at Bon Homme until 1865, moving on the Helena, Montana. The continuity of one man would indicate Zephyr Rencontre settled Bon Homme.

Perhaps we need to discuss the “Dacotah wife and children” mentioned in the South Dakota Historical Collections. Here, we must segue into a short history of St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis was born of the Chouteau family. The famed family rose to prominence in the fur trade, the American Fur Company, and shipping along the rivers. Part of that trade lead many of them and their associates to marry and form French-Native American families called métis. An entire suburb of St. Louis formed of métis families, who were prosperous and lived well. In 1794, Chouteau and his associates made their way up the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River for trade. Many of them stayed and lived along the river among the native peoples. Some names are still common in this area today including: Blanchette, Roy, Sarpy, LaClaire (a métis founder of Davenport, Iowa), Roy, Richardville, Cerre, Denoyer, and Peugnet. Now, these fur trade men were white-French, but their children and the family were generally called métis. It was common along the rivers and the town of Mendota, Minnesota was entirely inhabited by French-Sioux métis and nearly all spoke French. In this sense, white men, with their métis families, had settled many communities like Bon Homme far before groups like Shober’s arrived.

SDPB’s previous post about the history of Bon Homme states the following: “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. Its English translation is "good man." The fur trader's first-given name has been lost to history.”

This isn’t entirely accurate. A Frenchman named Louisel Registre, whom the Sioux called Little Beaver, came up the Missouri River in 1794. He found Bon Homme Island and over the next year he built a trading post. Here was a hub of trading activity between traders and natives alike. The man was respected among all the people of the area. He built the trading post upon the island and lived there until his untimely death in the early 1810s. (Registre’s trading post and home blew up in an unfortunate gun powder incident.)

Little Beaver, or Louisel Registre, was identified in other historical records known as Winter Counts. Winter Counts are the cyclical winter-to-winter histories of the Sioux. There are many kept by the various bands of Sioux over hundreds of years. Registre was named and written about in at least five separate winter counts. Louisel was not a man whose name or story was “lost to history.” It is, in fact, known that John McBride, a Frenchman, assisted in his burial when Louisel died. Was Louisel the Bon Homme, the good man? Perhaps.

Less is said about Emanuel Disaul. Historian George Kingsbury wrote only that he was the first permanent settler of Bon Homme County. He had a trading post at the mouth of what is now Emanuel Creek in 1815. Could he be our good man? It is a good addition to story.

Another historical account declares that “Bon Homme County dates from the first legislature. Its first permanent settler was the famous Zephyr Rencontre, who lived at Bon Homme Island from 1828.(5)”

Zephyr was an interpreter for the Yankton Sioux in negotiating the 1858 Treaty with the Yankton Sioux. He was respected by the Sioux, the U.S. government, and the many colleagues he made in his years with the Choteaus and the fur trade. Was Rencontre the namesake of Bon Homme? Maybe. The point is that the lore behind Bon Homme matters. Our Bon Homme may have been named for a different good man but it transformed over time to envelope Zephyr, and Disaul and Louisel before him. They were all good men who were respected by their communities.

It is true that a train of settlers led by John Shober from present day Minnesota eventually made the community their home after 1859. It is also true that the 1858 Yankton Treaty granted Zephyr Rencontre 640 acres of land where the eventual townsite was created. According to Maxine Schuurmans’ Bon Homme Community, “…the history of Bon Homme is tied directly to that of the Yankton [Sioux] tribe not only because it was a part of its aboriginal territory until 1858, but also because the tribe’s 1858 treaty briefly put the townsite in the possession of a family whose youngsters were tribal members. Acting on behalf of his family, Zephyr Rencontre sold the land to Walter Burleigh and Andrew Faulk, Burleigh’s father-in-law.”  

Zephyr’s impact was important to the Bon Homme we know today. I am a direct descendant of Zephyr Rencontre. He is the reason I am so passionate about sharing the rest of Bon Homme’s history and Zephyr’s story. He was not a man who was written about as a hero or savior but a man who was respected and revered on both sides of many stories. An interpreter, Zephyr’s role was poetic. He listened and spoke to and for people who knew he was a good man. A Bon Homme.

[1] The Big Missouri Winter Count, Lone Dog Winter Count. 1794, 1795-1810.
[2] The Wi-iyohi, Monthly Bulletin of the South Dakota Historical Society. Vol. IV. October 1, 1950, No.7
[3] South Dakota Historical Collections (SDHC), Vol. IX, 1918. 1860 Census, Chronology of Events, Xavier Rencontre.
[4] Ibid
[1] The Black Hills Union and Western Stock Review. [volume] (Rapid City, S.D.), 16 Aug. 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Bon Homme Community. Maxine Schuurmans, p. 14.