In its earliest years Yankton was once facetiously known as "Charlie's Town."
The sobriquet grew out of the fact that Charles Francois Picotte owned a major portion of the new village when it was first laid out.
Picotte was the son of Honore Picotte, a French trapper, trader and agent for the American Fur Company, and Eagle Woman Who All Look At, a Yankton Sioux said to be the sister of Chief Struck-by-the-Ree. In his youth he was well educated in St. Louis, after which he returned to his mother's tribe, and — because of his training and leadership traits — he became an influential member of the Yankton band.
Like so many other historic figures who left no definitive memoirs, there are conflicting details about his life and activities, including evaluations of his role in Yankton's founding. Did he sell out his tribespeople for his own gain, or did he realistically see the handwriting on the tepee wall and do what he could to facilitate the inevitable?
As early as the summer of 1857, the Interior Department sent a representative to the region to induce a delegation of chiefs to go to Washington, D. C., to discuss a possible cession treaty. The agent was unsuccessful, but white opportunists on the scene — John Blair Smith Todd and others — kept the pressure on.
Because he spoke both languages — English and the dialect of the Yankton Sioux — Picotte was the logical choice to serve as the liaison between the chiefs and the government.
At first Picotte supposedly opposed a trip to the nation's capital, saying that the chiefs were ill-prepared and improperly clothed for such an important meeting. He eventually relented, however, and because of his efforts, the Indians agreed to the junket.
The fateful journey began on Dec. 11, 1857, and in an interview which appeared years later in Frances Chamberlain Holley's book, Once Their Home, Picotte described part of the trip:
"We had two wagons, with four horses on each. Sometimes we would break down, sometimes upset, and again be stuck fast in the snow. Capt. Todd, fearing that the Indians might get sick by changing water, recommended that a keg of whiskey be taken along, and when it was empty, he had it refilled."
Needless to say, the chiefs were to be influenced by more than facts and figures!
At Iowa City the delegation boarded a passenger train for the remainder of the journey, arriving in Washington on New Year's Day, 1858. For more than three and a half months the Indians were in the District of Columbia, subjected to the pressures and pleasures of a living style they could never have imagined.
On April 19 that year the treaty relinquishing the Indians' claim to lands estimated by various historians as ranging from eight to fourteen million acres was finalized. The names of 15 tribal representatives appeared on the document, including those of Picotte, Struck-by-the-Ree and Smutty Bear.
Incidentally, the latter's name was mistakenly translated along the way. It should more correctly have been He Paints Himself Dark Like a Bear, but tradition holds that he didn't much care what the white men called him.
Commissioner Charles E. Mix (after whom a South Dakota county was later named) signed the pact for the government, and on Feb. 17, 1859, it was ratified by the U. S. Senate.
Article Seven of the treaty recognized Charles Picotte's valuable services and liberality to the Yanktons, and for such he was granted 640 acres of land "outside the reservation." He wisely chose his property at what would eventually be the site of the territorial capital.
Picotte was not just a pawn in the history-making event. He may have been honestly working for the best interests of his people, but he was also an official member — with Todd, Daniel Frost and others — of the Upper Missouri Land Company certain to benefit from the treaty. Later he was an active participant in the effort to create Dakota Territory, again traveling to Washington, D. C., with Todd in 1861.
Because his land was specifically awarded by the treaty, it became the focal point of Yankton's development. Once his property was located on the actual ground, other claims in and around the prospective new settlement could be determined.
Of some 890 acres comprising the proposed townsite, Picotte owned approximately 670, including the additional property he was able to buy from the government at $1.25 an acre to give him access to the river. No wonder they jokingly called the new village "Charlie's Town."
Once the territory was established, the mutually beneficial relationship between Picotte and Todd apparently continued. Whether the latter — who often wore white gloves and carried a silver-headed cane — influenced his half-Indian associate in any way is not known, but they were involved together in various enterprises.
Picotte supported Todd in the selection of Yankton as the territorial capital and in Todd's campaign to become Delegate to Congress. It can be assumed that Todd was at least helpful in achieving passage by the first legislature of a bill authorizing citizenship for Picotte.
In the ensuing years Charlie was an active participant in "his town's" development. He and Moses Armstrong assembled the necessary lumber to build a territorial legislative hall, but their plans were disrupted when the boards and studding were needed for the stockade erected during the 1862 Indian scare. Picotte was listed among the privates in Company A of the Dakota Militia created at the time. He may also have been influential in Struck-by-the Ree's efforts to keep the Yankton Sioux out of the uprising.
When the Santees were subdued, Picotte and Armstrong acquired more lumber, and a two-story structure on the northeast corner of Capitol and Fourth streets was hurriedly erected. On Dec. 2, 1862, the Dakotian reported:
"We attended a dance at Picotte's Capitol building last Friday evening — and enjoyed a 'high old time.' The party was well attended, the guests in the best of spirits, and the affair passed off so pleasantly that we anxiously await a return of like festivities."
Picotte was one of the incorporators of the Dakota Southern Railroad Company, and he was appointed sergeant-at-arms of the territorial Council, a position which gave him some prestige and at least a limited income.
After that, more needs to be known about him. For whatever reason and by what means, his valuable land eventually was acquired by Walter Burleigh and others. There is some indication that the bottle was involved, but that may be only historical hearsay.
At any rate, he finally returned to his mother's people on the reservation at Greenwood where he died virtually penniless in 1896. Sad to say, his association with white society left him with only memories; and he shared with Struck-by-the-Ree the disdain of many of his tribespeople for having been involved in the Treaty of 1858.
He himself was largely forgotten off the reservation, except that there still remains a Picotte Street in what was once "Charlie's Town."
Originally published July 25, 1994