The tale runs back two centuries to 1804, when the Lewis and Clark expedition moved through this area in what is now considered one of the defining endeavors in our nation's history.
The legendary Corps of Discovery first moved through this area along the Missouri River in the late summer of 1804. It was at Spirit Mound, located about 25 miles east of present-day Yankton, that the explorers first caught sight of the herds of buffalo who roamed across the wide-open prairies.
A few days later, the explorers held one of their first councils with the indigenous tribes of this region. During this contact, gifts were exchanged and bonds were forged. According to legend, one of the explorers picked up a newborn baby and wrapped it in an American flag as a token of friendship. That child went on to become the Indian known as Strike the Ree, also referred to as Struck by the Ree or Old Strike. The legitimacy of that encounter cannot be proven, but the symbolism of the tale has always resonated in local history.
As white settlers moved westward in the subsequent decades, signs of a new kind of civilization sprouted up everywhere. With river routes performing as convenient transportation lines, many settlements were established along the Missouri River. Yankton was one such settlement, having been established in the late 1850s near a site referred to on some maps as "Old Strike's camp."
In 1861, Yankton was established as the capitol city of the newly formed Dakota Territory, a large expanse of the Upper Plains that originally stretched from the current eastern borders of South and North Dakota west to the Rocky Mountains. As the territory grew in population (and shrank in geographic size), self-serving politics also flourished, and this proved to be Yankton's undoing as a territorial capitol. In 1883, legislators — officials covertly at predawn aboard a train car in Yankton, thus qualifying as a quorum in the capitol city — moved the territorial seat from Yankton to Bismarck. The issue became all but moot in 1889 when South Dakota became the 40th state to enter the union, but it was a sting that Yankton could not forget or forgive for decades.
Yankton grew steadily in its early years, and its population exploded in 1875 when gold was found in the Black Hills several hundred miles to the west. Yankton was viewed as a logical outpost en route to the hills, and the town reaped the benefits. The expansion was so dramatic that Yankton's weekly newspaper became a daily publication in 1875 to meet the swelling demand. The newspaper, now called the Press & Dakotan, remains a daily to this day.
It was not the first or last time that events in the Black Hills influenced life in Yankton. As the Hills were opening up in 1874, the Seventh Cavalry headed by Gen. George Custer camped in Yankton for several weeks, and endured a spring blizzard that might have proven disastrous had it caught the troops on the open prairie. Also, in 1876, former gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok, at that point a sheriff, was gunned down in a saloon in Deadwood. His accused killer, Jack McCall, was brought to Yankton for trial. McCall was convicted of the murder and publicly hanged in Yankton in 1877. His body is buried in an unmarked grave in Yankton.
The river also played a dramatic role in Yankton's history. Great floods produced fearsome and sometimes fatal results. The Flood of 1881 destroyed not only many of the commercial steamboats that worked the river, but also swallowed up the small local community of Green Island. That town, and the land it sat on, no longer exist.
The river cut both ways with its obvious blessings and its occasional ravages. It was also extremely inconvenient at times: Without a bridge, people had to use ferries or wobbly pontoon bridges to get across the river in the summer, or literally ride or drive across the ice in the winter.
A bridge was needed, and efforts to construct a structure had been in the works for decades. Finally, in the late 1910s, a concerted effort was organized to build a structure at the south edge of Yankton. That dream became a reality in 1924 when the Meridian Bridge (so named because of Yankton's place on the north-south Meridian Highway) was opened for business. By modern standards, it was a magnificent anomaly, funded mostly with local money. For 29 years, the city of Yankton charged a toll to cross the bridge in order to pay off the debt. The bridge was finally paid for and the toll removed in 1953.
However, none of this changed the unpredictable character of the Missouri River itself. That changed in 1957 when Gavins Point Dam was constructed about six miles west of the city. The last of six Upper Missouri dams built to tame the once wild river, Gavins Point effectively harnessed the river, and it created new parkland that gave the Yankton area an attractive new tourism industry.
Yankton continues to grow and prosper as a river town with deep historic roots. Its river character is celebrated each year with the Riverboat Days festival, and its earliest beginnings are remembered with the Lewis and Clark Festival. Many of the old homes and buildings from bygone days of this community are preserved; the city has even come to grips with its bittersweet experience as a territorial capital with the construction of a replica of the capitol building in Riverside Park. Recreational tourism continues to boom, making Yankton one of the prime fishing locations in the Midwest. The old Meridian Bridge, still carrying travelers across the Missouri River, is due to be replaced by a new bridge in the next five years, but an agreement has been made to preserve the old bridge — Yankton's most identifiable landmark — as a pedestrian bridge.
Yankton's future seems as bright as its past is vibrant.
~ HISTORY AT A GLANCE ~
Residents and visitors alike can revel in Yankton's historical past. Reminders of events that have shaped the community are scattered throughout Yankton and its lake area. Here is a partial timeline:
1780 Pierre Dorian, Sr., the first white settler of the territory, is buried in Yankton.
1804 On their famous trek westward, Lewis and Clark camp at the mouth of the James River, near present-day Yankton. The American flag is raised for the first time at Calumet Bluff, opposite Yankton on the Nebraska side.
1861 The Yankton Press & Dakotan is founded, the first weekly newspaper in Dakota Territory. (In 1875, the paper would become a daily, making it the oldest daily newspaper in South Dakota.)
1862 Yankton is chosen as the first capital of Dakota Territory, and remained so until 1883. Originally, located at Fourth and Capital, a replica of the Territorial Capitol stands at Riverside Park.
1872 First Dakota National Bank, the first and oldest bank, opens.
1873 General George Custer and his Seventh Calvary camp at Eighth and Burleigh streets just before heading west.
1875 Yankton High becomes the first high school in the Dakotas.
1876 Jesse James and his gang are seen passing through Yankton.
1881 Yankton College is founded, the first institution of higher learning in the Dakota Territory, a full eight years before South Dakota won statehood. (The college closed in 1984 and the campus was later converted into a minimum-security federal prison.)
1887 Sacred Heart Hospital begins operations.
1892 The Great Northern Railway Depot is constructed.
1914 The first medical clinic in South Dakota opens on the corner of Douglas and Fourth streets.
1922 Mount Marty Academy starts its academic career with 37 students.
1924 The first structure across the Missouri River in South Dakota, the Meridian Bridge, is built.
1951 — Mount Marty College graduates the school's first students.