It’s birthday season for several South Dakota towns, but the biggest celebration this year will be for Fort Pierre, the state’s first community to turn 200. But take note, our oldest town is not resting on its historical laurels. The Missouri River city aims to start its third century with a bang.
Two hundred years ago, the site of today’s Fort Pierre became a community of sorts when Joseph LaFramboise opened a trading post at the junction of the Bad and Missouri rivers. It was just 74 years after the Verendrye brothers had buried a lead plate on a nearby bluff claiming the region for France.
Fort LaFramboise eventually fizzled but in 1832 it was rebuilt as Fort Pierre Chouteau, named for a principal owner of the famed American Fur Company. Chouteau’s post prospered for decades, and became the midway meeting place connecting St. Louis with a number of smaller posts to the north and west in today’s Montana and North Dakota.
Chouteau pioneered the use of steamboats on the long and treacherous Missouri. Though boat captains and crews were befuddled by high water, low water, strong currents and submerged stumps, their cargo of pelts and hides made Chouteau a rich man until the beaver and buffalo began to disappear. By 1855, he was losing money so he sold the site to the U.S. government for use as a frontier army post.
Mayor Gloria Hanson puts Fort Pierre’s early history in perspective like this: “Thirty three years before the Declaration of Independence was signed two French guys claimed it,” she says. “When the Fort was established, Napoleon was occupying Europe, The War of 1812 was raging, Lewis and Clark were making their trek, the Louisiana Purchase was being negotiated and then you have Fort Pierre being settled. The history just blows me away,” she says.
Local historian John Duffy says the Bicentennial will help reinforce knowledge of Fort Pierre’s history along with new development by connecting people. “The anniversary draws people to become involved and is bringing the town together. We have a lot of young families, retired families, and professionals. Eighty-five percent of residents work in Pierre. This is the time to draw everyone together.”
Hanson agrees that the celebration is time to move Fort Pierre in a new direction. “We have never done a good job of capitalizing on our rich history. Last year, for example, for a history field trip, students went to Pierre. I want our kids to have a ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ attitude about their hometown. So if they see trash in the street it would make them mad. I want to develop a passion for this place with everyone understanding how unique and special Fort Pierre is.”
The town has big plans for the 200th celebration, being held September 15-17. But, in anticipation of the birthday, music is planned throughout the summer. The Silver Spur has been holding concerts near the patio that overlooks the river. Country act Diamond Rio is booked for August 4. Drifter’s, the new convention center, has local bands scheduled throughout the summer. And for the finale in September, the community will hold a weekend-long celebration with a wagon train, parade, steak feed, arts festival, Suzy Bogguss concert, helicopter rides and a rodeo. For more event information visit www.fortpierre.com.
Katie Hunhoff is the editor and co-publisher of South Dakota Magazine, a print publication featuring the people and places of our favorite state. Visit www.southdakotamagazine.com for more information.