Fort Pierre, South Dakota – history and historical tourist attractions

Located on the west bank of the Missouri River, Fort Pierre, a small city in South Dakota, is a place where history comes alive. With its roots tracing back to early French explorers and its significance as a trading post during the western expansion, Fort Pierre boasts a rich and diverse history.

Today, this charming city offers an array of historical attractions that provide a window into its storied past.

The Verendrye Museum stands as a repository of artifacts, showcasing the evolution of the region over the centuries. Nearby, the Verendrye Monument commemorates the pioneering spirit of French explorers. For those intrigued by the rugged allure of the American West, the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center Museum delves into the legacy of rodeo.

The Fort Pierre Depot Museum offers insights into the town’s railway history, while the Fort Pierre Congregational Church reflects the community’s spiritual heritage. The Stockgrowers Bank stands as a testament to the town’s commercial past. In the heart of Fort Pierre, these historical gems welcome visitors to uncover the layers of its intriguing history.

A brief history of Fort Pierre

In 1743, Francois and Louis-Joseph Gaultier de La Vérendrye journeyed from Quebec, a French colony, reaching the area of present-day Fort Pierre. Leaving a lead plate to assert French sovereignty, they laid claim to the land for the King of France.

In the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired this area and the remainder of France’s vast territory west of the Mississippi River.

President Thomas Jefferson’s Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804 explored the region, engaging with the Teton Sioux near the mouth of the Bad River. In 1817, fur trader Joseph La Framboise, Jr. established Fort Tecumseh, a mile north on La Framboise Island in the Missouri River.

The trading post Fort Pierre in the 1850s – digital painting blended on old paper texture
The trading post Fort Pierre in the 1850s – digital painting blended on old paper texture

The lucrative fur trade lured competitors. In 1832, Pierre Chouteau, Jr. replaced this with Fort Pierre Chouteau, a trading post and fort on the west side of the Missouri. Around this trading post, the city of Fort Pierre developed, commemorating its Bicentennial in 2017, celebrating 200 years of continuous settlement.

In 1880, across the Missouri River in Hughes, the settlement of Pierre emerged. Its central location and early railroad access led to its designation as the state capital when South Dakota attained statehood. These historical chapters weave the tapestry of Fort Pierre and Pierre, reflecting the region’s transformative journey.

The Verendrye Museum

Established in 1968, the Verendrye Museum in Fort Pierre is a vivid testament to the past, shaped by the collaborative efforts of the Old Stanley County Historical Society and history enthusiasts.

Named after French explorers Louis and Chevalier Verendrye, who marked their presence by burying a lead plate atop a hill to claim the Missouri River basin for France in 1743, the museum encapsulates the region’s rich heritage.

Located near the iconic Verendrye Monument and the historic spot of Lewis and Clark’s interaction with the Sioux, the museum resides in a 1930s-era building, formerly a community hall and later the American Legion headquarters. This building, now a National Historic Landmark, weaves history into its very walls.

The Verendrye Museum weaves a captivating narrative through various exhibits, catering to both young and old. Showcasing a country store, original telephone operator’s station, home furnishings, horse-drawn carriages, saddles, cowboy hats, Native American artifacts, and more, the museum exudes the charm of discovering hidden treasures. Notably, the museum delves into the lives of local luminaries such as Scotty Philip.

Additional displays await visitors at the Log Cabin Visitor Center and Sansarc Country School Museum, enhancing the experience year-round. The Verendrye Museum stands as a gateway to Fort Pierre’s vibrant history, offering an engaging journey through time.

The Verendrye Monument

The Verendrye Monument
The Verendrye Monument

Perched on a hill commanding a view of the Missouri River, the Verendrye National Monument holds a significant historical narrative. It commemorates a pivotal moment in 1743 when the Verendrye brothers, Chevalier and Louis la Verendrye, surreptitiously asserted French sovereignty by burying a lead plate.

Though purportedly an act of goodwill toward the native populace, the plate’s inscription bore the imprints of their claim. This artifact, a testament to a bygone era, was unearthed by high school students in 1913, now exhibited at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.

Revered as one of the most remarkable historical finds in the northwest United States, the Verendrye Plate is inscribed with the words, “In the twenty-sixth year of the reign of Louis XV, the most illustrious Lord, the Lord Marquis of Beauharnios, 1741, Pierre Gaultier De La Verendrye placed this.”

Overlooking a bend in the Missouri River, the Verendrye Monument presents stunning panoramas to the north, east, and south. Unmarred by modern dam and reservoir structures, this section of the river retains its pristine allure.

The monument, a granite marker, stands about 4 feet tall, its inscription recounting the historical significance: “Here on March 30, 1743, the Verendryes buried a lead tablet to claim this region for France. This tablet found on Feb. 16, 1913, is the first written record of the visit of white men to South Dakota.”

A lasting testament to a pivotal moment in history, the Verendrye Monument stands as a tribute to exploration and legacy.

The Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center Museum

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The Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center has a captivating blend of history and functionality. This venue showcases the rich heritage of South Dakota rodeo through an elegant, two-story museum and an adaptable conference center.

The museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia, spotlighting the legendary 9-time World Champion Casey Tibbs, as well as Mattie Goff Newcombe, a trailblazing trick rider from the 1920s. This space also captures the essence of past and present rodeo elements, spanning from Little Britches to college competitions.

At the heart of the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center, the Mattie Goff Newcombe Conference Center provides a versatile setting for various events. Accommodating up to 300 guests, the center offers half-day, full-day, or multi-day rentals, featuring well-equipped facilities, a fully-stocked kitchen, and even on-site beverage licenses.

Don’t miss the opportunity to explore the well-stocked gift shop, offering authentic South Dakota and Midwest products, from books by local authors to unique stone jewelry, and even locally vinted wines.

Outside is the Johnny Smith Memorial Sculpture Garden, a tribute to South Dakota’s rodeo legends, graced by striking bronze statues including Casey Tibbs astride The Old Gray Mare.

For a glimpse into South Dakota’s spirited rodeo history and a flexible event space, the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center offers an enriching experience.

The Fort Pierre Depot Museum

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The Fort Pierre Railroad Depot, a tangible link to the region’s railway history, stands as a testament to the past and its careful restoration. Constructed in 1906 by the Chicago and NorthWestern Railroad during its westward expansion to Rapid City, the depot played a crucial role in the transportation of passengers and goods. However, changing times led to its closure in 1963 and subsequent sale as surplus.

Resilience defined its journey. After a brief relocation to a ranch near Mud Butte, the depot found its way back home in Fort Pierre in March 2013, thanks to dedicated efforts. The Verendrye Museum took charge of its ownership, heralding a new chapter in its history.

Today, this historic gem is open to visitors from late May through early September. Its charm extends beyond mere architecture; it offers an immersive experience into the era of steam-powered locomotives and early transportation.

The meticulous restoration and furnishing of the depot, completed in 2018, authentically recreate its original ambiance. With features like original ticket windows, wood-burning stoves, and period-appropriate memorabilia, the depot echoes with the whispers of a bygone era.

A blend of community support, grants, and passionate restoration has brought the Fort Pierre Railroad Depot back to life. It’s not just a building; it’s a living museum, a slice of history, and a tribute to the perseverance of a community in preserving its heritage.

The Fort Pierre Congregational Church

Constructed during 1908-1909, the Fort Pierre Congregational Church stands as a testament to both architectural and historical significance. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977 under the name United Church of Christ, Congregational, this church is an embodiment of local adaptation to the High Victorian Gothic style.

Crafted from brick atop a sandstone foundation, the church boasts a hipped roof and a square tower, adorned with fifteen splendid stained glass windows. An architectural gem, it exudes a bichromatic charm through its skillful use of brick and contrasting stone. The construction costs amounted to approximately $12,000, reflecting the dedication of the community.

Historically, the church traces its origins back to 1890 when the First Congregational Church of Christ was established in Fort Pierre, growing from a Sunday school set in an old dance hall. The revered Congregational missionary, Dr. Alfred L. Riggs, was present during the 1891 dedication of the first church.

A transformational event, this church replaced an earlier frame structure, relocated in 1899 to the corner of Second and Main, which served as a Sunday school and community hub until its sale in 1925. Over the years, this congregation has evolved, merging with the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1958 to form the United Church of Christ.

The church’s historical legacy, architectural charm, and community significance continue to weave a rich narrative within the tapestry of Fort Pierre’s history.

The Stockgrowers Bank

The Stockgrowers Bank stands as a striking example of Romanesque Revival architecture, a unique gem in Fort Pierre. Its design showcases a skillful adaptation of this style to the needs of a burgeoning frontier community, making it a significant landmark in the town’s history.

Constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, the bank symbolizes Fort Pierre’s commercial growth, particularly as a center for cattle raising activity in western South Dakota.

This two-story brick building, proudly located at the intersection of Deadwood and Main Streets, exudes distinctiveness. Its polygonal corner tower adorned with ornate festoons, intricate brickwork, and elegantly arched windows with brick keystones set it apart from the town’s other structures.

Established by Charles L. Millett and his wife in 1903, the Stockgrowers Bank held a prominent position in the community. It not only served as a financial institution but also housed several other businesses, including a barbershop, land office, telephone exchange, hardware store, and attorney’s offices.

The Stockgrowers Bank isn’t just a building; it’s a testament to the evolution of Fort Pierre, reflecting its economic development and the tenacity of its residents to build a thriving community.

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