Travel Features

Wagon Train Rediscovers America

Riding the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail one hundred years later.

Riding the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail one hundred years later.

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The discovery of gold in 1874 by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s expedition ignited a stampede.

Mining camps sprang up in the Dakota Territory’s Black Hills—Deadwood being the most notorious. One of the routes to Deadwood originated in Fort Pierre. On the Missouri River’s west bank, Fort Pierre was a natural stop for freighters transporting goods to goldfields. Steamboats brought cargo up the Missouri. In 1880, when the railroad reached Pierre, it unloaded freight that was ferried across the Missouri and loaded into wagons.

Bull and mule trains freighted tons of supplies over the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail until 1908, when the advancement of railroads through the Black Hills prodded pioneers off the trail.

Today the trail meanders through both public and private land, making a trip across it impossible...until last year’s historic journey.


Rediscovering the Trail

Rancher Roy Norman had a dream to mark the trail before it was lost. In the 1970’s, he traced trail ruts and placed 52 wooden signs interpreting the trail.

Darby Nutter, president of Fort Pierre’s Verendrye Museum, had a dream to ride the trail with friends. South Dakotans Lonis Wendt, Paul Seamans and Sam Seymour acted on their dream to GPS the trail.

In 2007, these trail enthusiasts joined forces, selecting Gerald Kessler of Fort Pierre to be wagon master and appointing outriders to assist the 300 trail riders. Sixty-four speakers told trail history at evening camps, accompanied by musical entertainment. Organizations were lined up to provide meals. The committee also set up easements, insurance, water, porta-potties and trash pickup, and coordinated with ambulances, fire departments and law enforcement.

The wagon train would travel 240 miles in 17 days; two would be rest days. I was riding with James and Teri Todd of Harrisburg, South Dakota, who had three saddle horses and a wagon pulled by four Belgian horses.

As we enjoyed opening night festivities at the Fort Pierre rodeo grounds, one issue remained unresolved. The wagon train needed to cross one-eighth of a mile of U.S. Forest Service land; after nine months, the agency still had not signed the easement. Without it, the wagon train could not faithfully follow the trail into the Black Hills.


Day 1: Wednesday, July 30

“Wagons Ho!” shouted Gerald, starting 54 wagons and 200 horses and riders on their journey out of Fort Pierre. I rode as an outrider alongside James’s team. “I want to be toward the wagon train’s rear so I can see all the action,” James said. Cheering crowds lined Main Street. The wagon train turned west and began the ascent of the bluffs. “When I began the climb out of Fort Pierre, I could not see them, I could not hear them, but I could feel the presence of all those souls who had gone out of Fort Pierre on that trail encouraging us onward,” said Mike Pellerzi of Canning, South Dakota.

The hot muggy day was unkind. Horses and mules bucked off riders, leaving them with broken bones and cracked ribs. A riderless pinto raced through a lunch stop knocking over four people. A spooked horse smacked my head, sending my glasses sailing off into the tall grass never to be found again and giving me a nice rope burn on my left hand. I had my doubts I would make it to Deadwood as Gerald fixed up my hand; but a smiling Darby said, “Bill, cowboy up!”


Day 2: Thursday, July 31

Mike Pellerzi has worked cattle and rodeoed since the age of 14. He rode on a commemorative saddle he had made for the ride. My saddle belonged to Mike’s friend T.R. Stalley, of Riverton, Wyoming. T.R. had died of a heart attack, and Mike was taking the saddle over the trail to honor T.R.’s memory.

The wagon train crossed country where wagon wheel ruts had scarred hillsides. The jingle bobs on Mike’s spurs tinkled as he rode along—“cowboy wind chimes.”


Day 3: Friday, August 1

James’s father Arlo, Alvin Kangas of Lake Norden, South Dakota, Howard Main of Gallup, New Mexico, and I rode four abreast.

Family legacy brought us all to the trail. Alvin’s father owned working horses on the farm; it was the same for Arlo, who added that his grandfather had been a freighter on the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail. Howard’s grandfather was a teamster in the Dakotas and Montana. “I hope to experience and see what my grandfather would have seen and the things he would have endured while freighting on the trail,” he said. As for me, my Dad had instilled in me a love of the West.

During lunch, a runaway team broke the wagon tongue belonging to South Dakotan Mike Roman. With American can-do spirit, he replaced the tongue and continued on.

We passed the site of a ranch where, from 1901-03, Wilhelm Kunnecke murdered six hired hands instead of paying them.

I rode alongside Darby. “I used to cowboy in this country,” he said. “This is where I first saw the trail ruts and wanted to follow them to Deadwood.”


Day 4: Saturday, August 2

I learned to hold two grass-munching Belgians by their lead lines in one hand while eating a baloney sandwich.

The temperature felt to be 102°F. There was constant dust. I fell under the spell of the rhythm of Teardrop’s walk, appreciating the shade of a cloud and the wisp of a breeze.


Day 5: Sunday, August 3

I rode alongside James in his wagon. “My great grandpa, John Wesley Todd, freighted out of Fort Pierre,” James told me. “He drove a six-hitch mule team hauling lumber from Kansas to the site of Blunt to build the town. He hauled freight out of Fort Pierre west.... To be on the trail he was on and experience some of the things he did, that’s kind of my whole purpose. It’s ironic he freighted in his day with mules, and I’m freighting today with big trucks. I guess it’s in my blood.”

“I’m having a great time and meeting lots of nice people,” Shirley Simonsen, of Viborg, South Dakota, said. “My horse fell over the first day. I have really achy ribs, but I’m going to the end—still heading west to Deadwood.”

The wagons proceeded westward, crossing unbroken prairie. On the horizon stood the three Grindstone Buttes. They appeared biblical—like the children of Israel headed toward the Promised Land. I...

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