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The History of Bon Homme County


On February 28, 2022, SDPB published a “Images of the past” blog post on the history of Bon Homme County. The scope of the story was intentionally limited to a time period between 1858, when the first significant group of white settlers arrived in the area, and the 1880s, when more settlers arrived to create towns like Tyndall and tabor. The following is a response in the form of an article written by Skuya Zephier of Rapid City, a direct descendant of the people living in the Bon Homme area in the 19th century. The article provides a more in-depth look at the history of the area before 1858. – Brian Gevik, “Images of the Past” producer

Skuya Zephier was born in the West. It is affiliated with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Yankton Sioux Tribe; Zephier was educated as a petroleum geologist, but took up creative writing. Previously published in World Literature Today, Ms. Zephier is currently writing the story of her family, the famous Meet Zephier, and her sons.

There is more to this story. The creation of Bon Homme as a community was not done at the whim of white settlers who arrived in the desired land, but traders, indigenous people, those who lived among them, and yes, later white settlers who also lived in the same land. We would do well to remember all our common history and keep them all as one story, because people should live next to each other as one community.

Years before 1858, non-Indigenous peoples had settled and lived in Bon Homme. We have the history of three of these men: Louisel Registry in 1794(1), Emanuel Disaul in 1815(2) and Zephier Rencontre in 1828(3). These three men were white French settlers. Moreover, if we distinguish a long-term settlement, I refer to the South Dakota Historical Collections. Here he records Zephier’s trip up the Missouri River in 1826 and, “In 1828 Xavier (sic) settled on Bon Homme Island. His first white settler – he built a trading post there and lived with his wife Dacotah and children in the area for forty years. If forty isn’t a settlement, I don’t know what is. John Shober – leader of a group of Minnesota whites who moved to the area illegally in 1858 and again legally in 1859 – only stayed in Bon Homme until 1865, moving on the Helena, Montana. The continuity of a man would indicate Zephier Rencontre installed Bon Homme.

Perhaps we should discuss the “wife and children of Dacotah” mentioned in the South Dakota Historical Collections. Here we have to follow up with a short history of St. Louis, Missouri. Saint-Louis was born to the Chouteau family. The famous family rose to prominence in the fur trade, the American Fur Company, and shipping along the rivers. Part of this trade led many of them and their associates to intermarry and form Franco-Amerindian families called métisses. A whole suburb of Saint-Louis was made up of mestizo families, prosperous and very much alive. In 1794, Chouteau and his associates traveled up the Mississippi River and then the Missouri River for trade. Many of them stayed and lived along the river among the native peoples. Some names are still common in this area today, including: Blanchette, Roy, Sarpy, LaClaire (a founding Métis from Davenport, Iowa), Roy, Richardville, Cerre, Denoyer, and Peugnet. Now, these fur traders were white French, but their children and family were generally called half-breeds. It was common along the rivers and the town of Mendota, Minnesota was inhabited entirely by Franco-Sioux mestizos and nearly all spoke French. In this sense, white men, with their mixed-race families, had established many communities like Bon Homme long before the arrival of groups like Shober’s.

SDPB’s previous post on Bon Homme’s history states the following: “In fact, the county name ‘Bon Homme’ is the French translation of an honorary name given by the Yankton Sioux to a white fur trader working in the area during the 1700s. Its English translation is “good man.” The first name of the fur trader has been lost to history.

That is not exactly correct. A Frenchman named Louisel Register, known to the Sioux as Little Beaver, traveled up the Missouri River in 1794. He found Bon Homme Island, and the following year he built a trading post. This was a hub of commercial activity between traders and natives. The man was respected among all the inhabitants of the region. He built the trading post on the island and lived there until his untimely death in the early 1810s. (The trading post and registry house were blown up in an unfortunate incident with gunpowder cannon.)

Little Beaver, or Louisel Register, has been identified in other historical records known as the Winter Counts. Winter counts are the cyclic winter-to-winter histories of the Sioux. There are many guarded by the various bands of Sioux for hundreds of years. Register has been named and described in at least five separate winter accounts. Louisel was not a man whose name or story was “lost to history”. We know that John McBride, a Frenchman, attended his funeral after Louisel’s death. Was Louisel the Good Man, the good man? May be.

We talk less about Emanuel Disaul. Historian George Kingsbury only wrote that he was the first permanent settler in Bon Homme County. He had a trading post at the mouth of what is now Emanuel Creek in 1815. Could he be our good man? It’s a good addition to the story.

Another historical account states that “Bon Homme County dates from the first legislature. Its first permanent settler was the famous Zéphier Rencontre, who lived on Bon Homme Island from 1828.(5)”

Zephier was an interpreter for the Yankton Sioux during the 1858 treaty negotiation with the Yankton Sioux. He was respected by the Sioux, the American government and the many colleagues he had made during his years with the Choteaus and the fur trade. Was Encounter the namesake of Bon Homme? May be. The point is, the tradition behind Bon Homme matters. Our Good Man may have been named after a different good man, but he transformed over time to envelop Zephier, and Disaul and Louisel before him. They were all good men who were respected by their communities.

It is true that a train of settlers led by John Shober from present-day Minnesota eventually settled in the community after 1859. It is also true that the Treaty of Yankton of 1858 granted Zephier Rencontre 640 acres of land where the eventual city was created. According to Maxine Schuurmans Good Man Community“… the history of Bon Homme is directly linked to that of the Yankton [Sioux] tribe not only because it was part of its native territory until 1858, but also because the tribe’s 1858 treaty briefly put the townsite in the possession of a family whose children were members of the tribe. Acting on behalf of his family, Zephier Rencontre sold the land to Walter Burleigh and Andrew Faulk, Burleigh’s father-in-law.

Zephier’s impact was significant for the Good Man we know today. I am a direct descendant of Zephier Rencontre. He’s why I’m so passionate about sharing the rest of Bon Homme’s story and the story of Zephier. He was not a man portrayed as a hero or a savior, but a man respected and revered on both sides of many stories. Performer, the role of Zephier was poetic. He listened and spoke for and for the people who knew he was a good man. A man.

[1] Missouri’s Great Winter Count, Lone Dog’s Winter Count. 1794, 1795-1810.
[2] The Wi-iyohi, Monthly Bulletin of the Historical Society of South Dakota. Flight. IV. October 1, 1950, n°7
[3] South Dakota Historical Collections (SDHC), Vol. IX, 1918. Census of 1860, Chronology of events, Xavier Rencontre.
[4] Same
[1] The Black Hills Union and Western Stocks Review. [volume] (Rapid City, SD), August 16, 1907. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn97065835/1907-08-16/ed-1/seq-1/ Good Man Community. Maxine Schuurmans, p. 14.