Ox power across Dakota Territory


Brookings County Now & Then

Scrubbing 150 years of dirt from an ox yoke at the Brookings County Museum in Volga inspired a book. 

You can inspect my laundered work when the museum opens for the season on May 26, and continues a 1-4 p.m., seven-day-a-week schedule until Labor Day.

The yoke is in the museum’s new Trygve Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum. Stop by and see it. Incidentally, the museum’s isn’t the old buffalo robe, two-headed calf, stuffed-owl kind of facility. 

It’s clean, well lighted, well organized and it’s an award winner.

I was a volunteer cleaning the old yoke that had been worn for a dozen years by Pete and Luke, faithful and oblivious oxen owned by a Volga homesteader in the 1870s.

On a hot Dakota Territorial day with singing meadowlarks for entertainment, Luke stumbled in the same yoke I was cleaning and fell dead in a dusty furrow. Farmer Peter Haas decided to switch to horses. He stashed Pete and the old yoke in his barn. 

Decades later a relative dug the yoke out of a barn’s dark corner and gave it and its story to the museum.

As I scrubbed away, I wondered about oxen. What exactly is an “ox”? How were they trained? Did they wear ox shoes (cues)? How fast and far could they walk in a day. How many farmers used oxen in those early days, etc. etc.

In seeking answers, I learned about the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail over which thousands of oxen moseyed from 1874 to 1886 delivering millions of pounds of all that was needed to keep the people in the Black Hills alive and well. 

Some oxen, on the return trip to Fort Pierre, brought back furs, hides, lumber and miners discouraged in their diggings.  

The old trail, the oxen, then called bulls (which they were until they lost their “attitude” at an early age), the men who tended to them on the trail, the perils of walking through Indian country in those post-Little Big Horn days, and the railroad that ended the oxen’s Dakota careers, are all in my new book to be published this summer by Arcadia Publishing of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. 

The trail to the Black Hills after Custer found gold became a busy superhighway jammed with 20-ox teams, usually in mile-long trains of 10 teams, lugging heavy mining equipment and all that was needed through the West River gumbo. 

Each of those caravans consisted of more than 200 bulls, plus some extras as substitutes, and 30 freight wagons cutting a dusty wake as they rattled across the prairie. The first leg of the trail out of Fort Pierre followed for a time what would become Highway 14 until about where Hayes is today where they headed off in a west, southwest direction. 

No railroads dared gamble on providing transportation service to the isolated Hills that was then surrounded by Indian Country because Congress just up and reneged on the Hills, breaking the Laramie Treaty. The railroads would wait until tempers cooled.   

So the ox and the cursing bullwhacker, who walked beside his charges all the way to the hills, kept the supplies moving for a decade or more.    

Mules and horses helped, but oxen did the lion’s share.

Imagine the pandemonium, the confusion, the clamorous, dust-clad, manure-scented chaos that wafted up out of narrow Deadwood Gulch almost daily from 1874 to 1886 when all of what was needed, and some that wasn’t, came trundling into town aboard wagons powered by slobbering, bellowing, mud-spattered oxen. 

The cattle had last seen civilization in Fort Pierre 200 miles to the east, and now, after weeks on the prairie, they came trudging in to Deadwood pulling the white-bonneted caravan, each ox team of 20 chained to three freight wagons, each wagon packed with several tons of barrels, boxes, and bales of needed frontier paraphernalia, everything from gaming tables to galoshes, mining paraphernalia and gunpowder. 

Deadwood’s Black Hills Daily Times newspaper told about the welcome arrivals.

Sept. 21, 1883

“Yesterday again was a remarkable day for bull trains, the streets for hours being full of them. It is a marvel to strangers the amount of freight that comes to Deadwood, and they wonder where it all goes.”

Oct. 12, 1883

“A big bull train came in yesterday and unloaded, many of the wagons going on through to Central City. There seemed to be a preponderance of St. Louis beer.”

Oct. 17, 1883  

“Another remarkable day for bull trains. They came in from morning until evening, and to keep up an equilibrium the most of them unloaded on the east side of Main Street, dumping large quantities of goods off to Miller, Adams Brothers, Browning and Wringrose and others.”

Oct. 18, 1883

“Bull trains were numerous yesterday and will continue to arrive every day, as we hear the road is lined with them from here to Fort Pierre, interspersed with many families of emigrants.”

Oct. 19, 1883

“Yesterday was an unusual day for freight trains. Noah Newbanks’ train filled the street for hours and at one time it took the entire police force to keep the street open for travel. A part of the cargo consisted of 150 barrels of beer. Another small item was 800 cases of canned goods for Sparks and Allen at Central City.”  

The book tells all about this remarkable conveyance of life’s necessaries by thousands of bull teams. 

Most South Dakotans know little of the Fort Pierre to Deadwood Trail.     

I hope the book, inspired by that museum yoke Luke was wearing when he dropped dead in his tracks in Brookings County, will remind us of those momentous Dakota Territorial days when Deadwood was the gold rush epicenter.


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