Perched wide-eyed by his grandfather, John Burkholder, as a boy, listened to tales of open range days in Fort Pierre and along the Bad River during the 1880s and 90s.
There was the story of how his grandfather, Charlie Mathieson, grew up on a ranch founded by Charlie’s father, George Mathieson, in 1879, and expanded westward when the Great Sioux Reservation was opened to white settlement in 1890. Burkholder said some 9 million acres of former reservation land were opened then and cattle and sheep operations quickly moved 100 miles west, from east river settlements to new west river digs.
The Mathieseon family included four sons — Bob, Dick, Jud and George — who’d come up from Yankton to Fort Pierre with mother Ann, in 1879 for new economic possibilities. All four brothers would go on to found ranches and together they would own a large piece of ground along the Bad River, near Wendte, about 20 miles west of Fort Pierre.
Fort Pierre back then was a one square mile settlement of 300 souls built on land allocated from the reservation to facilitate trade with the Lakota bands then ensconced on the reservation, which included most of western South Dakota.
The Mathiesons were interested in cattle, and trading into the Black Hills, where gold had been discovered. There was a powerful need for goods to supply the miners and others opening up the Black Hills at that time. Goods came up the Missouri River on a steamboat from Yankton, then the Mathiesons and others transported them west. The Mathiesons drove ox trains loaded with goods for the mining camps from 1876 until 1881 when the railroad reached the Black Hills.
Burkholder learned from Charlie Mathieson how his father, George, had enlisted in the Dakota Cavalry at age 15 during the 1860s; how George came to Fort Pierre, and how George and the brothers went further west in the 1890s.
They chose to follow the Bad River because it offered their cattle plenty of grass, water and winter shelter, but they may also have had an inkling that at some point in the future, the railroad would follow the flatlands along the river too, their land becoming more valuable.
He heard how George Mathieson traded three ponies to an Oohenumpa (Two Kettle) Lakota man named Black Tomahawk for land and a cabin along the river, the start of his ranch.
His grandfather talked about how the railroad came to Pierre during the 1880s. And watching “Gunsmoke” and “Wagon Train” episodes on television with his grandfather, Burkholder heard his Charlie lament the close of the open range day at the turn of the 20th century, and note how most cowboys were more like Festus than Marshall Dillon in the old days.
The last big roundup took place in 1902, Charlies told his grandson, because by 1904 most of eastern Stanley County was being homesteaded, ranches being replaced by farms, cowboys being replaced by settlers. Soon the influx of settlers would have the political clout to push the ranchers out, with fence laws to keep cattle out of their crops. The big ranchers began consolidating, running smaller herds, and leasing land on the reservation to feed cattle.
During the open range period (1890 — 1902) there were two roundups per year, spring and fall, in the west river area, with the cattle being driven to Fort Pierre, ferried across the Missouri River to the railhead in Pierre, then shipped to Chicago’s meat-packing industry.
Charlie told his grandson about how the log cabin he grew up in had a sod roof that leaked when it rained, but it also had a wooden floor, that great Grandmother Kate was very proud of. This was unusual at the time, Charlie told his grandson, most cabins had packed dirt floors, not wood. So when roundups came and Ann was feeding all those cowboys, they were fed on tables set up outside because she didn’t want spurs raking her nice wooden floors.
Charlie was the youngest of 12 kids and his life took a different turn from the ranch as he grew up. He went to college in Michigan and received an engineering degree. He became a road commissioner, taught school, and eventually began selling road equipment for an eastern manufacturer. The company sent him to Indiana, then to Atlanta, Georgia, where he eventually retired. Missing the ranching life he knew as a boy, he cobbled together a property of 600 acres of former farmland in north Georgia and stocked it with about 150 head of cattle. And that is where Burkholder entered his life, with grandpa reminiscing about the good old days back in South Dakota.
Burkholder, a California dentist today, was so smitten with his grandfather’s tales that he began retracing his family history and this meant coming to South Dakota annually to see and experience some of what his grandfather saw.
As a result of this, Burkholder shared some of his discoveries in writing, with an article “Poised To Profit: Fort Pierre And The Development Of The Open Range In South Dakota,” in the South Dakota State Historical Society’s “South Dakota History” magazine, Vol. 41, No. 3.
He will also be sharing his family’s story via a Powerpoint presentation with west river photos from the 1890s that depict the open range era and a talk at the Dakota Western Heritage Festival, taking place Sept. 13 — 15 in Fort Pierre at the Fort Pierre Expo Center.
The festival includes the following events:
Friday, Sept. 13 — Wagon Train and Trail Ride, departing from Fort Pierre at 8:30 a.m. and returning about 4 p.m. This event is $40 per person and includes a ticket to the steak dinner at the Expo Center after the train and trail ride. The Hayes Fire Department will host the steak feed and tickets are available at the door for this. Also, cowboy poets and musicians, including the Herb and Arlene Pitan Family, will provide the entertainment from 6 — 9 p.m. at the Expo Center.
Saturday, Sept. 14 — Features a full slate of activities and entertainment. The entertainment includes Plains Folk; Rising Stars of the Prairie youth contest winners and awards; historical family presentations, including Burkholders, from 2:30 — 4: 30 p.m., followed by the Stirling Ranch Rodeo Supper and performance.
Sunday, Sept. 15 — Cowboy Church, a cowboy breakfast and Plains Folk performing again
For more information about the festival contact Carmen Cowan Magee 280-8938, Gary Heintz at 222-0079 or Willie Cowan at 280-1021.