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Plains Folk

On a Mission


One of my regrets about this time of pandemic is the lost opportunity for travel. I miss the international junkets that come with being a scholar, but more, I miss throwing my gear into the F150 and lighting out across Dakota, or Kansas, or Alberta, or Oklahoma. These are journeys that teach me truths that cut across times and borders.


Traveling feels best when I have a mission. I recall a glorious quest in 1997 across West River South Dakota in search of W. H. Hamilton, known in these parts as Virginia Bill. In the 1880s and 1890s this West Virginian proved up a homestead in the Belle Fourche River valley and then established a ranch in the South Cave Hills. He wrote a book about his life in the West called Dakota: The Autobiography of a Cowman. The South Dakota State Historical Society had asked me to write the introduction to a new edition.


First a stop in Pierre to consult documents at the Heritage Center. I took a walk beside the Missouri after a shower of rain. A stunner of a double rainbow promised success on the road ahead. On to Belle Fourche.


The Register of Deeds in the Butte County courthouse got me ready to search out Hamilton’s homestead. It included the site of the village of Fruitland, some eight miles east of Belle Fourche. I was armed with BLM land utilization maps, the DeLorme atlas of South Dakota, and a new toy--a handheld GPS receiver. So it was easy to locate the claim Hamilton proved up in 1890 on the north bank of the Belle Fourche.


Next job was to find the ghost town of Minnesela, home town of Hamilton the homesteader, original seat of Butte County. Minnesela, three miles southeast of Belle Fourche, has a sad story.


In 1889 the Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Railway, building from Deadwood toward the cattle country north of the Black Hills, reached the junction of the Belle Fourche and Redwater rivers. People in Minnesela wanted the railroad to come there, so they hired a fellow named Seth Bullock--yes, the guy you saw in Deadwood on TV--to negotiate with the railroad for them.

-Tom Isern

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