When the expedition under the leadership of General Atkinson ascended the Missouri, during the summer of 1825, he wrote regarding the Yankton: “The Yankton are a band of the Sioux, and rove in the plains north of the Missouri, from near the Great Bend, down as far as the Sioux river. They do not cultivate, but live by the chase alone, subsisting principally upon buffalo. They cover themselves with leather tents, or lodges, which they move about from place to place, as the buffalo may chance to range. They are pretty well supplied with fusees, and with horses, and a few mules. They are estimated at 3,000 souls, of which 600 are warriors. They are comfortably habited in frocks, or shirts of dressed skins, and leggings, reaching to the waist, of the same; they use besides, robes of buffalo skins, which are frequently beautifully wrought with porcupine quills, or painted tastefully; are friendly to the whites, but make war upon almost all other tribes, except those of their own nation. Their trading ground is on the river Jaques.” 1 On June 17 the party arrived at Fort Lookout, a post of the American Fur Company, and four days later, “on the 21st, the Teton, Yanktons, and Yanktonai, three distinct bands of the Sioux Nation, having arrived, a council was opened, and, on the 22d, a treaty concluded’ with them.” This great gathering of the tribes, with their numerous skin-covered tipis, would have presented a sight similar to that witnessed and described by Catlin just seven years later, in the vicinity of Fort Pierre.
An excellent description of the skin-covered tipi of the Sioux, but of the structures of the Yankton in particular, is contained in Maximilian’s narrative. Writing on May 25, 1833, he said the “Sioux Agency, or as it is now usually called, Fort Lookout, is a square, of about sixty paces, surrounded by pickets, twenty or thirty feet high, made of squared trunks of trees placed close to each other, within which the dwellings are built close to the palisades. About ten leather tents or huts of the Sioux, of the branch of the Yanktons or Yanktoan, were set up near the fort. All these Dacotas of the Missouri, as well as most of those of the Mississippi, are only hunters, and, in their excursions, always live in portable leather tents. The tents of the Sioux are high pointed cones, made of strong poles, covered with buffalo skins, closely sewed together. These skins are scraped on both sides, so that they become as transparent as parchment, and give free admission to the light. At the top, where the poles meet, or cross each other, there is an opening, to let out the smoke, which they endeavor to close by a piece of the skin covering of the tent, fixed to a separate pole standing upright, and fastened to the upper part of the covering on the side from which the wind blows. The door is a slit, in the front of the tent, which is generally closed by another piece of buffalo hide, stretched upon a frame. A small fire is kept up in the centre of the tent. Poles are stuck in the ground, near the tent, and utensils of various kinds are suspended from them. There are, likewise, stages on which to hang the newly-tanned hides; others, with gaily-painted parchment pouches and bags, on some of which they hang their bows, arrows, quivers, leather shields, spears, and war clubs.
“We paid a visit to Wahktageli in his tent, and had some difficulty in creeping into the narrow, low entrance, after pulling aside the skin that covered it. The inside of this tent was light, and it was about ten paces in diameter. Buffalo skins were spread on the ground, upon which we sat down. Between us and the side of the tent were a variety of articles, such as pouches, boxes, saddles, arms, &c. A relation of the chief was employed in making arrows, which were finished very neatly, and with great care. Wahktageli immediately, with much gravity, handed the tobacco-pipe round, and seemed to inhale the precious smoke with great delight. The conversation was carried on by Cephier, the interpreter kept by the Agency, who accompanied us on this visit. The owner of a neighboring tent had killed a large elk, the skin of which the women were then busily employed in dressing. They had stretched it out. by means of leather straps, on the ground near the tent, and the women were scraping off the particles of flesh and fat with a very well-contrived instrument. It is made of bone, sharpened at one end, and furnished with little teeth like a saw, and, at the other end, a strap, which is fastened round the wrist.” 2 A drawing by Bodmer, reproduced by Maximilian on page 151 of the work cited, is here shown as figure 2. It represents a small group of tipis, of the type mentioned in the narrative, and on the right, in the rear, is a tripod with what appears to be a shield suspended from it. The bone implement mentioned as being used by the women to remove particles of flesh from the skin of the recently killed elk belonged to a well-known type which was extensively used throughout the region. It was formed of the large bones of the leg. of the buffalo, elk, or moose. Many old examples are preserved in the National Museum, Washington.
When dealing with the agents of the Government the Yankton would gather on the plains around Fort Pierre. Just 20 years after Maximilian’s visit to the upper Missouri a small party passed down the river and on October 18, 18.13, entered in their journal: “We reached Fort Pierre about 12 o’clock m. Two days before our arrival at this place, the main body of the Yankton Sioux, in number some twenty-five hundred, had left for the buffalo country. They have been here to receive their presents from the government. Two more bands are expected in a few days.” 3 And some days later, while continuing down the Missouri: “The prairies are burning in every direction, and the smoke is almost stifling.”
- Atkinson, Henry, Expedition up the Missouri, 1825. Doc. 117, 19th Congress, 1st session, House of Rep. War Department. Washington, 1826, pp. 8-9.
- Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 148–152.
- Saxton, Rufus, Journal. In Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascert in the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean . . . 1853-1854 Vol. I. Washington, 1855, p. 267.