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Early History of Lake Poinsett

From the book: "The Lake Poinsett Story" by Lewis C. Riemann...

Lake Poinsett and the region round about teems with a long and colorful history. It is difficult to realize that more than 25,000 to 40,000 years ago the glaciers which inched down from the Artic wastes deposited the gravel, sand and earth to form the many lakes and hills in Northeast South Dakota. It is estimated by scientists and archaeologists that the ancestors of the present Indians lived there about 9000 B.C. or 4,000 years before Egyptian history begun. About one-half mile west the of little cemetery at the junction of U.S. 81 and the Methodist Camp road, evidences of an indian village were discovered dating back between 500 and 1400 years. Many indian burial mounds have been found containing relics of early indian artifacts, arrowheads, some hammers, beads, pipestones brought down from the pipestone quarries of Minnesota and parts of broken pottery, some dating back to more recent indian occupation. Mixed with these relics are some indicating that the early indians had acquired tools from the early settlers.  Parts of a flintlock gun, a trigger gun, shears, razors, grub hoes, etc have been dug up or plowed up by the settlers. Yet today, some farmers while plowing their fields, may still turn up these relatively ancient relics. Similar pieces are found from time to time around the shore of the lake, indicating the hills and water of the area teemed with fish and game upon which the indians lived. Although buffalo abounded in the plains, fish and small game were probably the chief subsistence of the tribes. Lake Poinsett was the gathering place of the original American and their families for generations. The lake derives its name from one of its early white explorers, Joseph Robert Poinsett, born in 1779.  Later U.S. Secretary of War and Minister to Mexico joined the explorer, Charles R. Fremont, to survey and to correct the maps of southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota in 1838. They were met by and joined the French explorer, Nichollet, to explore deeper into the little known region. Poinsett acted as the official Cartograph or map-maker. The account of their experiences was recorded by Nichollet. They entered what is now Brookings County on June 1, 1838 and camped at the Oakwood Lakes, which they named the Grand Lodge. The next day they proceeded northwest to Lake Poinsett. Nichollet stated in his account that the shores of the lake were well supplied with wood and that there was an island in the lake. It is hard to realize now that there was an island in the lake but at low water, a rocky area shows below the level, which indicates that a considerable change has taken place in the lake over the more than 100 years since these explorers visited there. A few settlers, hunters, and trappers made up the early population of 163 people in Brookings County by 1870. Struck by the beauty and extent of this lake on the prairie, Poinsett suggested that it be called Lake Poinsett for the blood-red flower he had seen in Mexico. The lake is 1651 feet above sea level, covers over 8500 acres, or thirteen sections with water and is now kept at a constant level by means of a diversion ditch 103 feet wide and 3 miles long from the Big Sioux River to the lake. The big ditch was dug in 1938-39 by the South Dakota Game and Fish Department to prevent a recurrence of low water such as happened in the early thirties. As settlements pushed west there was demand for the opening of the Dakota Territory and its rich soils for homesteads. A colony of Finnish families had settled in 1870, on the northwest end of Lake Poinsett, in what is now Hamlin County. A few widely scattered farms had been taken up but these were miles apart. In 1878, the U.S. Land Office opened the Dakotas for settlement. Settlers came in by the tens of thousands by horseback, horse and wagon, oxcarts, buggies, and afoot into that almost treeless area. According to the National Geographic society, there were a million sod houses in the prairie states at one time. By 1880 there were 4965 people in Brookings county and by 1890 over 10,000 residents were spread over the area within its bounds. Thousand others spread across the most fertile parts of the state and took up half sections of land by pre-emption, which required that they plant a certain number of trees, certain number of acres with crops and build a house. Though the land was practically free for the taking, it had to be fought for against another enemy...THE WEATHER... This antagonist, which showed no mercy, was ever present and had to be met by whatever means the settler could employ. Winter brought snow piles to the roof-tops. Spring thaws brought mounting pools ofmwater which lay in low fields and delayed spring planting. All these hardships and disappointments were hard for some, and they returned home penniless to their homes in the east or in Europe, to start a new life over where life was not so demanding. A great majority saw promise in the deep, fertile soil which needs only water in the summer, seed and work to produce in abundance. Snow and drought were two opposites to be met, endured and fought. The settlers planted wheat, in the virgin prairie soil and it was their chief source of food. In the spring, buffalo bones covered the land and settlers gathered these up and sold them to a fertilizer factory in Sioux Falls. The last buffalo seen, a huge bull, disappeared over a hill on June 26, 1879. Buffalo was the chief source of wild meat in the open country. The white men, indians, and wolves had killed off the herds of buffalo, elk, deer & antelope. Only the smaller animals and game were left after the territory was opened to homesteaders, fox mink, prairie chickens, gophers, skunks, grey wolves, and ducks and geese. Ducks and geese still continue to settle on Lake Poinsett and Lake Albert by the thousands during their flight north in the spring and their return south in the fall. The rugged climate, the deep snows and Dakota's blizzards, plus all the hard work of the pioneers, took their toll on lives. The little cemetery on the hill at the junction of U.S. 81 and the Methodist Camp Road became the final resting place for their tired bodies. Andrew Johnson gave the plot of ground (Poinsett Cemetery) as a permanent cemetery, where now the mute gravestones tell merely the date of birth and death of these brave pioneers. In 1880, a small store was started near Lake Poinsett which also served as the Post Office. Mail came through once a week from Sioux Falls in the spring, summer, and fall and once a month in the winter. The experience of hardships were many for the pioneers of Poinsett and Albert. The land of promise in the endless prairies of the Dakotas could be won by unstinting labor and unending sacrifice. Some won and many lost the struggle, but they lay the ground work for a fertile and productive country. Today the heirs and successors of those pioneers are finding a rich heritage built on the labors and sacrifices of a generation which had conquered the wilderness and the prairies at a cost which is inestimable. Their struggles and their fortitude was built into the warp and woof of a strong and prosperous America.

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