The county is nearly equally divided into rolling prairie and river bottom lands, with a black loamy soil, averaging from two feet on the plateaus to five or six feet in depth on the bottoms, and remarkably fertile, producing immense crops of blue-joint grass, corn, wheat, oats, barley, flax, and vegetables. As a Stock producing region it is as good as the best.
The Missouri washes the southern border of the county in a very tortuous course of about forty miles, with numerous islands and sand-bars in its channel, and a number of marshes or low meadow-lands lying parallel to its course.
The Big Sioux River washes the entire eastern border and forms the boundary between the Territory and the state of Minnesota [ actually Iowa!! -JRF] Its course is exceedingly tortuous. In making a direct distance of about forty miles, it probably traverses not less than 100 miles actual distance.
The bottom lands along the Missouri River are very broad in this region, extending to the Big Sioux, a distance of from three to ten miles. There is considerable timber growing along the Missouri bottoms, mostly composed of cottonwood, elm, willow, and box elder. The latter also grows sparsely along the Big Sioux.
The principal inland stream of the county is the Brule Creek, which rises in Lincoln County and traverses the central portions of Union County, discharging into the Big Sioux River at a point on the township line between Townships 91 and 92 north, about four miles northeast of Elk Point. Other creeks are Union, Jim [James - JRF], Green, and a number of unimportant ones, but all valuable as water supplies for stock.
For civil purposes the county is divided into nine voting precincts, which may be changed at any time to civil and school townships, whenever the commissioners may deem it advisable.
The following, as near as can be ascertained are the names of those who settled at Sioux Point: J. B. LaPlant, John B. McBride, Peter Arpin, J. Chattellion, Adolphe Mason, Antoine Fleury, ____ Primeau. There were several others whose names are not recollected. Several of these, among whom was LaPlant, located as early as 1848 or 1849. The latter is now in Charles Mix County, and the others have removed to various parts of the West.
The first settlement by a citizen of the United States was made at Elk Point by Eli B. Wixon, from the State of New York, on the 22nd day of July, 1859, at which time he located a claim and began the erection of a log dwelling, twelve by sixteen feet in dimensions, one story in height, which he covered with shakes, over which was spread a heavy layer of earth; the earth also formed the floor. Mr. Wixon occupied this building in August following, and opened a public house for the accommodation of travelers. He also kept a small stock of groceries.
In the fall of the same year C. Maloney, William Mathers, and G. and A. Christie settled near him. During the winter of 1859-60 a band of about seventy-five Santee Indians encamped at Elk Point and hunted through the season. With these Mr. Wixon had a good trade. In the spring of 1862 several families settled around Elk Point, and about the same time M. Ryan located near the present site of Jefferson.
Hon. M. K. Armstrong, in his admirable history of southeastern Dakota, says the first house erected in Cole (Union) County was in 1857, on the bank of the Big Sioux River at Pacquette's ferry, probably at the crossing of the old Territorial road.
During the year 1860 Mr. Wixon built the Elk Point House on the town site in which he continued the hotel business, and managed his farm, cultivating sixty acres during the season. In the following winter Joseph LaBarge and family lived in the new hotel, Mrs. LaBarge being the first white woman in the place. W. W. Adams erected the Adams House the same year.
In June, 1862, Charles LaBreche, from Dubuque County, Iowa, and the following eight families made a settlement in the vicinity of Jefferson: P. Limoges, D. Chausse, B. Gardepie, F. Riandeau, B. Moran, LaVoil brothers, J. Volin, and Octave Brouillette. In the autumn of the same year the colony was increased by the arrival of J. Brouillette and B. Fontaine.
The following is the section of the act providing for the organization of the original county, occupying most of the present county of Union. It was named in honor of Austin Cole, a member of the first Territorial Legislature:
Be it enacted, etc.,
"That the district of country embraced within the following described bounds shall be declared to be Cole County, to-wit: Commencing at the confluence of the Big Sioux with the Missouri River, and following the main channel of the Missouri River to the line between ranges 50 and 51 west; thence north to the line between towns 93 and 94 north; thence east to the Big Sioux River; thence down the channel of the said river to the place of beginning."
"Approved April 10, 1862.
A separate act provided,
"That the county seat of Cole County be and the same is hereby located on the claim of Joseph Chapillion, on Section 10, Town 89, Range 48."
"Approved May 7, 1862
At the session of 1864, the boundaries of Cole and Lincoln counties were rearranged, and the former was changed to Union County for some good and sufficient reason. The following is the act:
1. "That the district of county embraced within the following boundaries shall constitute a county to be called Union:
"Commencing at the confluence of the Big Sioux with the Missouri River, thence up the main channel to the line between ranges 50 and 51; thence north to the north line of Town 95; thence east to the Big Sioux River; thence down the channel of the same to the place of beginning."
2. "And the county seat is hereby located on the point of the bluff, in the southeast quarter of the northeast quarter of Section 29, Town 92, Range 49.
3. "Nothing in this act shall interfere with the rights or seats in Council of M. M. Rich, J. O. Taylor, and John Mathers.
4. "All acts of William Frisbie, William Mathers, and John R. Wood as county commissioners; M. M. Rich as register of deeds; and A. R. Phillips as Judge of Probate for the county of Cole are hereby legalized.
"Approved January 7, 1864."
This act added two tiers of townships on the north to the original county, and diminished the county of Lincoln by the same amount.
The county seat location not being satisfactory, it was again changed by a vote of the people, in April, 1865, and fixed at Elk Point, where it has since remained.
There are no records of the county in existence of an earlier data than 1865, and it is impossible to give definite information concerning the original county officers; but it is at least probable that the names before mentioned as having their acts legalized by the Legislature, were the first.
The first term of court at Elk Point was held in the original log school-house, and presided over by Hon. J. P. Kidder. In 1865-6 the citizens of Elk Point erected a large and convenient frame court-house, at an expense of several thousand dollars, and donated it to the county.
The first attorney-at-law was J. A. Wallace.
The following are the present county officers:
Commissioners, H. Knudson, Charles LaBreche, John M. Peterson;
Register of Deeds, A. O. Ringsrud;
Treasurer, George Stickney;
Sheriff, James A. Smith;
Assessor, H. D. White;
Judge of Probate, T. W. Smith;
Clerk of the Court, E. C. Erickson;
Superintendent Schools, W. H. H. Fate;
Coroner, J. G. Conley;
Surveyor, Wm. M. Vinson.
The county is well provided with railway facilities, two branches of the C. M. & St. P. road passing through or near it; one along the valley of the Missouri, and the other, diverging from the main line at Elk Point, traversing the valley of the Big Sioux River.
A branch of the C. & N. W. road crosses the north end of the county, and the Dakota & Great Southern road, which is being located, passes diagonally, from northwest to southeast, through the northern and central portions of the county. The present population of the county is estimated, by competent authority, at 9,000.
The county has a bonded indebtedness of $24,000, with ample funds in the treasury to meet expenses and liquidate its debt. The latest assessed valuation is $1,100,000, which is not more than one-third the actual value. County warrants are at par.
This place was first settled, as before stated, by E. B. Wixon, in
July, 1859. The town was surveyed and incorporated as a village by an act of the
Legislature approved April 24, 1862. The first officers were:
John R. Wood, President;
E. B. Wixon, Recorder;
Myron Sheldon, Wm. W. Adams, Preston M. Hotchkiss
It was incorporated as a city January 10, 1873. The first city
Mayor, H. H. Blair;
Aldermen, E. B. Wixon, J. M. Talcott;
Clerk, McKinzey Kane;
Treasurer, J. W. Hoffman;
Justice, J. A. Wallace;
Marshal, A. H. Stringer.
The present city officers are:
Mayor, J. M. Talcott;
Aldermen, J. R. Wood, Charles Murtha, M. Huffman;
Clerk, Ira L. Nicholls;
Treasurer, J. H. Bryan;
Justice, E. C. Soutar;
Street Commissioner, A. Strouble;
Marshal, B. Crum.
The first school building of logs was erected in 1861, and the first school taught by N. J. Wallace, afterward Receiver of the United States Land Office at Vermillion. The original school-house, which was used by the courts and for various other purposes, was destroyed by fire in the winter of 1872-3. Succeeding this disaster as school was taught in the church of the United Brethren until the new school building was erected. This was in the summer of 1877, and the house cost $4,000. The school is divided into four departments, under the graded system, and under a competent board of education and an excellent corps of teachers is in a flourishing condition. Dakota is becoming justly noted for its good schools, and Elk Point is behind none of her sister towns in educational matters.
A post-office was first established in 1860, and E. B. Wixon was appointed Postmaster. The mail at that time was carried through the valley from Sioux City to Fort Randall once a week by a four-mule team.
The Indian Massacres in Minnesota and at Sioux Falls in the fall of 1862 created immense excitement among the people of Elk Point and Union County. A military company was organized and mustered into the service of the United States by General Sully in the spring of 1863, as Company B, First Dakota Cavalry. William Tripp was captain and John R. Wood first lieutenant. Wixon's Hotel was metamorphosed into a border fortress and every possible preparation made for a stubborn defense; but happily the war cloud passed over without serious consequences to the people of Dakota.
The first birth in Elk Point was a son to the wife of Joseph La Barge, in the spring of 1861; and the first death was that of William Wallace Tripp, on the 19th of February, 1863.
The first regular store in the place was established by Fairchild & Green, in 1865, and the second by J. W. Vandevere in 1866. In March 1868, Messrs. Northup & Beggs opened a small grocery and dry goods establishment, and in the fall of the same year erected one of the largest business buildings in southeastern Dakota. In that year Mr. Emory Morris built a fine store and opened a general stock. In the summer of 1869 B. F. Smith built a store and put in a large stock of dry goods and groceries, and about the same time the Talcott Brothers put up a large two-story building and began business in the furniture line. In the fall of that year D. W. C. Smith, M. D., erected a two-story building and opened a drug store.
The present mercantile business of Elk Point is conducted by four firms engaged in general merchandising, four in groceries and provisions, two drugs and books, three hardware, two furniture, two butter and eggs, one flour and feed, two jewelry, one lumber, four bakery and confectionery, one clothing and gents' furnishing goods, one millinery and one merchant tailoring establishment. There are two hotels, one bank, eight attorneys, five physicians, three real estate firms, two grain dealers having elevators, a coal dealing company, three in agricultural implements, three meat markets, three hog and cattle buyers, four wood dealers, two restaurants, a local board of underwriters, two livery stables, seven carpenters and builders, three painters and decorators, two brick masons and plasterers, two wagon makers, a photographer, a barber, and other small institutions.
In the manufacturing line there are a large steam flouring mill, the "Dakota Mills," with a capacity of 125 barrels of flour daily, doing a business of $150,000 annually; a large creamery, producing 200,000 pounds of butter in the course of a year; a pump and wind- mill factory, two blacksmithing firms, a manufactory of washing machines, an apiary and bee-hive factory, a shoemaker, a manufactory of brick, a harness maker, etc.
Elk Point is an excellent marketing place, and large amounts of grain, flour, general produce, lumber, coal, wood, cattle and hogs are handled by the various dealers.
CHURCHES.- The first religious services held in Elk Point were in the winter of 1860, when Rev. C. D. Martin, long a prominent citizen of the Missouri valley, preached a sermon in the place. Rev. Martin was a Congregational or Presbyterian minister and prominent in the early history of Yankton.
The Methodist Episcopal Church appears to have been the first organization in the place. A church was gathered and organized in 1865 by Elder Kane. The society at first held meetings at Brulé Creek, but eventually removed and made permanent investments at Elk Point. Their first services were held in the old school building and in the court house. A church edifice was erected in 1870, at a cost of $1,000.
Saint Andrew's Episcopal Society was organized and established as a mission by Rev. Dr. Hoyt, Dean of Dakota. A church was erected at Elk Point in 1868, at an expense of $1,000, partly by contributions from New York and Philadelphia. The building was occupied alternately by the Episcopalians and Congregationalists until the latter built a church of their own.
The United Brethren Society was organized toward the latter part of the year 1870 by J. E. Hott, a missionary who had been sent from Ohio. The house of this society, which is the most capacious of any in the place, was dedicated October 11, 1879. Its cost was $3,000.
The first Baptist Church was organized March 11, 1871, by Rev. George W. Freeman, general missionary of the American Baptist Home Missionary Society, with eleven members. A house of worship was erected in the spring of 1873, at a cost of $1,200.
The Congregational Society was organized in 1872, by Rev. Mr. Shelton, general missionary for Dakota. The society for a time occupied the Episcopal church until they could erect a building of their own.
St. Joseph's Catholic Church was the latest religious organization, coming into existence in 1879. In 1880-81 the society had become strong enough with a little outside assistance to erect a church edifice 72 x 35 feet in dimensions, at a cost of $3,000. The communicants include about fifty families. The first regular resident priest was Rev. Father John Brogan. All the religious societies in Elk Point are in healthy condition.
SECRET ORDERS. – These are well represented, and include Elk Point Lodge, No. 3, A. F. & A. M., instituted under charter granted by the Iowa jurisdiction, June 7, 1871. Its original number was 288 in the Iowa list. It was re-chartered by the Grand Lodge of Dakota, July 21, 1875.
Elk Point Lodge, No. 4, I. O. O. F., chartered December 30, 1872. Hesperian Encampment, No. 3, I. O. O. F., chartered June 18, 1875, and Elk Point Lodge, No. 6, I. O. G. T., chartered August, 1881.
The Centennial Cornet Band was organized in 1876, with fifteen members.
NEWSPAPERS. – The first newspaper established at Elk Point was the Leader, by F. O. Wisner, its first issue bearing date March 17, 1870. In April, 1871, the office and contents were destroyed by fire. On the 24th of November, in the last-named year, Mr. L. B. Redpath commenced the publication of a paper which he named the Union County Courier. He only issued two numbers when he sold the property to the Courier Publishing Company, the members of which were H. H. Blair, J. M. Talcott and C. M. Northup. On the 19th of June, 1872, the establishment was purchased by C. F. Mallahan, who has since continued its publication. It is a handsome eight column folio, all printed at home, ably edited, and having a good circulation.
Elk Point is finely situated on the higher level of the Missouri bottom lands, with pleasant surroundings and a good business. It is about two miles in a direct line from the Missouri River, and two and a half from the Big Sioux, and so completely embowered in shade as to excel every other town in Dakota in this respect. It has never been disturbed by floods, except in the spring of 1881, during the memorable overflow of the Missouri, when for a short period of time some of its streets were under water. The population is claimed by its citizens to be about 1,200, with a slow but steady increase. The town is mostly built of wood, and therefore liable to destructive fires; but cheap frames will eventually give way to brick and stone, which always comes sooner or later in every business town. The Courier of March 12, 1884, publishes a fine woodcut view of the south part of the town as seen from the railway.
Other towns and post-offices in Union County are Beresford, Alcester, Richland, Jefferson, McCook, Gothland, Sunny Side, Grove Hill, Emmett and Big Springs.
Beresford is a new and growing town near the northwest corner of the county, on the new branch of the Chicago and Northwestern railway. It was founded in the spring of 1883, and promises to become a good trading point. Alcester is a small station on the same line. The projected Dakota and Great Southern railway will traverse about twenty miles of the county, and probably make a point of the old hamlet of Richland. It may also build up one or two new towns in the north part of the county.
There are several churches in various parts of the county, and a large number of district school buildings.