ELK POINT, S.D. -- Members of the Union County Historical Society used Election Day Tuesday to unveil a historical marker at the site of another election, held Aug. 22, 1804.
One side of the new marker recognizes Heritage Park in Elk Point as the site where Lewis and Clark probably camped. While camped at Elk Point, members of their Corps of Discovery elected Patrick Gass to replace Sgt. Charles Floyd. It was the first U.S. election west of the Mississippi. (Floyd had died two days earlier in Sioux City, likely of a burst appendix.)
Capt. William Clark recorded in his journal a "Great deel of Elk Sign" in the area. He reported making camp near a lone tree in an area fitting the park land's description, given that the Missouri River flowed along the west side of the present-day city at that time.
The historical marker's other side notes the land was the farm of Eli Wixson, founder of Elk Point. Wixson purchased the acreage in 1859 and in 1862 gave a block of it for the Union County Courthouse and a block for the public school.
Historical Society member Joni Kjar opened Tuesday's ceremony by singing "America the Beautiful." Sherri McKee, president of the society picked up the theme in her remarks. "From sea to shining sea, that was Thomas Jefferson's plan," she said of the Corp's commission to explore the Louisiana Purchase. "This marker will give permanent witness to the events of the Corps of Discovery here in 1804," she said before reading the marker's two inscriptions.
Journals kept by Corps members also record a stay at the lone tree campsite on their return trip in 1806.
The steel sign, lettered in gold, was unveiled by two members of the Historical Society who were instrumental in pinpointing the location of the campsite, Don Lane and Roland Rosenbaum.
Lane, who moved to Elk point in 1938, began wondering several years ago if the exact site could be identified. He sparked Rosenbaum's interest. They got a surveyor to search for the site using coordinates from the expedition's journals. Using two different sets of numbers, the surveyor placed the campsite three miles west of town or one mile east of town. Hardly conclusive.
"Then I found on the Internet Edward Collins' thesis," Rosenbaum said. Edward E. Collins had retraced the Corps of Discovery's journey through Elk Point in his master's degree thesis on the history of Union County. He wrote it in 1937 at age 77.
Collins was a former superintendent of schools for both Clay County and the State of South Dakota. More importantly, he was the nephew of Eli Wixson. He had grown up hearing the oral history of Elk Point from his uncle and others. Those stories placed the historic campsite on the Wixson property, a half-mile south and a quarter-mile west of the present Elk Point water tower -- land that is now in Heritage Park.
"We figured he would have gotten it as straight as anyone could," Rosenbaum said Tuesday. "When we found the thesis and it put this right in the middle (of the two surveyed sites), it sounded reasonable."
Wixson's granddaughter, Kathyrn Collins Tilton, and his great-granddaughter, Shirley Collins Brunick, both of Vermillion, S.D., attended Tuesday's ceremony. Tilton said she has had possession of her grandfather's thesis for 20 years but didn't realize it identified the Lewis and Clark campsite.
McKee said the marker is intended "to develop an understanding, to preserve and further our appreciation for the history of Union County, South Dakota." The marker is a cooperative effort of the Historical Society and the City of Elk Point, aided by a generous donation from Warren and Elaine Schumacher Lashley.
While the marker preserves Union County history, to those guiding modern-day Elk Point, it is a key to the future.
"It did seem like destiny," said Steven Martin, city administrator. He noted the discovery of the thesis, the acquisition of the park land 15 years ago, its proximity to the Interstate and the bicentennial of the expedition. "It's very unique and fortunate when you're able to attach such a strong historical identity to our town," he said. "We are anticipating a whole new set of visitors."
Elk Point Mayor Isabel Trobaugh said the city was not even on the National Park Service's map of the National Heritage Lewis and Clark Trail two years ago. But, thanks to the work of the Historical Society and others, it is now.