37. The Big Bend of the Missouri

The Grand Detour

View southeast
(The river flows counterclockwise around the oxbow.)

Aerial view of the Big Bend: a 180 degree turn in the river

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

map of South Dakota showing the location of the Big Bend

Map after Clark-Maximilian

Around the Bend

The huge meander called the Big Bend, or Grand Detour had been a well-known Missouri River landmark for many years when the Corps of Discovery arrived at its lower bend on September 19, 1805. Captain Clark dispatched George Drouillard and John Shields across the neck, or "gouge" with the horse to hunt, and dry meat, while the rest of the party proceeded around the bend. Clark himself explored the area.

We Sent a man to step off the Distance across the gouge. He made it 2000 yds. The distance around is 30 miles. The hills extend thro the gouge and is about 200 foot above the water. In the bend as also the two opposite Sides both abov and below the bend is a butifull inclined Plain in which there is great numbers of Buffalow, Elk & Goats in view, feeding & Scipping on those Plains.

According to modern maps the neck is now 8,500 feet wide (1.6 miles; 2.6 km), even though the water level has been raised by Big Bend Dam, 15 miles downstream. Also, the distance around the oxbow is 22 miles (35.42 km). (Jim Wark took this photo in May of 1999, when Lake Sharpe was at its maximum level for that year.) The light brown circles in the photo are newly-planted fields, plowed in circles around center-pivot irrigation systems. The dark brown circles are fallow fields. The view is toward the southeast; the Missouri flows from right to left. The land in the center is part of the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, which today is occupied by the 1,6641 members of the Sicangu, or Lower Brule Sioux tribe, whose ancestors Lewis and Clark encountered downriver from here in August of 1804. On the left side of the river is the Crow Creek Reservation, home to 1,230 of the 2,421 enrolled Wič"yena (once erroneously called Nakota) Sioux.

Narrow Escape

The huge riverine oxbow called the Big Bend, or the Grand Detour, was already a well known Missouri River landmark when the Corps of Discovery reached it on 20 September 1804. At about 1:30 the next morning, Clark reported,

the Sand bar on which we Camped began to under min[e] and give way which allarmed the Sergeant on Guard, the motion of the boat awakened me; I get up & by the light of the moon observed that the land had given away both above and below our Camp & was falling in fast. I ordered all hands on as quick as possible & pushed off, we had pushed off but a few minets before the bank under which the Boat & perogus lay give way, which would Certainly have Sunk both Perogues, by the time we made the opsd. Shore our Camp fell in, we made a . . . 2d Camp for the remainder of the night & at Daylight proeeded on to the Gouge of this Great bend and Brackfast.


From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press

1. For more detailed census data from the Lower Brule Reservation, visit the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs online.