Early settler’s 139-year-old water right up for cancellation

French Creek was mostly likely named after French fur trappers. The small creek is one of many scenic waterways through the Black Hills.

After 139 years, an early Black Hills settler could lose his right to all the water in French Creek1 above a point near Custer.

The Water Rights Program of the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources is recommending the cancellation of a water right filed in 1878 by Robert Wittke. The state Water Management Board is scheduled to conduct a hearing on the recommendation Dec. 7 in Pierre.

An investigation into the status of the water right was triggered in late 2016 when Wittke’s great-granddaughter, Martha Carr, of Burbank, Calif., contacted the DENR. She had been told about the water right and had found it listed in an online DENR database, and she wondered if she might have inherited any rights to the water.

State laws says that if a water right is not used for three years, it is considered abandoned and may be recommended for cancellation. A DENR employee reviewed modern and historical documents and visited French Creek to investigate…

1. French Creek begins northwest of Custer and flows east through Custer State Park before emptying into the Cheyenne River. The name of French Creek is of unknown origin, but most likely refers to French trappers who were early visitors to the area. It was during the 1874 expedition into the Black Hills led by Col. George Armstrong Custer that gold was discovered in French Creek near present-day Custer. When news of the discovery reached the United States, it triggered the Black Hills gold rush.

You can enjoy a hike along French Creek in a wilderness setting in Custer State Park’s French Creek Natural Area. The 12-mile trail of medium difficulty travels along the creek from Wildlife Loop Road on the east end, about 4 miles south of the State Game Lodge, to an access point on the west end about 3 miles south of Blue Bell Lodge.

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