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History & Heritage of South Dakota

Lewis and Clark held the first election by U.S. citizens west of the Mississippi River at present-day Elk Point. It is re-enacted yearly on the anniversary date. (Photo courtesy of SD Tourism)

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From prehistoric times to the days of the Wild West to modern-day developments, South Dakota has been home to a rich tapestry of cultural events and people.

For thousands of years, humans have been drawn to South Dakota’s rugged beauty. The ancient remains of the Woodland People, a culture in existence during the time of Christ, have been found throughout the northeastern portion of the state. The Woodland People inhabited South Dakota for hundreds of years and then mysteriously vanished, leaving burial mounds, shards of pottery, and stone tools in their wake. Following the Woodland People, the Arikara, an agricultural culture, inhabited South Dakota. In the 1700s, the Sioux Nation, composed of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota Tribes, moved into the area, driving out much of the Arikara. By the late 1700s, the Sioux Nation dominated the northern plains of South Dakota. Today, the state is home to more than 62,000 tribal members of the Sioux Nation.

Early Explorers

White man first entered South Dakota in 1743 when the LaVerendrye Brothers, explorers from France, explored present-day Fort Pierre and claimed the region for France. In 1803, the United States made the Louisiana Purchase from France, gaining ownership of the region that is now South Dakota. In 1804, President Thomas Jefferson organized the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the newly acquired territory. Later that year, the Lewis and Clark Expedition canvassed the Missouri River portion of South Dakota en route to the Pacific Ocean. During their expedition, Lewis and Clark had their first encounter with the Yankton and Teton Sioux. On their return journey in 1806, the first United States flag was flown in South Dakota.

First Settlers in 1817

The first white settlers entered South Dakota in 1817, when an American fur trading post was established at present-day Fort Pierre. In 1823, the Arikara led an attack against a fur trading party led by General Ashley, resulting in the death of twelve fur traders. This 1823 attack marked the first of many battles between Indians and whites in South Dakota. In 1825, treaties with numerous Indian tribes were signed, and settlers began to slowly trickle into the area. In 1857, white settlers established present-day Sioux Falls, and in 1858, the signing of the Yankton Sioux Treaty opened much of eastern South Dakota to settlers. This agreement led to the 1859 founding of the town of Yankton, later named as the capital of the Dakota Territory by President Buchanan.

Gold Rush

The establishment of Sioux Falls and Yankton opened the floodgates to settlers. In 1872, Yankton was linked to the eastern railway, and in 1874 an expedition led by Colonel Custer led to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. The railway and the lure of gold incited a massive influx of settlers and the establishment of many mining camps throughout the area. One such mining camp, Deadwood, became a hub for Wild West outlaw activity, and was home to notorious outlaws Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Billy the Kid, and Wyatt Earp.

The Great Dakota Boom began in 1878 and continued until 1886. During this time, the promise of land brought pioneer families to the region in droves. One famous pioneer family, the Ingalls, was part of the Great Dakota Boom, and Laura Ingalls Wilder later used South Dakota as the setting for five of her famous books.

In 1889, South Dakota was admitted into the Union, and Pierre was chosen as the state’s temporary capital. During this time, there was much turmoil between the white settlers and the Indians. In 1890, the 7th Calvary killed more than 250 Lakota men, women, and children at the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Great Depression

The 1930s were a particularly devastating period for South Dakota residents. Drought, sweltering temperatures, and over-farming of the land produced what was dubbed the Dust Bowl throughout South Dakota and surrounding plain states. The devastation of harvests, a sluggish economy, and harsh living conditions caused many residents to move out of the area. President Roosevelt’s New Deal established the Civilian Conservation Corps, creating jobs for many South Dakotans. The efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps led to the establishment of many of South Dakota’s National Parks, and were instrumental in much of the state’s forest conservation efforts.

The economic status of South Dakota improved in the 1940s. In 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II, the demand for agriculture increased. The Flood Control Act of 1944 led to the taming of the Missouri River. The construction of dams and the harnessing of hydroelectricity created many jobs for South Dakotans.

1960's and Beyond

Following World War II, improved farming techniques and irrigation re-established South Dakota as an important agricultural and livestock state. In the 1960s, state highways opened much of the state to travelers, and tourism fueled the state’s economy. Home to seven National Parks—including Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Park, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial—sixty State Parks, Crazy Horse Memorial, and countless miles of spectacular scenery, modern-day South Dakota offers much to visitors and residents alike.

It is clear that the hands of Mother Nature shaped the breathtaking scenery of South Dakota, and the actions of humans created the storyboard for the state’s rich and fascinating history.


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