South Dakota

Like its northern namesake, South Dakota is an anomaly among U.S. states in having a small and highly homogenous population that has been little touched by modern immigration trends.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, the region that is now the state of South Dakota was populated almost entirely by Native Americans of the Lakota, or Sioux, culture–the people from whom the state takes its name. The region opened to outside immigration in 1858, when the Yankton Sioux signed a treaty that ceded most of present-day South Dakota to the United States, which established Dakota Territory over what in 1889 would become the states of North and South Dakota.South DakotaSouth Dakota[cat]STATES;South Dakota

Enactment of the federal [a]Homestead Act of 1862Homestead Act of 1862 opened land in South Dakota and other Great Plains states and territories to settlement by both Americans and immigrants from Europe by making land available to them for next to nothing. Among early immigrants to the region were the offspring of earlier immigrants to other states, especially New York and Wisconsin, who began coming during the 1870’s and 1880’s. The Homestead Act helped attract German, Scandinavian, and Irish immigrants to South Dakota. Norwegian settlers were especially prominent in South Dakota’s eastern counties, where they accounted for two-thirds of the immigrants. The beliefs of these settlers created an atmosphere of experimentation with public ownership of certain businesses and help explain the political success of the Populist Party during the late 1890’s and the popularity of the Progressive movement in the state during the early twentieth century.

The region’s development was accelerated by the completion of a railroad to the territorial capital of Yankton in 1872 and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills that led to a rush two years later. The population of the entire Dakota Territory then increased quickly enough to bring statehood to North and South Dakota in 1889.

Twentieth and Twenty-first Century Developments

South Dakota is typical of Great Plains states in having a population that has remained largely static and homogeneous in character. Through the twentieth century, the state ranked among the lowest in the union in both population and population density. Dust BowlDust Bowl conditions during the 1930’s helped begin a steady population decline.

Rural flight has been a common trend in South Dakota as well. During the 1990’s alone, thirty of the state’s counties lost population, as many educated young people and professionals moved to the largest cities of Sioux Falls and Rapid City or out of the state, leaving many counties with aging populations struggling to finance basic services.

During the early years of the twenty-first century, South Dakota had one of the least diverse populations in the United States. In 2005, the U.S. Census reported that almost 90 percent of the state’s residents were of European ancestry. Fewer than 2 percent were Hispanic, about 2 percent were Asian, and the rest were Native American.

German Americans constituted the state’s single-largest ancestry group, followed by Scandinavian Americans. South Dakota also had the Moravian immigrants;South Dakotanation’s largest community of Hutterites, members of a communal Anabaptist sect that originated in Moravia during the late nineteenth century.South Dakota

Further Reading

  • Blouet, Brian W., and Frederick C. Luebke. The Great Plains: Environment and Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.
  • Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: The Ethnocultural Evolution of the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979.
  • Schell, Herbert S. History of South Dakota. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
  • Wishart, David J., ed. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Czech and Slovakian immigrants

German immigrants


Irish immigrants

Mexican immigrants



North Dakota

Scandinavian immigrants

Westward expansion