South Dakota Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the plains states in America’s Midwest, South Dakota is bounded on the north by North Dakota, on the east by Iowa and Minnesota, on the south by Nebraska, and on the west by Montana and Wyoming.

History of South Dakota

One of the plains states in America’s Midwest, South Dakota is bounded on the north by North Dakota, on the east by Iowa and Minnesota, on the south by Nebraska, and on the west by Montana and Wyoming. It stretches 360 miles from east to west and 240 miles from north to south. The state is the seventeenth largest of the United States but ranks forty-fifth in population. Its capital is Pierre (pronounced “peer”). Temperatures in South Dakota are extreme–low in winter and high in summer–with minimal precipitation and low humidity.

South Dakota’s terrain, with more than three hundred natural lakes and four huge reservoirs created by the damming of its rivers, has considerable variety. Sparsely wooded, it consists largely of rolling plains marked occasionally by buttes rising dramatically from the landscape. In the western part of the plains, well before the towering Black Hills, are the Badlands, with deep canyons and formations carved into the red rocks over eons by wind and water erosion.

Early History

Humans inhabited the Dakotas more than twenty-five thousand years ago. Forty million years ago, dinosaurs roamed the landscape. Dinosaur bones have been unearthed in South Dakota as well as shells of archela, the largest known turtles, which were ten feet long.

The earliest settlers hunted the abundant big game in the area. By 500 c.e., a society of seminomadic Mound Builders thrived in the area and remained for about three hundred years, leaving behind valuable artifacts.

The Arikara Indians moved north from Nebraska in the 1500’s and settled along the eastern banks of the Missouri River, where they farmed and fished, prospering to the extent that, by the late 1700’s, they had established thirty earth-lodge settlements. In the early nineteenth century, however, the Sioux, a powerful tribe that entered the area from the east, drove the Arikara away.

Exploration and Settlement

The Dakotas became part of France’s vast Louisiana Territory in 1682. The first white explorers in the region were French Canadian brothers, François and Louis Joseph de La Vérendrye. While seeking a water route to the Pacific, they entered the area in 1743 and claimed it for France, burying a lead plate near Fort Pierre–the plate was found in 1913.

In 1762 France ceded all its land west of the Mississippi River to Spain, so when the French Canadian fur trader Pierre Dorion became the first permanent white resident in the Dakotas in 1775, the Spanish were in control. The Louisiana Territory was returned to France in 1800 and, in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase, became the property of the United States.

Explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through the area in 1804, bound for the Pacific Northwest, and again in 1806 on their return. A Spanish trader, Manuel Lisa, began trading with the American Indians along the Missouri River in 1809. In 1812 the entire area became part of the Missouri Territory. In the same year, the Sioux Indians, whose property rights were being severely infringed by the United States, sided with the British in the War of 1812.

Relations between the Native Americans and whites in the area were marked by peace treaties that the federal government, with its substantial economic stake in the lands of the Missouri Territory, soon broke. When the Missouri River proved navigable by steamboat in 1831, the commercial viability of the areas along the river became obvious.

Government Relations with the Sioux

In 1857 the modern-day city of Sioux Falls on the Missouri River was planned. Development began in the area, which in 1861 was declared the Dakota Territory, encompassing all of contemporary North and South Dakota, as well as parts of Wyoming and Montana. The southeastern town of Yankton became the territory’s capital.

In 1862 the government, frequently warring with the Sioux, forced the Santee Sioux from Minnesota into the Dakota Territory. Strife between the Sioux and the federal government continued until 1890, when, at Wounded Knee, government forces massacred more than two hundred Sioux, including women and children who were attempting to surrender. As late as 1973, two hundred armed members of the American Indian Movement occupied Wounded Knee for seventy-one days demanding reparations.

In 1979 the U.S. Court of Claims ordered the U.S. government to pay the Sioux $100 million for the land it confiscated in 1877. The Sioux, however, refused to accept a monetary settlement, insisting instead on the return of their land, which has great spiritual significance to them.

Moving Toward Statehood

With the formation of the Montana Territory in 1864 and the Wyoming Territory in 1868, the Dakota Territory was downsized to what has become North and South Dakota. In 1872 railroad service began in the territory. In 1874, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, triggering a gold rush. In 1876, when the Sioux attacked prospectors, trying to expel them from Sioux property in the Black Hills, the federal government intervened and, in 1877, confiscated the Black Hills from the Sioux.

Many easterners, eager to obtain land from the government under the Homestead Act of 1862, came to the Dakotas to obtain their allotted 160 acres, for which they filed claims. They cultivated the land and, after living on it for five years, it became theirs. With the discovery of gold, miners flocked into the Black Hills, swelling the population by 1879 to the point that the territory was large enough to warrant consideration for statehood.

The area was wracked by floods in 1881. The devastating blizzard of 1888 killed hundreds of Dakotans. Nevertheless, development continued with the establishment of Yankton College in 1881 and the University of South Dakota at Vermillion in the following year. In 1888 Republicans urged, as part of their platform, the admission of the Dakota Territory as two states.

In 1889 Congress voted to divide the Dakota Territory evenly into North and South Dakota and admitted them as the thirty-ninth and fortieth states in the Union. North Dakota was designated the thirty-ninth state because of its alphabetical preeminence.

South Dakota was plagued by the worst drought in its history for the next nine years. It was another half century before the federal government assisted the state in mounting a concerted effort to build dams to irrigate farms and provide hydroelectric power.

Political Progressivism and the Economy

South Dakota’s voters consistently elected reform candidates from the Populist and Progressive Republican Parties. In 1898 South Dakota became the first state to pass initiative and referendum laws, enabling voters to pass any law directly if they obtained enough signatures on petitions to put the matter on the ballot or to reject any laws passed by the legislature if 5 percent of the voters signed petitions requesting that their repeal be placed on the ballot and the repeal is supported by the electorate.

Agriculture and mining were the two most important industries in South Dakota during its early days. In 1909 the Morrell Company opened a large meat processing and packing plant in Sioux Falls, thereby launching an important industry in the state. South Dakota became a major national supplier of meat.

The state needed a dependable railway system to transport its cattle and produce to eastern markets. In 1917 Governor Peter Norbeck spearheaded a movement to end railroad monopolies and to stabilize rates. Under Norbeck’s progressive leadership, the legislature voted to extend loans to farmers.

The droughts during the early years of the Great Depression ravaged South Dakota agriculture. Plagues of grasshoppers ate the few crops that survived the drought. The economic situation deteriorated so badly that, in 1932, voters for the first time elected Democratic candidates to every state office in what had long been a Republican state.

In 1954 the state’s first productive oil well was drilled in western South Dakota, producing more than two million barrels annually. Strip mining of bituminous coal contributes to the economy of western South Dakota, which also has a large goldmining industry. Despite the mineral wealth of its western region, South Dakota’s non-American Indians have settled largely in the eastern region, where manufacturing and service industries flourish.

The electronics industry brings considerable revenue into the state and employs many of its citizens. In 1982 Citicorp, the largest bank holding company in the United States, transferred its credit-card division to Sioux Falls, which underwent a substantial increase in population.

The Native American Population

In the 1990’s, more than 7 percent of South Dakotans were Native Americans. Most of them lived on eight major reservations, the largest of them being the Rosebud, the Pine Ridge, the Cheyenne River, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservations in the central or western reaches of the state.

Life for South Dakota’s Native Americans remains difficult. Stripped of much of their most fertile and mineral-rich land, they have often been forced during difficult economic times to sell the land remaining to them.

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