South Dakota History

Early inhabitants

Human beings have lived in what is today South Dakota for at least several thousand years. Early hunters first entered North America at least 17,000 years ago via the Bering land bridge, which existed during the last ice age and connected Siberia with Alaska. Early settlers in what would become South Dakota were nomadic hunter-gatherers, using primitive Stone Age technology to hunt large prehistoric mammals in the area such as mammoths, sloths, and camels. The Paleolithic culture of these people disappeared around 5000 BC, after the extinction of most of their prey species.

Between AD 500 and 800, much of eastern South Dakota was inhabited by a people known as the ‘Mound Builders’. The Mound Builders were hunters who lived in temporary villages and were named for the low earthen burial mounds they constructed, many of which still exist. Their settlement seems to have been concentrated around the watershed of the Big Sioux River and Big Stone Lake, although other sites have been excavated throughout eastern South Dakota. Either assimilation or warfare led to the demise of the Mound Builders by the year 800. Between 1250 and 1400 an agricultural people, likely the ancestors of the modern Mandan of North Dakota, arrived from the east and settled in the central part of the state. In 1325, what has become known as the Crow Creek Massacre occured near Chamberlain.[3] An archeological excavation of the site has discovered 486 bodies buried in a mass grave within a type of fortification; many of the skeletal remains show evidence of scalping and decapitation.


The Arikara, also known as the Ree, began arriving from the south in the 16th century. They spoke a Caddoan language similar to that of the Pawnee, and probably originated in what is now Kansas and Nebraska. Although they would at times travel to hunt or trade, the Arikara were far less nomadic than many of their neighbors, and lived for the most part in permanent villages. These villages usually consisted of a stockade enclosing a number of circular earthen lodges built on bluffs overlooking rivers. Each village had a semi-autonomous political structure, with the Arikara’s various subtribes being connected in a loose alliance. In addition to hunting and growing crops such as corn, pumpkins, beans and squash, the Arikara were also skilled traders, and would often serve as intermediaries between tribes to the north and south. It was probably through their trading connections that Spanish horses first reached the region around 1760. The Arikara reached the height of their power in the 17th century, and may have included as many as 32 villages. Due both to disease as well as pressure from other tribes, the number of Arikara villages would decline to only two by the late 18th century, and the Arikara eventually merged entirely with the Mandan to the north.


By the 17th century, the Sioux, who would later come to dominate much of the state, had settled in what is today central and northern Minnesota. The Sioux spoke a language of the Siouan linguistic family, and were divided into four general branches – the Santee, the Yankton, the Yanktonnais, and the Lakota (also known as the Teton). During this time, the lifestyle of the Sioux resembled that of the other peoples of the eastern woodlands more so than those of the plains. Much of their travel was done by boat, while they still were dependent on hunting, their diet was supplemented by gathering wild rice and berries, and lodges built of earth and wood were the most common type of habitation, as opposed to the tipis of the plains. However, by the late 17th century and early 18th century the Sioux would begin to move south and then west into the plains. This migration was due to several factors, including greater food availability to the west, as well as the fact that the rival Cree had obtained rifles from the French at a time when the Sioux were still using the bow and arrow.

In moving west into the prairies, the lifestyle of the Sioux would be greatly altered, coming to resemble that of a nomadic northern plains tribe much more so than a largely settled eastern woodlands one. Characteristics of this transformation include a greater dependence on the bison for food, a heavier reliance on the horse for transportation, and the adoption of the tipi for habitation, a dwelling more suited to the frequent movements of a nomadic people than their earlier semi-permanent lodges.

The four branches of the Sioux would eventually settle in different areas across the northern plains. The Lakota, who crossed the Missouri around 1760 and reached the Black Hills by 1776, would come to settle largely in western South Dakota, northwestern Nebraska, and southwestern North Dakota. The Yankton primarily settled in southeastern South Dakota, the Yanktonnais settled in northeastern South Dakota and southeastern North Dakota, and the Santee settled primarily in central and southern Minnesota. Due in large part to the Sioux migrations, a number of tribes would be driven from the area. The tribes in and around the Black Hills, most notably the Cheyenne, would be pushed to the west, the Arikara would move further north along the Missouri, and the Omaha would be driven out of southeastern South Dakota and into northeastern Nebraska.

European exploration


France was the first European nation to hold any real claim over what would become South Dakota. During the 17th and 18th centuries, French colonial possessions in North America were known as New France, and included most of the Mississippi River, Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Hudson Bay watersheds; these claims covered most of South Dakota. However, simply claiming the upper Missouri watershed was as far as early French activity progressed due to several factors. Among these were an ample supply of furs from Hudson Bay and the Great Lakes, the precarious position of eastern French possessions, most of them lightly settled and near colonies of the rival British, and the oppostion of the Sioux, who were blocking further French expansion to the west due to their perception that France was aligned with the rival Cree and Ojibwa peoples. While several French scouting parties may have entered eastern South Dakota in the late 17th century, these expeditions left no firm evidence of their presence, and the possibility of any Europeans entering the region during this period is purely speculative.

After the conclusion of Queen Anne’s War in 1713, France became more interested in its western possessions, largely in an attempt to sustain its colonial fur trade. Britain had won control over most of the fur trading region around Hudson Bay, while at the same time the fur trade was beginning to decline in the Great Lakes area due to overhunting. The first Europeans to enter South Dakota with certainty, the Verendrye brothers, began their expedition in 1743. The expedition started at Fort La Reine on Lake Manitoba, and was attempting to locate an all-water route to the Pacific Ocean. The explorers entered South Dakota from the north, along the Missouri River, and turned west at some point in the central part of the state. (It is uncertain how far west the Verendryes traveled before returning to the north; their journals speak vaguely of being “…in the sight of the mountains”, leading to speculation that it was either the Black Hills or the Big Horn Mountains, further to the west, that were being spoken of.) Before turning west, the Verendryes buried a lead plate inscribed with their names, the name of the Governor of New France, and the year near the present-day location of Ft. Pierre; the plate was rediscovered by schoolchildren in 1913 and is now on display at a museum in Pierre.


In 1762, France granted Spain all French territory west of the Mississippi River in the Treaty of Fontainebleau. The agreement, which was signed in secret, was motivated by a French desire to convince Spain to come to terms with Britain and accept defeat in the Seven Years’ War. In an attempt to defend against British expansion to the south and west, Spain adopted a policy for the upper Missouri which emphasized the development of closer trade relations with local tribes as well as greater exploration of the region, a primary focus of which would be a search for a water route to the Pacific Ocean. Although traders such as Jacques D’Eglise and Juan Munier had been active in the region for several years, these men had been operating independently, and a determined effort to reach the Pacific and solidify Spanish control of the region had never been undertaken. In 1793, a group commonly known as the Missouri Company was formed in St. Louis, with the twin goals of trading and exploring on the upper Missouri. The company sponsored several attempts to reach the Pacific Ocean, none of which made it further than the mouth of the Yellowstone. In 1794, Jean Truteau (also spelled Trudeau) built a cabin near the present-day location of Fort Randall, and in 1795 the Mackay-Evans Expedition traveled up the Missouri as far as present-day North Dakota, where they expelled several British traders who had been active in the area. By 1802, a post known as Fort aux Cedres was constructed on the Missouri about 35┬ámiles (56┬ákm) southeast of the present location of Pierre. In 1800, Spain gave Louisiana back to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso.

19th century

In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon for $15,000,000. The territory included most of the western half of the Mississippi watershed and covered nearly all of present-day South Dakota, except for a small portion in the northeast corner of the state. The region was still largely unexplored and unsettled, and President Thomas Jefferson organized a group commonly referred to as the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the newly acquired region. The expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery, was tasked with following the route of the Missouri to its source, continuing on to the Pacific Ocean, establishing diplomatic relations with the various tribes in the area, and taking cartographic, geologic, and botanical surveys of the area. The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804 with 45 men and 15 tons of supplies in three boats (one keelboat and two pirogues). The party progressed slowly against the Missouri’s current, reaching what is today South Dakota on August 22. Near present-day Vermillion, the party hiked to Spirit Mound after hearing local legends of the place being inhabited by “little spirits”. Shortly after this, a peaceful meeting took place with the Yankton Sioux, while an encounter with the Lakota Sioux further north was not as uneventful. The Lakota mistook the party as traders, at one point stealing a horse. Weapons were brandished on both sides after it appeared as though the Lakota were going to further delay or even halt the expedition, but they eventually stood down and allowed the party to continue up the river and out of their territory. In north central South Dakota, the expedition acted as mediators between the warring Arikara and Mandan. After leaving the state on October 14, the party wintered with the Mandan in North Dakota before successfully reaching the Pacific Ocean and returning by the same route, safely reaching St. Louis in 1806. On the return trip, the expedition spent only 15 days in South Dakota, traveling more swiftly with the Missouri’s current.

In 1817, an American fur trading post was set up at present-day Fort Pierre, beginning continuous American settlement of the area. During the 1830s, fur trading was the dominant economic activity for the few Whites that lived in the area. Most of these trappers and traders left the area after European demand for furs dwindled around 1840. In 1855, the U.S. Army bought Fort Pierre but abandoned it the following year in favor of Fort Randall to the south. Settlement by Americans and Europeans was by this time increasing rapidly, and in 1858 the Yankton Sioux signed the 1858 Treaty, ceding most of present-day eastern South Dakota to the United States.

Land speculators founded two of eastern South Dakota’s largest present-day cities: Sioux Falls in 1856 and Yankton in 1859. In 1861, Dakota Territory was established by the United States government (this initially included North Dakota, South Dakota, and parts of Montana and Wyoming). Settlers from Scandinavia, Germany, Ireland, and Russia, as well as elsewhere in Europe and from the eastern U.S. states increased from a trickle to a flood, especially after the completion of an eastern railway link to the territorial capital of Yankton in 1872, and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 during a military expedition led by George A. Custer. This expedition took place despite the fact that the western half of present day South Dakota had been granted to the Sioux by the Treaty of Fort Laramie as part of the Great Sioux Reservation. The Sioux declined to grant mining rights or land in the Black Hills, and war broke out after the U.S. failed to stop white miners and settlers from entering the region. The Sioux were eventually defeated and settled on reservations within South Dakota and North Dakota.

An increasing population caused Dakota Territory to be divided in half and a bill for statehood for North Dakota and South Dakota (as well as Montana and Washington) titled the Enabling Act of 1889 was passed on February 22, 1889 during the Administration of Grover Cleveland. It was left to his successor, Benjamin Harrison, to sign proclamations formally admitting North and South Dakota to the Union on November 2, 1889. Harrison directed his Secretary of State James G. Blaine to shuffle the papers and obscure from him which he was signing first and the actual order went unrecorded.

On December 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Commonly cited as the last major armed conflict between the United States and the Sioux Nation, the massacre resulted in the deaths of an estimated 300 Sioux, many of them women and children. 25 U.S. soldiers were also killed in the conflict.

20th century

During the 1930s, several economic and climatic conditions combined with disastrous results for South Dakota. A lack of rainfall, extremely high temperatures and over-cultivation of farmland produced what was known as the Dust Bowl in South Dakota and several other plains states. Fertile topsoil was blown away in massive dust storms, and several harvests were completely ruined. The experiences of the Dust Bowl, coupled with local bank foreclosures and the general economic effects of the Great Depression resulted in many South Dakotans leaving the state. The population of South Dakota declined by more than seven percent between 1930 and 1940.

Economic stability returned with the U.S. entry into World War II in 1941, when demand for the state’s agricultural and industrial products grew as the nation mobilized for war. Over 68,000 South Dakotans served in the armed forces during the war, of which over 2,200 were killed.

In 1944, the Pick-Sloan Plan was passed as part of the Flood Control Act of 1944 by the U.S. Congress, resulting in the construction of six large dams on the Missouri River, four of which are at least partially located in South Dakota. Flood control, hydroelectricity and recreational opportunities such as boating and fishing are provided by the dams and their reservoirs.

On the night of June 9-10, 1972, heavy rainfall in the eastern Black Hills caused the Canyon Lake Dam on Rapid Creek to fail. The failure of the dam, combined with heavy runoff from the storm, turned the usually small creek into a massive torrent that washed through central Rapid City. The flood resulted in 238 deaths and destroyed 1,335 homes and around 5,000 automobiles. Damage from the flood totaled $160 million (the equivalent of $664 million today).

On April 19, 1993, Governor George Mickelson was killed in a plane crash in Iowa while returning from a business meeting in Cincinnati. Several other state officials were also killed in the crash. Mickelson, who was in the middle of his second term as governor, was succeeded by Walter Dale Miller.

Recent history

In recent decades, South Dakota has transformed from a state dominated by agriculture to one with a more diversified economy. The tourism industry has grown considerably since the completion of the interstate system in the 1960s, with the Black Hills being especially impacted. The financial service industry began to grow in the state as well, with Citibank moving its credit card operations from New York to Sioux Falls in 1981, a move that has since been followed by several other financial companies. In 2007, the site of the recently-closed Homestake gold mine near Lead was chosen as the location of a new underground research facility. Despite a growing state population and recent economic development, many rural areas have been struggling over the past 50 years with locally declining populations and the emigration of educated young adults to larger South Dakota cities, such as Rapid City or Sioux Falls, or to other states.