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Historical Adaptation To Natural Features

South Dakota 1889-1989

August 1, 1989


Herbert T. Hoover University of South Dakota, Vermillion

Article Highlights

Historical Adaptation To Natural Features

The recorded history of the state began near the middle of the eighteenth century, shortly after Sioux people abandoned a permanent residence at the northeastern edge of the prairie near Mille Lacs to settle across some 84 million acres they had long claimed for hunting and gleaning. The first resident non-Indian was Pierre Dorion, who came to the lower James River basin in the early 1780s. Over the ensuing three quarters of a century, more than 25,000 Sioux of eleven tribes worked at arm's length in reasonable harmony with immigrant whites, who were mainly of French and British lineage. The traders represented several firms in Montreal and St. Louis, but after 1827 most of them worked for St. Louis magnate Pierre Chouteau, Jr., who dominated trade from the headwaters of the Wisconsin to those of the Missouri River. Not by chance did he bequeath his name to an area of the middle Missouri that later became the location of a state capital—Pierre. By managing inventories for a complicated network of trading places, Chouteau's Fort Pierre grew into the leading entrepot of his elaborate commercial network.

Chouteau replaced bullboats, longboats, and rafts on the Missouri River with a fleet of streamers that transported industrial goods upstream and sent hides and furs out to international markets. A secondary function was tourism. Among those who made travel arrangements through Chouteau's network were George Catlin, Prince Maximilian, Karl Bodmer, Joseph Nicollet, Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, and John James Audubon.

The lives of Sioux people changed dramatically during the fur-trade era. As long as their sources of hides and furs held out, the Sioux had industrial products that made their lives somewhat easier and enhanced their tribal arts. Indian women married traders and raised bicultural families. At its worst, the relationship between Indians and whites was one of guarded suspicion. Most reports portrayed Indians as hospitable, interesting, and cooperative people. The environment they occupied seemed mysterious, underdeveloped, and promising.

Inevitably, such impressions attracted non-Indians in search of land to settle and new locations for business enterprise. Every Sioux tribe except the Yankton reacted aggressively to the massive white immigration that took place after mid-century. From the Grattan Affair near Fort Laramie in 1854 to the death of Sitting Bull and the killings at Wounded Knee in 1890, there was intermittent combat. The Minnesota Sioux War, Red Cloud's War, and the Great Sioux War in quick succession changed an intercultural relationship of guarded suspicion into one of fear or hatred. The Sioux ceded most of their land in present-day South Dakota to the United States in the Treaty of Washington, D.C., in 1858, the congressional Agreement of February 27, 1877, and the Agreement of March 2, 1889. The middle and western Sioux relinquished their rights to approximately 58,700,000 acres across the middle Missouri basin and retained few more than 13,100,000 acres within the state.

Newcomers appeared to claim the land as rapidly as their courage allowed. Soon after Congress established the Territory of Dakota in 1861, whites settled the "Yankton Delta" or "Triangle" contained by the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers. These French, Scandinavian, Scottish, Irish, and English immigrants adapted readily to familiar agrarian conditions on arable land and marked the approximate boundaries for ethnic enclaves. Early in the 1870s, a body of mining prospectors—formed in Chicago, staged in Sioux City—muscled its way into the Black Hills. Prospectors violated the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, but federal officials declined to enforce its terms. Sitting Bull's followers fought back successfully until the demise of George Custer and his Seventh Cavalry in 1876. Through the 1877 Agreement, however, western Sioux tribes gave up the Black Hills, then their arms and ponies, and then their freedom in exchange for confinement around six new agencies.

Almost immediately, the Great Dakota Boom got underway. German- speaking Lutherans, Catholics, Hutterites, and Mennonites appeared, along with a large component of Czechs and the first of many Germans from Russia who settled between the Missouri Coteau province and the Black Hills. There were also some Black and Jewish settlements. By the time the Boom was over in 1888, the line of agrarian development had approached the edge of the Missouri River, and Dakotans demanded at least 11 million acres more. Accordingly, in the year of statehood the Agreement of 1889 opened almost that much land, as it provided for the establishment of six tribal reservations.

Between 1889 and 1920, the population of South Dakota grew from approximately 325,000 to roughly 687,000—comprising thirteen Sioux tribes, at least twenty-five white ethnic societies, two traditional Indian belief systems, and more than a dozen Christian denominations. In their struggle for self-reliance, white South Dakotans formed cooperative organizations and lobbied congressmen and state officials for help. Their great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep shrank into small ranch herds and flocks after the state range law of 1911 made livestock producers responsible for damage to crops. Out of necessity, western cattlemen improved the quality of smaller foundation herds from which to market yearlings in East River, where they were finished on corn and grain and sent to slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls, Sioux City, and Omaha.

After 1889, congressmen set policy as U.S. officials worked on transforming Indian reservation residents into farmers and ranchers. The eastern Sioux around Flandreau and Sisseton possessed so few acres and financial resources that they hardly had a chance. The middle and western Sioux carried from their 1858 treaty and the 1877 and 1899 agreements a residual of some 13 million acres and approximately $6 million from the sale of land. Their cash reserves were soon enlarged by annual interest on tribal funds, proceeds from personal labor and land lease contracts, and communal as well as individual allotment sales. The nine Sioux tribes started with nearly 500 acres per capita, but most of the land was of marginal value to subsistence agriculture. Over half a century, approximately 27,000 reservation residents attempted to succeed in farming under federal supervision. By 1950, they had used up all but about $200,000 of their cash reserves and pared the land holdings available for use to slightly more than 6 million acres. The majority of the 223 acres per capita remaining were leased to whites as fractionated holdings of little if any value to most of the Indians. For the Sioux, the quest for self-reliance as family farmers and ranchers in a region of marginal productivity had all but failed.

The experience was better for white people only by degrees. They strove for self-sufficiency on farmsteads that were too small for an arid climate. During the World War I era, farmers and ranchers grew reliant on credit assistance, crop insurance, and other benefits from state agencies in Pierre. These supports collapsed along with many farms, ranches, and private banks during the agrarian depression of the 1920s, leaving South Dakota taxpayers with a debt they did not liquidate for nearly three decades. After several good years, farmers and ranchers leaned heavily on New Deal programs for survival. A miniature exodus reduced the population from 692,849 in 1930 to 589,920 in 1945, but most South Dakotans remained to enjoy recovery from wartime demands and federal assistance through the continuation of New Deal programs.

Since World War II ... [federal officials] have supplied economic means and administration for small business experiments on reservations along with a buffet of Great Society programs initiated during the 1960s for all citizens in need. Meanwhile, there have been ever-increasing benefits for South Dakota society overall from such federal installations as the Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilities along the Missouri main stem, and National Park Service installations at Mount Rushmore and the Badlands ... During the centennial year, 42 percent of approximately a billion dollars allocated by the state legislative budget came from federal coffers.

Since the homestead era, South Dakotans have enlarged tourism as a secondary industry. It, too, has been subsidized by federal expenditures, beginning with the creation of recreational facilities and the Federal Highway Act of 1916. Tourism has improved through the addition of installations under management by the Army Engineers and National Park Service. Yet, in the main it has flourished through private initiative in the advertisement of clean air, open space, magnificent scenery, ethnic experience, western hospitality, and a place for eastern urbanites to blow off steam.

Various means of federal support that grew out of the New Deal have allowed South Dakotans the luxury of a political split personality. Conservative Republican and moderate Democratic politicians have held office in Pierre on their promise of balanced budgets (as required by the state constitution), low taxes, and tightfisted fiscal policies. Moderate Republican and liberal Democratic leaders have enjoyed long tenures in Congress for their abilities to bring home federal benefits. Party label has not deterred a divided vote: the Republican majority has elected liberal Democrats George McGovern, James Abourezk, and Tom Daschle along with moderate Republicans Francis Case, Karl Mundt, and Benjamin Reifel.

Culpability for the economic dependence that gave birth to this political behavior lies with natural conditions and with congressmen who planned farmstead settlement by Indians and whites under outmoded land policies. South Dakotans have never been happy in a colonial condition, but few have apologized. Instead, they have learned to treasure a place of responsibility and value their contributions in national culture. From one era of war in the Philippines to another in Vietnam, they have contributed far more than their proportionate shares to national defense and influence abroad. South Dakotans have maintained a playground for harried urbanites and curious intellectuals by a commitment to tourism. They have relinquished land along the Missouri main stem to bring flood control, hydroelectric production, and wildlife management more beneficial to outsiders than to themselves. Both Sioux and non-Indian groups have produced foods, fibers, minerals, and other raw materials as they have been steady consumers—buying and selling on markets almost entirely under the control of business magnates outside the state. Struggling always against natural hazards, they have maintained ethnic diversity in rural enclaves as valuable to the national culture as to themselves.

Intense interest by outsiders added to desire for cultural expression has stimulated remarkable creativity in the arts. Heading a long list of painters who have captured ethnic life and natural conditions in the state are George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Harvey Dunn, Oscar Howe, James Pollock, Arthur Amiotte, John Green, and Robert Penn. Leading the authors who have given special attention to life in South Dakota are Hamlin Garland, Ole Rolvaag, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Frederick Manfred, and Herbert Schell. Guardians for works of art and composition as well as primary documents and artifacts have maintained more than a dozen substantial archives and as many public and private museums. No state group has been more attentive to the definition and preservation of its natural and cultural legacies than this. Remarkable accomplishments have come through the use of limited resources generated by a population that did not exceed 700,000 until late in the 1980s.