Geography and Landforms:

South Dakota is bordered by North Dakota to the north and by Nebraska to the south. On the east, South Dakota borders Minnesota and Iowa, and on the west, it borders Montana and Wyoming.

The highest point in South Dakota is Harney Peak at 7242 feet above sea level. Major rivers include the Cheyenne, the Missouri, the James and the White Rivers.

South Dakota has some of the earliest geologic history on the continent in the rock formations of the Black Hills and the Badlands. The Missouri River cuts through the center of the state. To the east of the river are low hills and lakes formed by glaciers. The land here is fertile and farms are prevalent. This area is referred to as the Drift Prairie. The Dissected Till Plains lie in the southeastern corner of the state and consist of rolling hills crossed by streams.

The Great Plains cover most of the western two-thirds of the state, and the landscape is more rugged. There are rolling hills, plains, canyons and steep flat-topped hills called buttes which can rise 400-600 feet above the plains. In the south, east of the Black Hills lie the Badlands. The Black Hills themselves are rich in minerals such as gold, silver, copper, and lead. The Black Hills are also home to Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.


The first European explorers to travel through the area that is now South Dakota were French. Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de La Verendrye, and his two sons, Louis-Joseph and Francois, were in search of a water route from the Hudson Bay to the Pacific Ocean and explored extensively through Canada before finding their way to the Missouri River and the Dakota plains. While they were camping along the Missouri River in 1741, they buried a lead plate near the Bad River with an inscription that honored the King of France, Louis XV. The area came under French, Spanish and British control at various times during the 18th century. For example, the land went from French to British hands after the Treaty of Paris ended the French and Indian War. The British then gave the land back to the French and then the United States bought the land from France in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Between 1804 and 1806 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition to explore the new Louisiana Territory, starting in St. Louis and continuing on to the Pacific Ocean. While they were camped near the mouth of the Bad River in 1804, they raised the United States flag, the first time that flag was flown over South Dakota.

The principal attraction for explorers and settlers in the area of South Dakota was the fur trade. In 1817, Joseph LaFramboise began a trading post near the present-day city of Fort Pierre. The post marks the beginning of permanent white settlements in South Dakota. The fur trade forever changed the lives of the native people who lived in the area. Trading with white explorers and fur traders brought the Indians an easier way of life, but made them dependent on the trade for their livelihood. By 1825, conflict between white settlers and Indians led to the signing of treaties with a number of the tribes there.

Fur traders began to build forts in the area to protect their interests. Pierre Chouteau built Fort Pierre in 1831, and the fort was bought by the US Army in 1855 for use as a military post. In 1861, Congress established Dakota Territory including the present states of North and South Dakota, Montana and most of Wyoming. In 1874, there were rumors of gold discovered in the Black Hills, and gold seekers began to pour into the area, despite the fact that the region had been granted to the Sioux by treaty. The Sioux refused to sell the mining rights and warfare broke out again. Even the defeat of George Armstrong Custer in 1876 by a coalition of tribes led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse did not stop white settlers from gradually seizing more and more land from the Native Americans.

Eventually, the combination of the near-extinction of the buffalo herds, the death of Sitting Bull and the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee Creek, meant the end of Native American resistance in South Dakota. Gold fever mounted, and the influx of gold miners into the area led others to begin cattle ranching in order to provide food for the miners. In addition, the building of the railroads through the state brought enough settlement that people began to ask that South Dakota become a state. In 1889, Dakota Territory was separated into North and South Dakota and both earned statehood.


South Dakota has long been an agricultural state, and although it is still an important part of the economy and the culture, farming no longer leads the state in employment. Nonetheless, South Dakota is the second-largest producer of flaxseed and sunflower seed in the nation, and the third largest producer of hay and rye. Corn, soybeans, oats and wheat are the chief cash crops.

About one third of the region west of the Missouri River belongs to Native Americans living on reservations. Most of the remaining area is occupied by large ranches raising cattle and sheep. Meatpacking and food processing are major industries in South Dakota.

Gold is South Dakota's most important mineral, with the town of Lead in the Black Hills as the United States' leading gold-mining center. Tourism, particularly around Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills, is also a major source of income.

First Inhabitants:

Archaeologists have found evidence that a band of Paleo-Indians hunted and killed two mammoths around 11,000 years ago in a swampy area that would eventually become the Badlands area of South Dakota. These are first South Dakotans we know of. It is believed these people were part of a group called the Clovis people who were centered in New Mexico. We know from artifacts that they made arrowheads for hunting, but we know very little else about these people.

There is also evidence of another group of people, hundreds of years later, living in South Dakota. By this time, the land had changed and the swamps were now wide plains which supported large herds of giant buffalo (bison). These people, called the Folsom people, hunted the bison and also lived on wild onions and prairie turnips. They made beautiful arrowheads that they used for hunting. Again, we do not know what happened to these people or why their culture died out.

After several more centuries passed, the climate became warmer and drier. A new people, called the Plains Archaic people, migrated to the area. By this time, the giant buffalo had died out and were replaced by smaller bison which these new people hunted along with deer and rabbits. These people also learned how to store food for times of drought, and lived in small groups because the land could not support large settlements. This group also left the first written records in South Dakota in the form of images carved into the walls of caves. These symbols and pictures are called petroglyphs.

By about three thousand years ago, another group of people came to live and hunt in the area. This group, called the Woodland people, lived in larger groups. They were much more successful in hunting the American bison that lived on the land. They also traded with groups living further to the east, and honored their dead by building burial mounds. They lived in houses built of sod and grew corn, pumpkins, sunflowers, squash, tobacco and beans.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in the area, these people could be grouped into different tribes, including the Arikaras, the Mandans, Crows, the Cheyenne, and the Pawnee. Eventually, the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota (later known as the Sioux) people moved into the area from Wisconsin and other more eastern areas.

Books Related To South Dakota

Black-Eyed Susan - Jennifer Armstrong
(978-0679885566) , Fiction
Interest level: 3-8, Lexile: 920, ESL level: 3 - 4
Although Susie loves their new home on the South Dakota prairie, her mother is homesick for their other home in Ohio.

Buster Hits the Trail - Marc Brown
(978-0316001212) , Fiction
Interest level: 1-4, Lexile: 660, ESL level: 2
Buster's postcards home include ones from Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monument in S. Dakota.

The First Four Years - Laura Ingalls Wilder
(978-0060581886) , Fiction
Interest level: 3-9, Lexile: 1030, ESL level: 3 - 4
Laura and Almanzo settle in S. Dakota, but they have a rough time trying to establish a working farm.

Go Big or Go Home - Will Hobbs
(607-41414) , Fiction
Interest level: 4-9, Lexile: 700, ESL level: 4
Brady and his cousin Quinn let their imaginations go wild after a meteorite crashes into Brady's bedroom; speculation about it is at least as exciting as their pursuit of extreme sports especially after they decide it might have been carrying alien bacteria!

M is for Mount Rushmore: A South Dakota Alphabet - William Anderson
(978-1585361410) , Non-fiction
Interest level: 0-2, ESL level: 1 - 2
This book features all the things that are special about the state of South Dakota.

Prairie Winter - Bonnie Geisert
(978-0618685882) , Fiction
Interest level: 2-6, Lexile: 720, ESL level: 2 - 3
After a blizzard keeps Rachel and her sisters from getting from their farm to school in town, they go to live near another village's school.

Famous Citizens:

Tom Brokaw
Born near Bristol, South Dakota, Tom Brokaw spent his childhood in several small towns in South Dakota. In high school, he took a job at a local radio station to earn extra money. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, he began a career in broadcasting and went on to anchor the top rated NBC Night News beginning in 1983. He was the first newscaster to interview Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev one-on-one, and he was the only TV anchor to report live from the scene as the Berlin Wall fell.

Sitting Bull
Known as Tatanka Iyotake among the Sioux Indians, he quickly became known for his fearlessness in battle. He became the leader of a Sioux warrior society and increased Sioux lands. However, the US Army continually invaded the Sioux territory, decreasing the Sioux's ability to hunt and support themselves. Around 1867, Sitting Bull became the first principal chief of the entire Sioux nation. He worked with the US Government to negotiate the Fort Laramie treaty, which promised that the Black Hills would remain in Sioux possession forever. However, in the mid-1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and white prospectors flooded into the area. The US Government responded by ordering the Sioux onto reservations. The Sioux resisted, and realizing they would not be able to defeat the US Army alone, they allied with the Cheyenne and the Arapaho and defeated George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. Sitting Bull and his followers retreated to Canada after this, but famine forced them to return and surrender. In 1885, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and traveled throughout the US. Sitting Bull was killed by Indian police in 1890 when some of his followers tried to rescue him from being arrested.

Crazy Horse
Also known as Tashunca-uitco, Crazy Horse was a Lakota Indian and was known as a legendary warrior. Not only was he skillful and daring in battle, but he was fiercely determined to preserve his tribe's traditional way of life, and fought against American encroachment on Lakota land. When the War Department ordered all Lakota onto reservations in 1876, Crazy Horse led the resistance. Because he had married a woman from the Cheyenne tribe, he was able to organize a force of 1200 Oglala and Cheyenne and then joined forces with Sitting Bull to defeat Custer's Seventh Cavalry at Little Bighorn. While Sitting Bull retreated to Canada, Crazy Horse refused until he was finally forced to surrender and live on the reservation in 1877. Not yet 30 years old, he left the reservation without permission to take his sick wife to her parents, and was arrested and then killed by one of the arresting officers when he tried to resist.

Hubert H. Humphrey
Born in Wallace, South Dakota, Humphrey grew up in Doland, the son of a drugstore owner. In 1945, he was elected mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 1948, he was a delegate to the 1948 Democratic national convention, and then was elected to the US Senate. In 1964, he was nominated for Vice President along with President Lyndon Johnson. In 1968, he ran for President against Richard Nixon and lost narrowly. Following this, he won election to the Senate again, and served in the Senate until his death of cancer.

Russell Means
Means was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near South Dakota's Black Hills, a member of the Oglala/Lakota tribe. In the late 1960, he became involved in the fight for American Indian rights, and became the first national director of the American Indian Movement (AIM). He continues his work on behalf of native people, and worked for over twelve years with the United Nations.

Capital: Pierre
Entered Union: November 2, 1889
Population: 853,175
Area 77,116
Bird Ring-necked Pheasant
Flower Pasque Flower
Nickname: Mount Rushmore State
Governor Dennis Daugaard

Places to Visit in South Dakota: (Click the links to learn more.)

Mammoth Site Museum - Hot Springs
The Mammoth Site Museum is the world's largest mammoth research facility. To date, the remains of 61 mammoths have been discovered. Visitors can take a guided tour of an active paleontology dig site and view Ice Age fossils and other exhibits.

Crazy Horse Memorial - near Custer, 17 miles southwest of Mt. Rushmore
In 1939, the Lakota Indian Chiefs invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to carve a bust of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills, but the sculptor did not begin until after service in World War II. The Memorial was begun in 1948, and remains under construction, despite Korczak's death in 1982. The Memorial is the world largest mountain carving in progress, and aside from the carving itself, seeks to preserve and protect the culture of North American Indians. Korczak's family continues to raise money to bring the dream to completion.

Corn Palace - Mitchell
The "World's Only Corn Palace" was first constructed at the turn of the twentieth century to honor the importance to corn to South Dakota and to serve as the centerpiece of an annual Corn Festival. Constantly under renovation, the current Corn Palace was completed for the annual "Corn Belt Exposition," and is completely covered with new murals made of corn and corn products each year. These murals require thousands of bushels of corn, grain, grasses, wild oats, brome grass, blue grass, rye, straw and wheat.

Mount Rushmore - Keystone
Between 1927 and 1941, Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers sculpted the 60-foot busts of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Recently, a new Visitor Center and Museum and a walking trail and boardwalk have been added, and visitors now have spectacular close-up views of the mountain sculpture.

Needles Highway - Custer State Park, 30 miles south of Rapid City
The Needles Highway, located within Custer State Park, was at first determined to be "impossible" to construct. The 14 mile highway, constructed in 1922, includes tunnels, sharp turns, and naturally formed spires (or needles) of granite. The drive is considered one of the most scenic stretches within the South Dakota Black Hills.