The territory that would become South Dakota was added to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The first permanent American settlement was established at Fort Pierre following the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. White settlement of the territory in the 1800s led to clashes with the Sioux, as some of the lands had been granted to the tribe by an earlier treaty. The territory was incorporated into the union on November 2, 1889, along with North Dakota. 

Tourism fuels a significant part of South Dakota’s economy. Visitors flock to the state to see Mt. Rushmore, which features 60-foot-tall sculptures of the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

WATCH: How the States Got Their Shape on HISTORY Vault

South Dakota's First People

The first humans arrived in South Dakota more than 11,000 years ago. Among South Dakota’s first established groups were the Sahnish, or Akira, who originally migrated to North America from Central America along the Missouri River. They lived from Nebraska all the way up to North Dakota.

The Oceti Sakowin, or Seven Council Fires, is a confederacy of Native American bands located throughout South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Montana. They became more commonly known as the Sioux due to the French colonists’ mispronunciation of the Chippewa nation’s name for the group. The bands were grouped into three nations, each representing a different dialect of the same language: the Dakota (Santee), Nakota (Yankton) and Lakota (Teton). Each nation had its unique traditions and a distinct but shared culture.

Today, there are nine federally-recognized tribes in South Dakota descending from the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota.

European Exploration and Colonial History in South Dakota

French brothers Louis-Joseph and François Sieur de la Vérendryes were the first Europeans to set foot in South Dakota in 1742 on a mission to explore the Great Plains. They claimed the territory for France.

At the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the French gave Louisiana—which encompassed all of their land west of the Mississippi, including modern-day South Dakota—to Spain. The Spanish gave the land back to the French in 1800, and the United States bought the entire area from France in 1803 for $15 million with the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition provided the first accounts of the area that would eventually become South Dakota. Fort Pierre was established as a fur trading outpost in 1817 and became the oldest continuously occupied white settlement in South Dakota.

South Dakota, however, remained largely uncolonized for several decades. By 1860, there were fewer than 5,000 white settlers in the area. The Dakota Territory was established in 1861, encompassing South and North Dakota and much of Wyoming and Montana.

The 'Indian Wars' in South Dakota

The Lakota Sioux arrived in South Dakota in the 1700s, migrating south from the headwaters of the Mississippi River. They clashed with the Akira and several other tribes for control of eastern Dakota. Smallpox epidemics brought by white settlers in 1837 and again in 1856 decimated the Akira population in South Dakota. In 1862, the Akira moved to North Dakota and joined the Mandan and Hidatsa to form the Three Affiliated Tribes.

As more white settlers moved west in the 1800s, they sought Indigenous territory in South Dakota for farming and industry. European trappers also hunted bison on the South Dakota plains for their fur, leading to a decline in the population from an estimated 60 million North American bison in the early 1800s to just 500 by 1890. The Sioux considered bison a sacred animal and relied on it for virtually all their needs, including food, clothing, weapons, tools, trade and shelter.

Weakened by the decline in the buffalo population and weary that the government would otherwise take their land, the Dakota Sioux sold almost all of their territory in 1851—nearly 24 million acres in total across South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota—to the United States with the Treaties of Mendota and Traverse des Sioux. The Dakota were reserved a strip of land 20 miles wide on the Minnesota River. Very little payment was made, and the government allowed settlers to encroach on Dakota’s land; This led to the Dakota Uprising of 1862, which resulted in the forcible removal of most Native Americans living in Minnesota to South Dakota, Iowa and Nebraska.

Frequent clashes between Native Americans and white settlers in the 1860s and 1870s across the United States motivated a Congressional commission to study the issue in 1865. Their 1867 report led to the establishment of an Indian Peace Commission, whose goal was to end the wars and establish treaties to take over Native American land and compel Indigenous people to move west onto reservations.

In 1868, the Lakota Sioux and General William T. Sherman signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie, which guaranteed the tribe’s rights to their Black Hills territory in South Dakota. Known to the Lakota Sioux as He Sapa, Black Hills was a sacred site. The treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation on a large portion of the western half of South Dakota, including the Black Hills. Many nomadic tribal members of the Lakota Sioux, including leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, rejected the reservation system.

In 1874, a military expedition into the Black Hills led by General George Armstrong Custer confirmed the existence of gold. The ensuing flood of miners and entrepreneurs to the Black Hills area violated the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered all Lakota Sioux onto reservations by January 31, 1876—a largely ignored demand. The United States military then sent troops led by Custer to fight the Lakota Sioux in what became known as the Black Hills War of 1876. At the Battle of the Little Bighorn, sometimes called Custer’s Last Stand, the Lakota Sioux killed Custer and defeated his army—the most decisive Native American victory of the so-called American-Indian Wars.

The United States continued to battle against the Lakota Sioux in the Black Hills until they confiscated all of the tribe’s land in 1877. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1877, which ostensibly granted plots of land to Native Americans for farming purposes, further resulted in the loss of Indigenous territory.

Immigration, Gold Rush and Statehood

The Homestead Act of 1862 offered settlers 160 acres of accessible public land and combined it with the first rail line in 1872 to attract settlers to South Dakota. In 1876, Custer’s discovery of gold led to a rush of fortune-seekers, followed by enterprising farmers in 1878. A "Great Dakota Boom" lasted from 1870 to 1890.

As of 1890, a third of all South Dakota residents were born outside of the United States. Early immigrants included Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, Finns, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, British, Czech, Polish, Irish and Chinese. The largest immigrant group was Germans from Russia, who formed Mennonite and Hutterite religious communities. African Americans also came to the Dakota Territory during the gold rush; because they numbered fewer than 100, they were generally integrated into the community and worked in farming and ranching.

Wounded Knee Massacre

On December 29, 1890, 470 United States Cavalry troops opened fire on a Lakota Sioux encampment at Wounded Knee Creek. The reason, the soldiers claimed, was to stop the group’s Ghost Dance, which the troops feared would lead to “disobedience” and eventually warfare against white settlers. This ecstatic spiritual dance, which had an enthusiastic following among the Lakota Sioux, was thought to be meant to summon a messiah and served to help reconnect Native Americans with their fading culture. The Wounded Knee Massacre resulted in the death of more than 250 Lakota men, women and children.

The same land later became the site of a conflict known as the Siege at Wounded Knee. On February 27, 1973, members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) occupied a trading post at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in protest over corruption within the Oglala Lakota’s Tribal Council and Bureau of Indian Affairs. The siege lasted 71 days and resulted in the deaths of two Native Americans following the daily gunfire between AIM members and federal officers.

Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial

In 1923, state historian Doane Robinson proposed carving sculptures into Mount Rushmore. The monument’s goal was to draw tourists to South Dakota by memorializing presidents representing the country's birth, growth, development and preservation. In 1927, Mount Rushmore National Memorial was dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum began realizing his vision with the help of 400 workers.

The original design for Mount Rushmore National Memorial included Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt from head to waist. However, Borglum died before the work was completed. In 1941, Congress cut off funding as the nation faced World War II.

Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills—which, to this day, remains contested territory between the United States government and the Sioux Nation. The sacred site was promised to the Lakota Sioux in a 1868 treaty and subsequently taken away by the United States government in 1877. Many Sioux feel the memorial is a desecration of their land.

In 1939, Lakota Sioux Chief Henry Standing Bear invited sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a memorial to Native Americans in the Black Hills. Designed to be the largest statue in the world when completed, the mountain carving of Sioux leader Crazy Horse will extend 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Crazy Horse Memorial was dedicated by Standing Bear on June 3, 1948. In June 1998, Crazy Horse’s 87-foot head was completed.

Date of Statehood: November 2, 1889

Capital: Pierre

Population: 886,667 (2020)

Size: 75,810 square miles

Nickname(s): Mount Rushmore State

Motto: Under God, the People Rule

Tree: Black Hills Spruce

Flower: Pasque

Bird: Chinese Ring-necked Pheasant

Interesting Facts

  • Agriculture is South Dakota’s top industry, generating one-third of the state’s overall economic activity. Although its main crops are corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, South Dakota leads the nation in the production of bison and pheasants. 
  • Badlands National Park covers 244,000 acres and contains one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
  • In 1878, Charles Ingalls settled in De Smet. The town later became the setting for five “Little House” children’s books by his daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder.


National Park Service, Arikara

South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations, The Tribes of South Dakota

State Historical Society of North Dakota, The Great Dakota Nation

State Historical Society of North Dakota, Arikaras

South Dakota Public Broadcasting, South Dakota's First Inhabitants

St. Joseph’s Indian School, Oceti Sakowin — Seven Council Fires

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Homelands: Oceti Sakowin Nation

Minnesota Historical Society, The Dakota People

Minnesota Historical Society, Treaty of Traverse des Sioux, 1851

Library of Congress, The treaty of Traverse des Sioux in 1851

Dakota County Historical Society, Sibley and the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862

University of Minnesota, US-Dakota War of 1862

National Archives, Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868)

National Park Service, Little Bighorn Battlefield

University of Nebraska–Lincoln, French Canadians

City of Fort Pierre, History

Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Fort Pierre, South Dakota

Library of Congress, North Dakota and South Dakota Were Admitted to the Union

South Dakota State Historical Society, South Dakota Immigrants

The Architectural League of New York, The Lakota Nation and the Legacy of American Colonization

National Archives, Dawes Act (1887)

National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, 1890: U.S. Cavalry massacres Lakota at Wounded Knee

Public Broadcasting System, The Lakota Ghost Dance and the Massacre at Wounded Knee

South Dakota Department of Tourism, The Great 8 Ways to Experience Native American Culture in South Dakota

National Park Service, Mount Rushmore

South Dakota Department of Tourism, Mount Rushmore

National Park Service, Carving History

Crazy Horse Memorial, Carving Crazy Horse Mountain

South Dakota Department of Tourism, South Dakota Timeline

U.S. Department of the Interior, 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Badlands National Park

United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts: South Dakota