November 2, 1889 – South Dakota Joins the Union as the 40th State

South Dakota, the fifth least densely populated of the United States, is located in the north-central United States, and is considered a part of the “Midwest” by the U.S. Census Bureau. It is named after the Lakota and Dakota Sioux Native American tribes. Originally part of the southern portion of the Dakota Territory, South Dakota became a state on this day in history, simultaneously with North Dakota.


In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory – an area that included most of South Dakota – from Napoleon Bonaparte, and President Thomas Jefferson organized “The Lewis and Clark Expedition” to explore the newly acquired region. The expedition left St. Louis on May 14, 1804 with 45 men and 15 tons of supplies in three boats. The party reached what is today South Dakota on August 22. In 1817, an American fur trading post was set up at present-day Fort Pierre, beginning continuous American settlement of the area.

In 1868, the U.S., in the Treaty of Laramie, granted the entire western half of present-day South Dakota to the Sioux. But in 1874, gold was discovered in the Black Hills during a military expedition led by George A. Custer and miners and explorers began illegally entering land promised to the Lakota. War broke out after the U.S. failed to stop white miners and settlers from entering the region.

The US Army defeated the Lakota in the Black Hills War. Among the many skirmishes of the war was the Battle of the Little Bighorn, often known as Custer’s Last Stand. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer was killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn along with 268 soldiers. In spite of that victory, the U.S. had superior resources and soon forced the Native Americans to surrender by attacking and destroying their encampments and property. Pursuant to a new treaty of 1877, the U.S. took a strip of land along the western border of Dakota Territory, plus all land west of the Cheyenne and Belle Fourche Rivers, including all of the Black Hills in modern South Dakota.

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer

In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, also called the Dawes Act, authorizing the U.S. to divide Native tribal land into allotments for individual Indians. Those who accepted allotments and lived separately from the tribe would be granted United States citizenship. The Act also provided that the government would classify as “excess” Indian reservation lands remaining after allotments, and it could sell those lands on the open market, allowing purchase and settlement by non-Native Americans.


The stated objective of the Dawes Act was “to protect Indian property rights” and to stimulate assimilation of Indians into mainstream American society. But as a National Archives site reports, the land allotted to the Indians included desert or near-desert lands unsuitable for farming. The better land was designated as “excess” for sale to whites. In addition, the techniques of self-sufficient farming were much different from their tribal way of life:

Many Indians simply did not want to take up agriculture, and those who did want to farm could not afford the tools, animals, seed, and other supplies necessary to get started. There were also problems with inheritance. Often young children inherited allotments that they could not farm because they had been sent away to boarding schools. Multiple heirs also caused a problem; when several people inherited an allotment, the size of the holdings became too small for efficient farming.”

In 1889, Congress passed another act (just months before North Dakota and South Dakota were admitted to the Union), partitioning the Great Sioux Reservation into five smaller reservations: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Upper Brule, and Pine Ridge.

On December 29, 1890, the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Aftermath at Wounded Knee

The tragedy followed a religious awakening among the tribes of North America in response to their being forced onto reservations. The whites called the movement the “Ghost Dance.” It was started in 1888 by a Paiute holy man, Wovoka, who claimed that an Indian messiah would come and the world would be free of the white man. The Indians could return to their lands and the buffalo would once again roam the Great Plains.

The movement spread rapidly, and even though Wovoka preached nonviolence, whites feared that the movement would spark a great Indian rebellion. When the Ghost Dance movement reached the Lakota Sioux, local white residents called the U.S. Army for assistance.

On the morning of December 29, 1890, the Army demanded the surrender of all Sioux weapons. Amid the tension, a shot rang out, possibly from a deaf brave who misunderstood his chief’s orders to surrender. The Seventh Cavalry — the reconstructed regiment lost by George Armstrong Custer — opened fire on the Sioux. The local chief was shot in cold blood as he recuperated from pneumonia in his tent. Others were cut down as they tried to run away. When the smoke cleared almost all of the men, women, and children were dead. (Estimates of their numbers range from 150 to 300.) Some died instantly, others froze to death in the snow.

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre, 1891

Survivors of Wounded Knee Massacre, 1891

Twenty-five U.S. troopers also died, and thirty-nine were injured (six of the wounded would also die). Many Army victims were believed to have died by friendly fire, as the shooting took place at close range in chaotic conditions.

This massacre marked the last showdown between Native Americans and the United States Army.

Today, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, approximately 3,500 square miles, is the eighth-largest reservation in the United States. Shannon County, at just over 2,000 square miles, comprises a large portion of the reservation’s land base, though its reported 2010 population of approximately 13,500 makes up less than half of the total population of the reservation. In any event, 2010 Census Bureau data show that Shannon County had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States. Not far behind in that Census Bureau list of poorest counties were several found largely inside other Sioux reservations in South Dakota: Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Crow Creek.

Pine Ridge Statistics of note according to the reservation website:

The average life expectancy on Pine Ridge is 66.81 years, the lowest in the United States.

An 89% unemployment rate was identified in a 2005 Department of the Interior report.

Per capita income for American Indians living on Pine Ridge is $7,773. The average for all reservations is $10,543. The United States average is $27,599.

The officially reported poverty rate for American Indians living on Pine Ridge is 53.75%. The United States average is 15.6%.

The school drop-out rate is over 70%.

Tuberculosis: 800% higher than America as a whole
Infant mortality: 300% higher than America as a whole
Teen suicide: 150% higher than America as a whole
Approximately 85% of Lakota families are affected by alcoholism
Approximately 58% of grandparents of Lakota families are raising their grandchildren
Approximately 50% of adults over the age of 40 have diabetes

Pretty shocking that the U.S. public is more concerned with the housewives of New Jersey, for example, than the real people of Pine Ridge.

Many homes in Pine Ridge do not have electricity or running water

South Dakota is home to some very large sculptures, including 6,200-foot Mount Rushmore featuring the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The Crazy Horse mountain carving now in progress honoring a Lakota leader will be the world’s largest sculpture if it is ever finished.

Crazy Horse Mountain Carving in Progress

Crazy Horse Mountain Carving in Progress

Last but not least, it should also be noted that Clark, South Dakota is the Potato Capital of South Dakota and home to the (self-described) world famous Mashed Potato Wrestling contest each August. You can learn more about this important event here.


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