South Dakota

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South Dakota forms part of the country’s Great Plains region, and Butte County in the northwestern part of the state is the geographic center of the United States. South Dakota is bisected by the Missouri River, and the geography and culture on either side of the river is vastly different: the eastern portion has more in common with the Midwest, containing mostly low, flat farmland of fertile soil where a variety of crops are grown; the western part of the state is more arid and rugged and better suited to ranching, much like states in the West. The Black Hills, situated in the southwestern part of the state, is a small mountain range covering approximately 6,000 square miles. The Badlands are located east of the Black Hills. The highest point east of the Rocky Mountains, Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), rises to 7,242 feet; the lowest point in the state is at Big Stone Lake in northeastern South Dakota, which has an elevation of 966 feet. The state’s economy has long been tied to agriculture and tourism.

People have inhabited the area that is now South Dakota for over ten thousand years. The earliest were the Paleoindians, followed by the Archaic Indians; both were nomadic, and knowledge of their dwellings is limited. These groups were followed by the Mound Builders, a semi-nomadic people who probably sheltered in tent-like structures in the summer and bark lodges during the winter. South Dakota’s first farmers, the Middle Missouri People (ancestors of the Mandans), moved into the area sometime after 900 and established farms and villages, which included long, rectangular houses built partially below ground with thatched grass roofs. Around 1250, another agrarian group, the Coalescent people (ancestors of the Arikara), settled along the Missouri River and built rounded earth lodges. By about 1500, the Arikara (also known as the Ree) had settled in much of the Missouri River Valley, continuing the tradition of earth lodges. During the mid-1700s, the Sioux Indians began moving into present-day South Dakota. These nomadic Plains Indians lived in tipis.

European contact began in 1743 when the La Vérendrye brothers explored the region, claiming it for France as part of the Louisiana Territory. By the time the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, fur traders had established trading posts along the Missouri River. These trading posts were primarily log buildings; sometimes several buildings located within stockade walls formed a self-sufficient community. By the mid-1850s, fur trade was in decline and the trading posts were abandoned. At about the same time, however, the U.S Army was establishing forts to protect miners and a growing number of settlers. Log construction was used for these early fort buildings. Where timber was not readily available, the army used stone and/or brick for construction. Log buildings at military forts were eventually replaced with lumber, either cut and milled on site or, later, shipped by rail.

As an increasing number of European and American settlers entered the area, the Sioux signed an 1858 treaty ceding most of present-day eastern South Dakota to the United States. The cities of Sioux Falls and Yankton were founded before the Dakota Territory was established on March 2, 1861. The arrival of the railroad in 1873 ushered in a period of great growth in the southeastern part of the state. Discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 brought illegal settlement to the western part of the state, which, at that time, was part of the Great Sioux Reservation. Continuing growth and associated political concerns eventually resulted in the creation of the states of North Dakota and South Dakota in 1889.

Euro-American settlers in South Dakota represented several ethnic groups, with Germans comprising the largest number, but also Czechs, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, Finns, English, Scottish, and Irish, among others. Each group brought European folk-building traditions with them to the state, including long house-barns built in the Eastern European tradition, Danish “pair houses,” and Finnish saunas. High-style architecture also appeared in South Dakota as development continued, largely brought by settlers from other parts of the country, who had more experience and ready access to examples of architect-designed buildings. Among the mid-nineteenth-century buildings were examples of such popular and dominant styles as Greek and Gothic Revival (mainly ecclesiastical architecture), Italianate (residential and commercial buildings), Second Empire (residential and sometimes commercial buildings), Stick and Queen Anne styles (primarily residential), and Richardsonian Romanesque (educational, institutional, and government buildings). From the 1890s through the 1920s, period revival styles were prevalent throughout the state, and during the early twentieth century, Prairie Style, Craftsman, and Art Deco/Moderne examples could be found as well. From the late 1940s through the end of the century, the architecture of South Dakota followed national trends of modernism.

Distinguishing the architecture of South Dakota is the use of local building materials. Native materials, including buffalo hides, logs (pine, cottonwood, oak), earth and sod, stone, and locally produced cement and bricks, can be found in structures across the state. South Dakota is known for its many types of stone, such as chalk rock (a soft, yellow-beige limestone material), quartzite (often referred to as Sioux quartzite, a hard stone known for its strength and beauty, occurring in many colors from pale pink to red to brown to purple), sandstone (also known for its variety of colors including pink, gray, pearl-gray, and reddish “Sundance” stone), limestone, marble, granite, and fieldstone and prairie boulders.

South Dakota’s professional architects have mainly been based in Sioux Falls, the state's largest city, located in the southeast. One of South Dakota’s most prominent architects was Wallace Dow (1844–1911), who championed the use of local stone, especially quartzite, for his many public buildings, including the Minnehaha County Courthouse and Old Main at the University of South Dakota’s Vermillion campus. Another notable South Dakota architect was Harold Spitznagel (1896–1975), whose firm opened in 1930 and continues today as TSP, Inc. Spitznagel’s work ranged from a modern interpretation of the rustic style in his Sylvan Lake Lodge, to postwar suburban residential designs disseminated throughout the country in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, to the 1972 downtown pedestrian mall in Sioux Falls.

Like many of its neighboring states, South Dakota has generally seen a decline in its rural population, as mechanization and consolidation of agriculture has contributed to diminishing numbers of family farms; an exception to this rural decline has been on South Dakota’s nine Indian reservations. Most of South Dakota’s urban growth has occurred along I-29, which runs north-south near the state’s far eastern border, in cities such as Watertown, Brookings, and Sioux Falls. The latter of which is where South Dakota’s two major interstate highways (I-90 and I-29) intersect. In the twenty-first-century, Sioux Falls has continued to grow, largely because of high-tech employment and its growing role as a regional hub for medicine. Growth in the western side of the state centers on the Black Hills region, particularly Rapid City (the state’s second largest city) and the nearby cities of Spearfish and Sturgis. Tourism has been a major economic driver in this area since the completion of the interstate highway in the 1960s. The annual five-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is one of the largest tourist events in the state, bringing in nearly as many visitors as the state’s entire population. South Dakota’s state and national parks and forests are another major tourist draw, and include Badlands National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the latter developed in the early twentieth century as a means to boost tourism to the area. Today, it remains one of the state’s most visited sites.


Erpstad, David, and David Wood. Building South Dakota: A Historical Survey of the State’s Architecture to 1945. Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 1997.

Julin, Suzanne. A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941. Pierre: South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2009.

Thompson, Harry F., ed. A New South Dakota History. 2nd ed. Sioux Falls, SD: Center for Western Studies, 2009.

Torma, Carolyn. “Building Diversity: A Photographic Survey of South Dakota Architecture, 1913-1940.” South Dakota History 19, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 156-193.

Writing Credits

Michelle L. Dennis

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