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Prairie Pioneers

The first settlers in South Dakota blazed a trail with courage and determination. Their legacy lives on through a history of plains innovation, hardship and hope.


The Homestead Act

Passed by Congress in 1862, The Homestead Act provided for the initial settlement of present-day South Dakota. A typical 160-acre farm cost about $18. A settler had to homestead the land for five years. Settlers normally scouted then selected their homesteads in the fall, returning home to wait out the winter. Some homesteaders hired professional land locators for a fee of $10 to $25. Homesteaders marked their claims with some evidence of occupancy such as four posts to indicate the corners of a shack, or a three-foot hole to represent a well. Many settlers were lured to the area by published claims promising incredibly abundant farmland in a place reputed to be harsh and unforgiving.


Since wood was scarce settlers first built homes made of prairie sod. These "soddies" had earth roofs, dirt floors and blocks of prairie sod as walls. Tarpaper shacks became popular with the arrival of the railroad. However, many settlers still opted for the protection against the elements offered by the sod houses. Examples of sod homes can be seen at Prairie Homestead near the east entrance of Badlands National Park, the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre, the Oscar Micheaux homestead site near Gregory, and at Prairie Village near Madison.


In 1869, the first of many Bohemians started to file claims in Dakota Territory. Several years later, German settlers began to arrive, along with Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Polish, Netherlander and Swiss settlers. Many were fleeing poor economic and social conditions, as well as European wars. They also sought to acquire land. During the 1870s, a number of Hutterites established colonies in Dakota. Similar to the Amish, Hutterites practice an agricultural-based, communal lifestyle. Today, Hutterite colonies are scattered throughout eastern South Dakota.



Most homesteaders arrived in Dakota Territory very poor. As well as building up the homestead, most had to find other work before their farms became self-sustaining.


The arrival of the railroads provided significant numbers of jobs. Blacksmiths and carpenters had the most marketable skills.

Buffalo Bones

As yet another economic alternative, many early pioneers collected buffalo bones, which were shipped to Chicago, ground, and used for fertilizer.


Water and Wells

During dry times, finding water was a settler's primary challenge. Homesteaders normally had to dig wells from 40 to 60 feet deep. The discovery of artesian wells helped to ease the problem.

Wood and Fuel

Wood was the preferred fuel for heat, but it was usually scarce on the treeless prairie. Instead, settlers burned buffalo chips and cow chips. These provided most of the fuel to hold off winter's chill. Settlers also twisted strands of hay into tight bundles, which they burned. Hay twists provided stove fuel for up to four hours. The South Dakota town of Hayti, originally called HayTie, was named for the hay ties that provided fuel for settlers. Accustomed to trees and woods, many pioneers worked hard to establish shelter belts on the prairie. These barriers of trees provided protection against wind, storms and erosion.



Blizzards posed a significant threat to pioneers and their livestock. The 1888 "schoolchildren's storm,” so named because it struck early in the afternoon marooning many children in their rural schools, was blamed for 112 deaths. The storm also killed 90 percent of unsheltered livestock.


Floods were a natural sister of blizzards. The spring following the blizzard of 1880, the entire town of Vermillion was virtually washed away by a raging Missouri River.


Fires and prairie fires posed a serious threat as well. A seemingly luckless Vermillion lost all but three of its three dozen buildings to fire in 1875. A prairie fire in 1886 jumped the Moreau River, scorching parts of five counties and burning more than one million acres.