Return to Home

Unit 6


Homesteading & Town Building


Lesson 1
Railroads and the Great Dakota Boom


     By 1878, Dakota Territory looked promising. Wheat crops were good in the east. There were rich gold mines in the west. Two things were needed: railroads and more people. Two companies took up the challenge. The Chicago & North Western Railway (the C&NW) was one. The other was the Chicago, Milwaukee & Saint Paul Railroad (the Milwaukee Road). These railroads built tracks and brought new settlers.

Railroad Lantern
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     The first railroad came to Dakota in 1873. It was a short line from Iowa. It ran to the new towns of Vermillion and Yankton. Another line stretched across empty prairie. It ran from Minnesota to Lake Kampeska. There were no towns along that line and no trains, either. This was unusual. Most railroads came to towns after they had been settledólike Yankton. But for much of Dakota Territory, the railroads would come first.

Mitchell Depot
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     The C&NW built its first railroad line from Minnesota to Volga. The year was 1879. The railroad then platted town sites in between. These were Aurora, Elkton, and Brookings. Then the Milwaukee Road started its first line. This railroad stretched from Canton to the new town of Mitchell. Every seven to ten miles, the railroads set up a town site. Often a town was named for a railroad tycoon. Mitchell was named for Alexander Mitchell. He was president of the Milwaukee Road. Later on, Faith and Isabel were named for the daughters of another tycoon.

Railroads Graph

     Within two years, the tracks of the C&NW reached all the way to Pierre. That was another brand-new town. It was on the east side of the Missouri River. The Milwaukee Road ended at Chamberlain. Neither railroad could cross the river into the Great Sioux Reservation. It was not open for non-Indian settlement.


     To bring people to eastern Dakota, railroads bragged about its virtues. They urged people to come and stake a claim. "Best Wheat Lands, Best Farming Lands, Best Grazing Lands in the world.... FREE TO ALL," one advertisement promised. Soon homesteaders were claiming farms near the new towns that railroads had set up. The Great Dakota Boom was underway.

North Western Railway Ad
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     Some homesteaders came by covered wagon, but most settlers boarded trains to come to Dakota. Trains were a new and exciting way to travel. "Trains went faster than horses can run," wrote Laura Ingalls Wilder. "They went so terribly fast that often they wrecked. You never knew what might happen to you on a train." Trains carried people, supplies, food, and fuel. They brought them to the new towns along the tracks. From the towns, the settlers spread out around the countryside.

     Settlers from older states came to file homesteads. Immigrants from Europe did too. Many had little money, and most came with the hope of owning their own farms. The Homestead Act of 1862 (you read about this in Unit 5) let an adult man claim 160 acres of land. Single women could also stake a claim. The homesteader had to live on the farm for five years. Some also took tree claims. On a tree claim, the owner had to plant ten acres of trees and keep them alive for eight years.

     The immigrants came from many different places. They brought new customs to South Dakota. Many came from Germany and Austria. They settled near Sioux Falls and Aberdeen. Those who came from Russia also spoke German. These people first moved from Germany to Russia. Many settled in Hutchinson and McPherson counties. Some were part of religious groups who set up Hutterite colonies.

German/Russian Community
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


Scandinavian Woman
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Many Scandinavians also homesteaded here. They came from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland. Many settled near Canton and Sioux Falls in the south. Others were near Watertown and Aberdeen in the north. Czech immigrants settled around Tabor. Dutch immigrants homesteaded in Douglas and Charles Mix counties. No matter where they came from or where they settled, they were Dakotans now. The population had boomed in just a few years.

advertisement (n.), a message bought to persuade people

boomed (n.), grew rapidly

platted (v.), planned or mapped out a town

tycoon (n.), a powerful businessperson

virtues (n.), good things