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Unit 6


Homesteading & Town Building


Lesson 3
The Open Range and New Land Openings


     Another pocket of open land in South Dakota was the western strip. It had been opened to settlement in 1877. This was the Black Hills and the range land north and south of the hills. Settlers came here, too, although not by railroad at first. Homesteaders soon found that this land was better suited to ranching. The main reason had to do with rainfall.

     Different parts of South Dakota get different amounts of moisture each year. Eastern South Dakota gets the most. As you go west from Sioux Falls, less and less rain or snow falls. The Black Hills are like an island. They get as much rain and snow as the eastern part of the state. But north and south of the hills, very little rain falls each year. That means that plants that need a lot of water will not grow well there. Wheat and corn do not do well. But cattle and sheep do quite well. They eat the grasses and grow fat.

Rainfall Map
Rainfall Map

Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Ranchers moved into western Dakota just after the gold rush of 1876. They grew beef for the Black Hills prospectors to eat. Soon big cattle outfits from Texas ran herds on the unfenced pastures of western Dakota. This was called the open range. Cowboys branded the cattle to keep track of their own animals.  Cowboys would drive the cattle north from Texas to fatten them up. Then they would drive them back south to the railroads in Nebraska and Kansas. The big herds did well until the winter of 1886-1887. This hard winter killed thousands of cattle. It was the end of the open range.

     Railroads now began to move into the Black Hills. The Fremont, Elkhorn & Missouri Valley Railroad came up from Nebraska. It reached Rapid City in 1886. Soon Rapid City was a thriving town full of businesses. The railroads helped mining to grow as well. They brought supplies to the mines. Then they took gold to eastern markets. By 1890, Lead was the second largest city in South Dakota. It was the home of the Homestake Mining Company.

Train Passengers
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

      In 1889, South Dakota became a state. The following year, parts of the Great Sioux Reservation were opened to settlers. The Lakotas now had six smaller reservations (you read about this in Unit 5). Homesteaders began to cross the Missouri River. They took claims on the central and northwestern plains. Here they learned what the Lakotas found out on their 160-acre plots. The land was not well suited to farming. New crops such as alfalfa and winter wheat would grow here. But cattle and sheep still did the best. Small ranches dotted the plains.

     Again, the United States government opened more land on the reservations. These lands had not been allotted to Lakota men or women. From 1904 to 1911, thousands of acres were opened in land lotteries. All were west of the Missouri River. Homesteaders poured into the state to sign up for the drawings. But their chances of winning were not good. There were far more people than there were claims. That is why the government set up the lotteries. In the first one, there were about twenty-five hundred homesteads. Over one hundred thousand people signed up for them. After a person won the right to stake a claim, he or she raced across the land to find the best spot.

Reservation Lands Map

Pontoon Bridge
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     More and more people began ranching. But getting cattle from western South Dakota to eastern markets was not easy. Some ranchers drove their cattle to Pierre and Chamberlain. There they crossed the Missouri River. They used ferries or pontoon bridges. Then they loaded their cattle onto trains. Not until 1907 would railroad bridges span the Missouri River. One was at Pierre and one at Mobridge. At long last, railroads crossed the entire state, from east to west. Dozens of new towns were born—Murdo, Kadoka, Wall, Faith, Dupree, Lemmon, and more.

ferries (n.), boats that carry things across a body of water

lotteries (n.), activities in which numbered tickets are sold and drawings decide the winner

moisture (n.), liquid; water

pontoon bridges (n.), floating bridges