South Dakota History and Research Overview

By Family Tree Editors Premium


Pioneers to South Dakota hoped to be rewarded at the end of their arduous journey there, but instead they found the challenge of surviving life on its unforgiving, endless plains. The area’s original settlers were the Dakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa, and Assiniboine Indians. The worst of the land was eventually made reservation land for Indians.

South Dakota became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Shortly after, Lewis and Clark traveled through the region. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, South Dakota was inhabited primarily by Dakota (Sioux) Indians, and there was relatively little white settlement. The land at various times was part of the territories of Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska.


Army posts were established in the 1850s, and in 1858 the Yankton Sioux ceded lands to the United States. Settlement between the Big Sioux and Missouri rivers began with towns at Yankton and Vermillion. Dakota Territory was created in 1861, including what would become North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. (Montana Territory was split off in 1864; and Wyoming, in 1868.)

After the Homestead Act of 1863, newcomers from Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, largely of Norwegian descent, began to settle southern Dakota Territory. Migrations from Midwestern and Eastern states continued, as well as Czechs, Danes, Swedes and Germans from Russia. In 1875, gold was discovered in the sacred Indian land of the Black Hills and thousands of settlers poured in. Between 1877 and 1887, the influx of settlers peaked as railroads tracked through the northeast and central part of what would become South Dakota.

In 1889 Dakota Territory was split into South Dakota and North Dakota, and both states were admitted to the Union. During the first decade of the 20th century, western South Dakota was settled after the railroads were extended there.

(click to enlarge)
South Dakota state map with county outlines


  • South Dakota was settled late and is relatively recordless, making it important to track down local resources. While some local church and cemetery records have been published, you will likely need to contact these organizations. Newspapers as well as county, town, church and organizational histories can provide clues.
  • The South Dakota Genealogical Society website and the South Dakota GenWeb site are good places to begin your research.
  • Because the State Archives was founded recently, state university, college and town libraries; local museums; and historical societies are important resources.
  • American Indians make up a significant percentage of South Dakota’s population. The State Archives holds Indian census rolls, microfilmed federal records and correspondence. Also consult collections at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, and the Institute of American Indian Studies at the University of South Dakota at Vermillion.



  • Federal census: 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Federal mortality schedules: 1860, 1870, 1880
  • Special census of Civil War Union veterans and widows: 1890
  • State/territorial census: 1836, 1885, 1895, 1905, 1915, 1925, 1935, 1945


  • Daughters of Dakota, 6 vols., by Sally Roesch Wagner (Daughters of Dakota, ca. 1989)
  • Fox’s Who’s Who Among South Dakotans, 2 vols., (Fox Kindley, 1929)
  • Historical Data Project; Pioneer Biography Files (State Historical Society of North Dakota, 1988-1989)
  • History of Dakota Territory and South Dakota: Its History and Its People, 5 vols., by George Martin Smith (S.J. Clarke Co., 1915)
  • History of South Dakota by Herbert S. Schell (University of Nebraska Press, 1968)
  • Once Their Home: or Our Legacy From the Dahkotahs by Frances Chamberlain Holley (Donohue & Henneberry, 1892)
  • Prairie Progress in West Central South Dakota (Historical Society of Old Stanley County, South Dakota, 1968)
  • South Dakota: Changing, Changeless, 1889-1989 compiled by Ruth A. Alexander, et al. (South Dakota Library Association, 1985)
  • South Dakota Research Outline by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (online at

Return to the main South Dakota page

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