Shards of pottery. Shell beads. Stone tools. Without a written record, clues like these hint at the lifestyle of the Woodland People, the first to leave a legacy of their presence in what is now northeastern South Dakota. These early people hunted deer, antelope, bison, and other big game of the prairie. They fished the streams and picked berries along the banks. For several hundred years, beginning around 1200 AD, they occupied the region, burying their dead in broad, low mounds, but by the time the Sioux drifted into the area from Minnesota in the late 17th century, the Woodland People had disappeared-leaving only their mysterious mounds to posterity. The Sioux came to the region for two reasons. Their long-time Minnesota neighbors and enemies, the Chippewa and Cree, tilted the balance of power in their own favor when they traded with French Canadians, furs for firearms.
Unable to counter their enemies' new weapons, and always ready to move with the buffalo, the Sioux packed their travois and followed their livelihood westward. The migration was a slow one, and not all of the Sioux tribes settled in the area. Only the Santee and Yanktonnais tribes halted in northeastern South Dakota, the others pushed on.
Throughout the 1700's, the Santees and Yanktonnais lived undisturbed in their new land, gathering at intertribal trading fairs to exchange furs and hides, tools, weapons, and food. In the first half of the 1800's however, others introduced themselves into the bartering system. A rising demand for furs in Europe, Asia, and the eastern United States lured French and British traders skilled at bargaining. Soon the Indians thrived, for the more buffalo robes they exchanged, the more rifles, horses, and steel knives they obtained. The more rifles, horses, and knives they obtained, the more buffalo they were able to kill. Inadvertently, of course, they were contributing to the slaughter that would ultimately wipe out the great buffalo herds and, as a result, drastically change their way of life.
The 1800's brought other white men to northeastern South Dakota as well. In 1838 and 1839, Joseph Nicolas Nicollet and Lieutenant John C. Fremont explored and mapped the entire region, naming several of the lakes along the way. Father Pierre Jean DeSmet, the Jesuit priest for whom the town of DeSmet is named, also arrived in 1839, to begin a 34-year mission what took him across South Dakota. Another missionary, Father Augustine Ravoux, held services at an Indian camp on the James River in 1845.
Most settlers remained uninterested in the land of the Santee and Yanktonnais until treaties with both tribes extinguished their title to great chunks of it. (As the white man began to colonize America, he started under the premise that the Native Americans had legal claim to the land, even though the Indians themselves had no conception of such ownership.) In 1851, a treaty with the Santee Sioux opened 30 million acres east of the Big Sioux River, from its confluence with the Missouri in the south beyond Lake Traverse in the north. Seven years later, the Yankton Sioux relinquished a 14-million-acre triangle of land bounded by the Big Sioux and Missouri Rivers and an imaginary line from present-day Pierre to Watertown.
Even after the 1859 Yankton exodus onto reservation land, however, the influx of settlers was more a trickle than a flood. At the time, America was simply too distracted by the slavery dispute, and citizens heading west were too taken with the promise of California and Oregon. Shortly after 1862, however, traffic picked up.
Congress had created Dakota Territory in 1861, then sweetened the pie with the Homestead Act of 1863. Settlers now had three ways to claim land: they could farm 160 acres for five years, plant 10 out of 160 acres in trees and keep at least 675 of them alive for eight years, or settle on 160 acres and buy them later for $1.25 an acre.
With so many claim options available to them, potential settlers became receptive targets for railroad company publicity. After laying several thousand miles of track across what is now eastern South Dakota, including a line from Yankton to Mitchell to Aberdeen and a line form Milbank to Aberdeen, the railroads worked at upgrading Dakota Territory's image. They sent land agents east with books and pamphlets praising the area, gave cheap tickets to settlers heading to Dakota, then helped those settlers get established when they arrived.
During the decade-long Dakota Boom (roughly 1880 to 1890) launched by acts of Congress and fueled by the railroads, the population of Dakota Territory skyrocketed. Spink County, for instance, grew from 477 people to 10,446 people, and Brown County jumped from 353 to 12,241. By 1880, the settlers in what became northeastern South Dakota were anxious for statehood as any other section of the country.