Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

History of Mount Rushmore

South Dakota's first inhabitants lived more than 9,000 years ago. Most of these nomadic tribes migrated with the massive herds of bison (commonly called buffalo) that roamed the grasslands of the Great Plains. Early hunters relied on the furry beasts for everything from meat, clothing and fuel for fire (from dung), to tools, toys and weapons. For many centuries, these peoples persevered, despite the occasional harsh weather and territorial disputes with neighboring tribes.

The Arikara (or Ree) Indians had arrived by A.D. 1500. They were followed by the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee and Crow. The Sioux (or Lakota) migrated from Minnesota in the 1700s, in turn driving the other tribes north, west and south. For more than 150 years, the Sioux commanded a tract of land large enough to support the bison herds on which they subsisted. The center of this area is present-day South Dakota. 

At the close of the 18th century, the dominant Sioux were at the height of their power, with numerous inter-related bands covering more than 80 million acres. Comprised of three major tribes—Yankton, Santee and Teton—they were exceptional horsemen, skilled hunters and superior warriors. The Sioux tribes had no written language, but their history and heritage were entrusted to storytellers and recorded by "winter counts"—drawings painted in a spiral on animal hides. One drawing could depict one year, thus a single hide could represent up to a half-century of Sioux history.

The Sioux were divided into bands and then again into smaller, extended family groups known as tiyospaye. Hunting bison, or tatanka, and processing the meat, hide and bones were tasks for the entire tiyo-spaye. They built earthen lodges and tipis of buffalo hide while their eastern cousins lived in bark-and-mat wigwams.


As European immigrants flooded the eastern United States, white settlers gradually moved westward seeking fertile land and suitable town sites. 

In the 1700s, French-Canadian explorers began mapping the Missouri River with an eye on the pelts and hides they could buy from the American Indians and sell back East to be made into shoes, hats and coats. Adventurers Francois ("The Chevalier") and Louis-Joseph La Verendrye claimed the region for King Louis XV in 1743 at Fort Pierre, near the present-day town of the same name. 

Trappers and mountain men had been trading with native tribes for decades when Thomas Jefferson became the nation's third president. His policy of westward expansion led to the 1803 purchase of the 828,000-square-mile Louisiana Territory from Napoleon of France for three cents an acre. The land deal included most of what would become South Dakota.

Lewis and Clark

With a new deed to an immense and largely unexplored territory, Jefferson sent the Corps of Discovery into the American West in 1803. Led by Jefferson's personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis and Lewis' friend William Clark, the expedition set out to chart the Missouri River, map the supposedly short divide to the Columbia River, observe the growing British presence in the Pacific Northwest and introduce the concept of American government to American Indians encountered en route. 

The 31-member party met little resistance from tribes as they passed through South Dakota. The journals of Lewis and Clark frequently refer to the wide-open spaces and black herds of bison they viewed from vantage points along the Missouri River. 

Mountain Men

As Lewis and Clark were mapping the frontier for white settlement and adventurous mountain men, traders and trappers were opening the American West to commerce. The St. Louis Fur Company organized fur trading with various tribes, bringing frontier forts, pioneer settlements and skirmishes between American Indians and immigrants of European descent.

Later, the Rocky Mountain Fur Company arrived with some of the Wild West's characters: Jebediah Smith, Jim Bridger, Hugh Glass and Thomas Fitzpatrick.

Homesteaders and Sodbusters

During the 75 years following Lewis and Clark's visit, immigrating pioneers built homesteads and small towns, tilled the land and waited to harvest the fruits of their labors. 

The U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, offering any able-bodied American citizen the chance to purchase 160 acres for a token payment (about $18 an acre in parts of Dakota Territory). In return, settlers were expected to build a dwelling and plant a crop. Because few trees grew on the prairies, the "sodbusters" often lived in small shanties made of sod strips.

Land Treaties

As the push for western expansion continued, the federal government entered into a series of treaties with the Sioux, culminating with the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. This treaty established the Great Sioux Reservation and granted all lands from the Missouri River west to the Bighorn Mountains of western Wyoming to the tribes. In addition, the treaty established agencies, which would distribute food, clothing and money to the tribes. Soon, however, the well-intentioned treaty would be broken.

Gold Rush

In 1874, a brazen young lieutenant colonel, George Armstrong Custer, led the first official white expedition into the Black Hills, ostensibly to survey the uncharted region. When Custer's dispatches confirmed the presence of gold in the area's creeks and coulees, gold rush fever flared. As hordes of treasure seekers swarmed into the region, federal troops futilely attempted to cordon off the Hills to protect tribal property boundaries. Negotiators in Washington, fearing war, encouraged the tribes to sell the land for cash, which they desperately needed to survive as bison popula-tions dwindled. 

Negotiations failed, and the federal government ordered all tribal members to return to their reservations. Harsh winter weather delayed delivery of the message to many natives; nevertheless, the government designated those who did not comply with the order as "hostile." In the spring of 1876, U.S. Army troops were assembled to round-up all hostiles and return them to their reservations by force, if necessary. In response, Hunkpapa Sioux leader and medicine man, Sitting Bull, summoned 10 tribes of the Sioux, plus the Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, to his camp in Montana Territory. Together, they discussed their options, but no consensus was reached.

Battles and Losses

On June 25, 1876, in the valley of the Little Bighorn River, Sitting Bull and his 4,000 warriors were en-camped when Custer and his troops mounted their infamous attack. Hopelessly outnumbered, Custer and his entire force of more than 200 soldiers were killed. Congress reacted quickly and began punishing even the peaceful Sioux. Rations of food and clothing were cut dramatically and, even-tually, a new treaty was enacted which ceded tribal land in the Black Hills to the federal government.

Following Sitting Bull's accidental death in 1890, Big Foot, the hereditary chief of the Min-ni-conjou Sioux of the Chey-enne Reservation, decided to move his band to the Pine Ridge Reservation to join Sioux chief Red Cloud. 

As they neared Wounded Knee Creek, after an ex-haus-ting 150-mile journey, Big Foot and his band of 350 men, women and children were confronted by the cavalry. During the confusing encounter, a shot rang out and troops began firing indiscrimin-ately, killing more than 200 Sioux, including Big Foot and his daughter. Today, a solitary stone memorial marks the site of the tragic Massacre at Wounded Knee. 

Dakota Boom

In the 1880s and 1890s, new lands opened up to homesteaders, gold was harvested from the Black Hills, riverboats ran the rivers and railroad tracks were laid to new town sites. By 1889, the population of South Dakota was large enough to warrant statehood.