Though South Dakota’s nickname is “the Mount Rushmore State,” there are those who call it “the land of infinite variety.” South Dakota does not disappoint in its variety of landscapes, from river valleys to plains to rugged hills. The population of South Dakota is fairly small compared to its size, making it appealing to those who prefer a slower pace of life. Both residents and visitors can discover the rich history of the region.
South Dakota Geography
South Dakota is in the north-central part of the United States. Six states share a border with South Dakota: North Dakota on the north, Minnesota and Iowa on the east, Nebraska on the south, and Montana and Wyoming on the west.
There are four distinct land regions in South Dakota: the Drift Prairie, the Dissected Till Plains, the Great Plains, and the Black Hills. The Drift Prairie in the eastern part of the state has lakes and low hills created by ancient glaciers. The southeastern part of the state contains more hills that are cut through by streams and rivers.
The largest landform in South Dakota is the Great Plains, taking up about two-thirds of the state. On the eastern side of the Great Plains, the Missouri River flows from north to south. On the western side of the state, the land rises into buttes, rugged hills, and deep canyons. The Badlands National Park is located in the western part of the Great Plains.
In the far western part of the state, the Black Hills sit between the Belle Fourche and Cheyenne Rivers. These mountains, which also stretch into Wyoming, rise about 3,000 feet (914.4 meters) above the plains. Black Elk Peak has the highest elevation at 7,241 feet (2,207) above sea level. The Black Hills are rich in minerals like gold, silver, and lead, and are heavily mined for these materials. This region is also home to many monuments and tourist attractions like the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
South Dakota People and Population
South Dakota is home to nine Native American tribes that are part of the Sioux Nation. These groups are subdivided by dialect: the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota. The Lakota are the largest group, with seven recognized tribal bands. The Nakota are next in population size and primarily live in North and South Dakota and Montana. The smallest group, the Dakota, live mainly in Minnesota or Nebraska.
European settlers did not arrive in South Dakota in large numbers until the 1840s. The immigrants came from similar countries as the surrounding states. Settlers came from the British Isles, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia. After the Civil War, African American people came to the state looking for a better life than they would have in the South.
Today, the people of South Dakota can enjoy life in its largest city, Sioux Falls. The city boasts parks and waterfalls along the Big Sioux River. There are also museums, sculptures, and performing arts programs.
South Dakota is perfect for those people who prefer a more rural lifestyle. Opportunities for life in small towns or rural farms and ranches are abundant. The western parts of the state also offer beautiful scenery and outdoor sports like hiking and winter sports.
Finally, South Dakota offers multiple opportunities for quality higher education. Universities in South Dakota are relatively small, with fewer than 12,000 students. Their tuition rates are also quite reasonable for both in and out-of-state students. Some of the top choices for higher education in South Dakota are the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University, and Augustina University.
These universities offer excellent athletics programs despite their smaller size. The University of South Dakota Coyotes has some of the best Division 1 facilities in the region. The South Dakota State University Jackrabbits also participate in 19 sports at the D1 level. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology is specialized for students who wish to study mining, engineering, and applied sciences.
South Dakota Government
South Dakota has three branches of government, much like the U.S. as a whole. The Legislative Branch has two houses: the Senate and the House of Representatives. The number of senators in the state Senate must be between 25 and 35 elected officials. The House of Representatives must have between 50 and 75 representatives. Since 1970, the number of senators and representatives has remained the same, with 35 senators and 70 members of the House.
The Executive Branch is headed by the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor. They are members of the same political party and run as a team for their elected position. Governors and lieutenant governors may serve two consecutive four-year terms.
The judicial system in South Dakota was cemented by a 1972 constitutional amendment. The SD Supreme Court is made up of five justices who are appointed by the governor for eight-year terms. The justices must be re-confirmed every eight years by an election. Most of the work of the Supreme Court is hearing appeals and writing opinions about legal matters at the Governor’s request. Circuit courts and magistrate courts handle civil and criminal cases.
South Dakota Economy
The top industry in South Dakota is agriculture. This $32.1 billion-per-year industry contributes around 30% of the state’s economy. Gov. Noem merged two departments to create the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources to create more efficiency and stronger economic development in the industry. The meat-producing industry also was improved in 2021 with better facilities and new equipment in order to expand meat markets.
Another booming industry in South Dakota is that of hospitality and tourism. In 2022, tourists spent 4.7 billion dollars in South Dakota. The income provided by tourism reduces each resident’s state taxes by approximately $1,011 per year. South Dakota’s government uses the tax revenue from tourism to repair and maintain infrastructure and emergency services.
In 2020 and 2021, the government pushed through an initiative to ensure that all South Dakotans have access to solid broadband infrastructure. Reliable internet access improves educational outcomes, allows people to work remotely and grow their businesses, provides the opportunity for telehealth visits for those living in isolated areas, and allows for early weather prediction which can protect the lives of South Dakota’s residents.
South Dakota has a low unemployment rate of 1.9%. In fact, South Dakota is second out of all the states in percentage of employed residents.
South Dakota Interesting Facts
South Dakota is a region steeped in rich history and filled with fascinating facts. From its stunning landscapes to the subtle charm of its small towns, South Dakota is a treasure trove of captivating trivia and noteworthy information. Whether you're a history enthusiast, nature lover, or simply curious, let's delve into some of the most intriguing facts about South Dakota.
Doane Robinson, the “Father of Mount Rushmore,” wanted to have these enormous carvings on a mountain in the Black Hills to draw people to the state. As he worked with the artist, Gutzon Borglum, they chose Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt to “communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States.”
The heads of each president are about 60 feet (18.3 meters) tall. The eyes are about 11 feet (3.4 meters) wide, and the mouths are about 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide.
Crazy Horse was born in the Black Hills of South Dakota around 1840. As an adult, he fought against the U.S. Soldiers who tried to forcibly remove the Sioux from their lands. He is known for defeating General George Cook at the Battle of the Rosebud and defeating General Custer and the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He was killed in a struggle after surrendering at Fort Robinson in 1877.
In 1933, Chief Standing Bear petitioned to have a monument honoring Crazy Horse in the Black Hills of South Dakota that was as large and impactful as Mt. Rushmore. He eventually found sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create the carving. The first blast that marked the beginning of the work was on June 3, 1948. In 1982, Ziolkowski passed away suddenly. Work on the sculpture continues to this day.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Each year in August, the small town of Sturgis, South Dakota, swells with biker fanatics. They cruise into town in black leather and denim on their best motorcycles and show off their skills and customized bikes. The rally includes races, hill climbs, and ramp jumps for the riders; performances from rock, classic rock, and country music; and a veritable village of booths and shops where visitors can customize their motorcycles or get tattoos. The largest attendance count was in 2000, when an estimated 600,000 people arrived in Sturgis.
South Dakota History
The history of South Dakota is as varied and vibrant as its landscape. From the Native American tribes that first roamed its prairies to explorers Lewis and Clark who traveled through the region, South Dakota's story has been shaped by a diverse cast of characters. And with monuments like Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, and Wind Cave National Park standing tall in its midst, South Dakota remains a beacon for adventure.
The earliest evidence of people living in South Dakota dates as far back as 11,000 years. These Paleo-Indians lived much like the other indigenous people of North America. Some were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Others established more permanent villages, hunting and fishing locally, and planting crops. Archaeological evidence shows that some Paleo-Indians even hunted wooly mammoths in the Black Hills region.
In 1803, the U.S. Federal Government negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France. This vast tract included land from Louisiana all the way north to Canada. South Dakota is one of the states that developed in this region. In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition recorded details about the land in the Dakotas.
Fur traders were common in the area, developing close relationships with the Native American Tribes in the region. However, the largest influx of settlers didn’t begin until the 1840s. The Great Migration of settlers moving west to California and Oregon tended to pass through the Dakota Territory, though some chose to stay in the region. In 1862, the Homestead Act attracted many settlers to the Dakotas.
The construction of railroads also attracted many settlers to these frontier lands with the promise of easy transportation and mercantile goods. The discovery of gold in the Black Hills led to a rush of miners to the area.
English-speaking immigrants spread through the Dakota Territory creating successful farms as well as working in towns as shopkeepers and craftsmen. Other ethnic groups like the Germans and Norwegians tended to form tight-knit communities.
German immigrants came from an assortment of backgrounds. Two groups of Germans, who had been living in Russia, were the Mennonites and the Hutterites. They had similar religious backgrounds, but the Hutterites lived communally, meaning that they believed everything belonged to the group as a whole, rather than individuals owning property.
Histories of South Dakota often gloss over the roles that Black people played in the earliest years of the Territory. However, the earliest recorded birth of a non-native person in North Dakota was that of a Black child. There are also records of Black fur traders in the early 1800s and other Black individuals who lived and traveled with the Native Americans. As steamboats began making their way up the Missouri River in the 1830s, more African Americans arrived to find work on the boats.
Dakota Territory and the Civil War
Although they assembled troops to send to fight in the Civil War, the Dakota Territory was not directly involved in the fighting.
Post-Civil War History
After the Civil War, immigration into the Dakotas increased exponentially. African Americans took advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862 which granted 160 acres of land to anyone who claimed it, regardless of race. The African Americans who settled in the Dakota Territory created a powerful legacy for their descendants that went beyond owning land; they established schools, where their children could learn to pursue careers in other fields like nursing, teaching, and business.
Scandinavian immigrants came to the area after the Civil War. Two hundred and sixty-five Swedish settlers staked claims north of Vermillion. The Swedes brought sugar beets and alfalfa to South Dakota. Settlers from Denmark established a center for their culture in Viborg which still celebrates its heritage each year. There were few Finnish immigrants in South Dakota, but many of them came for the gold rush in the Black Hills.
In 1889, the Dakota Territory was divided into two states, North and South Dakota, and they began formulating their state constitutions.
The technological advancements of World War I brought improvements to agricultural production. Road works and electricity in rural areas increased the revenue from tourism.
After the stock market crash of 1929, South Dakota was hit hard by the Great Depression. In addition to the economic crisis, the Dust Bowl devastated the state even further. Drought and grasshopper infestations destroyed croplands putting farmers out of business. Due to the extreme losses, approximately 50,000 people were forced to leave the state and look for better opportunities somewhere else.
The first impacts of World War II on South Dakota were felt even before the US had officially declared war. On November 22, 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt called all the South Dakota National Guard members into active military service. After training for one year, the 147th Field Artillery unit out of South Dakota was sent to the Pacific Theater. They stopped for shore leave at Pearl Harbor on November 27th, and by December 7th, they were at sea again 1500 miles from Hawaii. Other National Guard Units, the 109th Engineers, 109th Quartermaster Regiment, and the 34th Signal Company were also called into service in 1941.
As the war continued, South Dakotans, just like citizens all over America, felt the weight of the war. Many more troops joined the military, rationing of food and other goods impacted families, and the numbers of young men in high school and university declined sharply.
In the 1990s, South Dakota found itself home to refugee immigrants from Ethiopia, the Soviet Union, and Sudan. These refugees were fleeing civil wars, dangerous situations, and food crises. Joining the new communities in South Dakota is difficult for the refugees and for the community as it stretches to acclimate to them.
South Dakota Current Events
Currently, Gov. Kristi Noem has clear plans for the betterment of South Dakota. She is committed to ensuring that the South Dakota National Guard is well-equipped and prepared for any service they are mobilized for. Gov. Noem understands that cybersecurity, from hacking to cyber-bullying is a serious matter and is working with Dakota State University to create the best possible cybersecurity programs.
Another area of concern for South Dakotans is enhancing natural habitats and preserving wilderness areas. Small towns are the access points to the wilderness, and Gov. Noem is focusing on revitalizing life and businesses in these small rural towns.
The people of South Dakota can look forward to better mental health care. Gov. Noem is striving to reduce the stigma around needing mental health care, making that care more accessible, and preventing suicides.
People Also Ask...
If you are interested in more information about the state of South Dakota, then keep reading — we have compiled answers to the most common FAQs below. Plus, test your newfound state knowledge with our Fun Facts Quiz: U.S. States!
Additionally, dig deeper into the attractions of the Black Hills region of South Dakota, learn about lead mining, Crazy Horse, and Mt. Rushmore, or discover how the U.S. National Park Service was established.
Is South Dakota a Good Place To Live?
South Dakota has a low population, beautiful scenery, and abundant opportunities for outdoor sports in state parks like hiking, biking, climbing, hunting, and fishing. It is also a good place to live because there is no state income tax, and the state government is supportive of small businesses.
The cost of living in South Dakota is notably less than the national index. If you are into finding the best food, South Dakota has many top options. Try the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis, a Pile O’Dirt Porter from Crow Peak Brewing Co in Spearfish, or Genuine Mexican food at Los Tapatios in Madison.
What Are 3 Things South Dakota Is Known For?
South Dakota is famed for many aspects of its statehood, but the following are some of the most notable things that the Mount Rushmore State enjoys.
The largest city, Sioux Falls, has only about 200,000 people. Visitors can get the best of urban life with a heartland small-town feel.
South Dakota has more shoreline than Florida. Florida has the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic (and hurricanes). But when you add up all the shorelines for South Dakota’s rivers and glacial lakes, it is more than the shoreline than Florida (and no hurricanes.)
The Crazy Horse sculpture will be the largest in the world when it is completed.
What Food Is South Dakota Known For?
Chislic. Chislic is salted cubes of skewered meat that is deep fried. The meat can be mutton, beef, venison, or goat. It is then served with crackers and dipping sauces. A German-Russian immigrant in the 1870s is credited with bringing the recipe over, although others from the same region most likely made it also. In South Dakota, Freeman is the center of this dish, hosting a chislic festival each year.
Selected famous natives and residents:
- Sparky Anderson baseball manager;
- Gertrude Bonnin (Zitkala-Sa) Sioux writer and pan-Indian activist;
- Tom Brokaw TV newscaster;
- Robert Casey writer;
- Shawn Colvin Singer, songwriter;
- Myron Floren accordionist;
- Joseph J. Foss WW II Marine fighter ace;
- Terry Francona former baseball player, former Boston Red Sox manager;
- Mary Hart TV host;
- Crazy Horse Oglala chief;
- Oscar Howe Sioux artist;
- Hubert H. Humphrey vice president;
- January Jones actor;
- Cheryl Ladd actor;
- Ernest Orlando Lawrence physicist;
- Russell Means American Indian activist;
- George McGovern politician;
- Arthur C. Mellette first governor;
- Dorothy Provine actor;
- Rain-in-the-Face Hunkpapa Sioux chief;
- Red Cloud chief of the Oglala Sioux;
- Ben Reifel Brulé Sioux congressman;
- Ole Edvart Rølvaag writer;
- Sitting Bull chief of Hunkpappa Sioux;
- Norm Van Brocklin football player;
- Mamie Van Doren actor;
- Adam Vinatieri football player.
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 Svendsen, K. (2023, January 18). 2022 Visitor spending in South Dakota yet again sets all-time record. News.SD.gov. https://news.sd.gov/news?id=news_kb_article_view&sysparm_article=KB0039548&sys_kb_id=598fb3181bac29100fd94262f54bcb6b&spa=1
 Gevik, B. (2021, September 2). South Dakota’s first inhabitants. South Dakota Public Broadcasting. https://www.sdpb.org/blogs/images-of-the-past/observing-native-american-day/
 Dennis, T. (2022, June 14). Explorers, fur traders, cowboys, soldiers and more. UND Today. https://blogs.und.edu/und-today/2022/06/explorers-fur-traders-cowboys-soldiers-and-more/
 Gevik, B. (2021a, February 25). Black settlers of the Great Plains. South Dakota Public Broadcasting. https://www.sdpb.org/blogs/images-of-the-past/black-settlers-of-the-great-plains/
 Karolvetiz, R. F. (2016, August 18). “Life on the home front: South Dakota in World War II.” South Dakota Historical Society Press. https://www.sdhspress.com/journal/south-dakota-history-19-3/life-on-the-home-front-south-dakota-in-world-war-ii
 Strengthening South Dakota. South Dakota Governor. (2023e). https://governor.sd.gov/priorities/priorities.aspx
 U.S. Government. (2022d, July 1). Quick Facts: Wisconsin. United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/WI
Bray, K. (2023, March 17). Crazy horse (tashunka witco). National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/libi/learn/historyculture/crazy-horse.htm
 Chief Henry Standing Bear. Crazy Horse Memorial®. (2023). https://crazyhorsememorial.org/story/the-history/chief-henry-standing-bear/
 South Dakota Department of Tourism. (2023b). Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Travel South Dakota. https://www.travelsouthdakota.com/trip-ideas/article/sturgis-motorcycle-rally