Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls is the largest city in the state of South Dakota. Sioux Falls is the county seat of Minnehaha County, and also extends into Lincoln County to the south. The history of Sioux Falls revolves around the cascades of the Big Sioux River.

The falls were created about 14,000 years ago when the last glacial ice sheet redirected the flow of the river into the large looping bends of its present course. Fueled by water from the melting ice, the river exposed the underlying Sioux quartzite bedrock, the hard pinkish stone of the falls. The quartzite itself is about a billion and a half years old. It began as sediments deposited on the bottom of an ancient, shallow sea. Courtesy of the Siouxland Heritage Museums The lure of the falls has been a powerful influence.

A prehistoric people who inhabited the region before 500 B.C. left numerous burial mounds on the high bluffs near the river. These people were followed by an agricultural society that built fortified villages on many of the same sites. Tribes of the Lakota and Dakota, widely ranging nomadic bison hunters, arrived sometime around the 18th century. Early maps indicate they used the falls as a place to rendezvous with French fur trappers, considered the first European visitors at the falls. The falls also drew the attention of early explorers.

An August 1804 journal entry of the Lewis and Clark expedition describes the falls of the “Soues River.” Famous pathfinder John C. Fremont and French scientist Joseph Nicollet explored the region in 1838 and also write a description of the falls. Both are considered second hand accounts rather than evidence of an actual visit. The first documented visit was by Philander Prescott, an explorer, trader, and trapper who camped overnight at the falls in December 1832. Captain James Allen led a military expedition out of Fort Des Moines in 1844. The early descriptions of the falls were published in The States and Territories of the Great West, an 1856 book by Jacob Ferris which inspired town site developers to seek out the falls. The focus of intense land speculation activity in Minnesota and Iowa during the mid-1850s inevitably turned toward the Big Sioux River valley.

The first documented European visit was made by French voyagers/explorers, in the early 1700’s, who mapped the area and took census counts of the Indigenous cities communities at that time (with the Blood Run population being 10,000 people, not outnumbered in population until the 1800’s by Euro-American settlers, thus this area has been a thriving urban area for quite some time). The first documented visit by an American (of European descent) was by Philander Prescott, who camped overnight at the falls in December 1832. Captain James Allen led a military expedition out of Fort Des Moines in 1844. Jacob Ferris described the Falls in his 1856 book “The States and Territories of the Great West.”.

Two separate groups, the Dakota Land Company of St. Paul and the Western Town Company of Dubuque, Iowa organized in 1856 to claim the land around the falls, considering a promising townsite for its beauty and water power. Each laid out 320-acre claims, but worked together for mutual protection. They built a temporary barricade of turf which they dubbed “Fort Sod,” in response to hostilities threatened by native tribes. Seventeen men then spent “the first winter” in Sioux Falls. The following year the population grew to near 40. Although conflicts in Minnehaha County between Native Americans and white settlers were few, the Dakota War of 1862 engulfed nearby southwestern Minnesota. The town was evacuated in August of that year when two local settlers were killed as a result of the conflict. The settlers and soldiers stationed here traveled to Yankton in late August 1862. The abandoned town site was pillaged and burned. The war was prompted by the foul treatment, dislocation, and subsequent starving of Dakota people by settlers pouring into Minnesota on Dakota homelands.

Fort Dakota, a military reservation established in present day downtown, was established in May 1865. Many former settlers gradually returned and a new wave of settlers arrived in the following years. The Village of Sioux Falls, consisting of 1,200 acres (4.9 km2), was incorporated in 1876 and was granted a city charter by the Dakota Territorial legislature on March 3, 1883. The arrival of the railroads ushered in the great Dakota Boom decade of the 1880s.

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