Minuteman Missile
Historic Resource Study
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Section II — Life on the South Dakota Plains: Before, During, and After Minuteman

Chapter 1:
Life and Landscape Before Minuteman (to the 1960s)

The Minuteman changed the northern plains, but clearly the missile system was one small moment in the region's far broader history. It is a land rich in geological, archeological, and sociological detail, with stories that range as far back as prehistory. In order to place the relatively short life span of the Minuteman (less than two generations) into the story of a land whose past is best measured in millennium, we now turn to the plains in the time before the Cold War.

South Dakota Plains Geological Formations

South Dakota lies within the boundaries of the Missouri Plateau, a continental landform that displays a variety of geological features, including three main geologic divisions. The first division, the Central Lowlands, lies east of the Missouri River and was formed through glacial activity between ten thousand to seventy-five thousand years ago. The second division extends west from the Missouri River and is known as the Western Plains. The Western Plains of South Dakota are part of the Great Plains and are the least populous section of the state. Landforms in the Great Plains are unglaciated and retain soils formed by shallow seas that covered the region approximately seventy-five million years ago. The state's third major geologic region, known as the Black Hills, was formed by pressure from the earth's tectonic plates that forced subsurface rock upward to create a sixty-mile-wide and 125-mile-long region known for its natural beauty. [133]

The seas that once covered South Dakota's Western Plains deposited limestone and sandstone overlain by soft Pierre shale. As the shale eroded through water and wind action, the rolling terrain in the Western Plains emerged, leaving short-grass plains mixed with eroded river valleys. The Badlands lie within the Great Plains. The striking landscape of the Badlands emerged from the process of erosion caused by water and wind, which created tall spires of sedimentary rock and exposed rich fossil deposits. Native Americans and white settlers alike viewed the landscape with respect and awe. In 1939 President Roosevelt established the Badlands National Monument and in the 1960s Congress expanded the monument by adding more than 130,000 acres of Oglala Sioux tribal land. The National Park Service and the Oglala Sioux jointly manage these lands. In 1978 Congress designated the Badlands a National Park, further safeguarding the region's future. [134]

Native American Settlement

The presence of Native American cultures in South Dakota spans thousands of years and includes five major periods—Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, Plains Village, and the plains Sioux. [135] The Western Plains has experienced continuous occupation by native people who were removed to reservations through either treaty or the series of nineteenth-century wars fought between the Sioux and the United States Army.

These Native American cultures adapted to the changing environmental and political factors at work in the region. Environmental factors influencing native cultures included the availability and size of animals for use as a food source and the availability of technologies for utilizing natural resources. Political factors directing cultural change included intertribal warfare and the arrival of, and ensuing population pressure from, Euro-Americans. Euro-Americans brought with them foreign political, agricultural, and property systems, as well as diseases that changed the power structure in the region.

The earliest people to reside in the area that later became South Dakota, the Paleo-Indians, practiced nomadic big game hunting, taking advantage of plentiful large game, such as Mastodons. Archaic period hunter-gatherers established themselves after the big game had disappeared. This group took advantage of available smaller game and the nuts and berries that grew wild in the area. As the Woodland tradition developed, a settled agricultural economy complete with a complex agricultural tool kit and a sophisticated religion blossomed. The Plains Village communities, typified by the fortified settlements of the Arikara, or Ree, tribe were present when the first white explorers arrived in South Dakota. The Arikara tribe established a dominant culture during the sixteenth century. Decimated by smallpox brought by the Europeans, the Arikara had entered a state of decline by the time the Sioux began arriving in the area in the eighteenth century. [136]

When the early French, Spanish, and Euro-American explorers arrived in the region in the second half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they initially encountered the Sioux, as well as remnants of the Arikara. The Sioux were a confederation of nomadic tribes, whose culture centered on the bison, which the tribe followed across the plains. The Teton Sioux, who controlled the western part of the state, were known as fierce warriors and expert horsemen, thus giving the Sioux their warrior-nomad reputation. Other branches of the Sioux, such as the eastern, Yankton tribe, did not participate in warfare to the same extent.

Starting in the 1850s, the Sioux began to feel pressure from the United States government to cede their land so that the area could be opened to Euro-American settlement. Conflict and treaties between the Sioux and the federal government continued through the second half of the century. Treaties negotiated in 1851, 1858, and 1868 reserved western South Dakota, known as the Great Sioux Reservation, for the Sioux and in return the tribe left their lands east of the Missouri River.

These early agreements did not end the conflict between the settlers and the Sioux, however. Additional agreements would be necessary as Euro-Americans pressed further west. Increasing demands for land from white settlers and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills in 1874 resulted in mounting encroachments into Sioux territory. As land-hungry settlers continued to arrive in increasing numbers, the government persisted in pushing the Sioux out of sections of the Western Plains and the Black Hills until finally the majority of South Dakota's lands were under the control of either homesteaders, miners, or the government. Sioux lands remaining in South Dakota are presently on eight reservations: Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge Oglala, Rosebud, Sisseton-Wahpeton, Yankton, and Flandreau Santee. [137] The Air Force made a conscious effort to avoid reservation lands when constructing Minuteman sites. [138] Minuteman installations in South Dakota are bordered by the Cheyenne River reservation on the north, Pine Ridge Oglala and Rosebud on the south, and Lower Brule on the east.

To understand the forces acting on the Sioux during the nineteenth century into the middle of the twentieth century, it is necessary to trace the history of European and Euro-American exploration and settlement of South Dakota. The following section summarizes the settlement of South Dakota by Euro-Americans.

Early European Exploration and the Fur Trade

Three major expeditions through the lands that would include the future state of South Dakota paved the way for occupation by Euro-American settlers. France and Spain, which both laid claim to the territory prior to the United States purchase of the land in 1803, sent representatives to the area in search of a mythical western sea and to identify ways to exploit the area's lucrative fur trade. After the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition followed in 1804-1806. Lewis and Clark spent fifty-four days in what would become South Dakota in the fall of 1804 recording information on the region's natural environment and its inhabitants. Following the successful return of their expedition in 1806, fur traders increased their activities in South Dakota, beginning fifty years of intensive harvesting of beaver and bison pelts for market. [139]

The period between 1827 and 1840 saw the most intense fur-trading activity in South Dakota. By the beginning of the 1850s, changes in current fashions reduced the demand for furs, and the industry consequently declined. The edge of Euro-American settlement simultaneously moved west towards the Missouri River, leading the federal government to further pressure the indigenous Sioux population to cede lands west of the Missouri to the settlers. [140]

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Last Updated: 19-Nov-2003