You might think your town is old, but it probably isn’t the oldest in the country.
That is unless you live in St. Augustine, FL. Which looks pretty good for being 454 years old.
That’s older than America for those playing at home.
So that got us thinking, what is the oldest city in South Dakota? And how old is that when you put it into perspective of St. Augustine or American Independence in 1776?
Because even if your South Dakota city or town is old, it isn’t really all that old in the grand scheme of things. For example, the Pyramids in Egypt were built around 2600 BC, a cool 4100 years before St. Augustine.
And now that we have you thinking about how the time line of your existence is really kind of unimpressive on the timeline of history, let’s drop right into the analysis.
These are the 10 oldest cities and towns in the Mount Rushmore State according to their ‘date of foundation’:
- Rapid City (Photos)
- Aberdeen (Photos)
- Brookings (Photos)
- Watertown (Photos)
- Mitchell (Photos)
- Yankton (Photos)
- Pierre (Photos)
- Huron (Photos)
- Spearfish (Photos)
- Vermillion (Photos)
For being 135 years old, Rapid City doesn’t look a day over 40. And the newest city in South Dakota? That would be Belle Fourche — a brand spanking 113 years old.
How We Determined When A City Was Founded In South Dakota… Or Is It Settled?
Surprisingly, there’s not a definitive data set that contains the dates of incorporation or settlement for cities in America. Put differently, there’s no official data set from the Census that contains when every place in America was founded.
So what did we do instead?
Use the internet’s version of official government data — Wikipedia of course!
For the majority of cities in South Dakota, Wikipedia offers data on some kind of ‘date of foundation’ in the infobox. Unfortunately, because it’s Wikipedia and not a sprawling government bureaucracy, that can take the form of any of the following nomenclature (plus others):
And then even more stuff — for example Atlanta has a ‘Terminus’ date, whatever that is.
If no ‘date of foundation’ was found in the infobox, we looked to the general text in the History section of the city for ‘Founded in XXXX’.
All in all, we were able to collect data on 15 out of 18 in South Dakota with over 5,000 people. That’s good for a 83.3% completion rate.
We then ranked them from oldest to newest with Rapid City turning out to be the matriarch of South Dakota at the ripe old age of 135.
Here’s a look at the top ten and a snippet of their history from Wikipedia.
1. Rapid City
The public discovery of gold in 1874 by the Black Hills Expedition brought a mass influx of settlers into the Black Hills region of South Dakota. Rapid City was founded, and originally known as ‘Hay Camp’, in 1876 by a group of disappointed miners, who promoted their new city as the ‘Gateway to the Black Hills’. John Richard Brennan and Samuel Scott, with a small group of men, laid out the site of the present Rapid City in February 1876, which was named for the spring-fed Rapid Creek that flows through it. A square mile was measured off and the six blocks in the center were designated as a business section. Committees were appointed to bring in prospective merchants and their families to locate in the new settlement. The city soon began selling supplies to miners and pioneers. Its location on the edge of the Plains and Hills and its large river valley made it the natural hub of railroads arriving in the late 1880s from both the south and east. By 1900, Rapid City had survived a boom and bust and was establishing itself as an important regional trade center for the upper midwest.
Although the Black Hills became a popular tourist destination in the late 1890s, it was a combination of local efforts, the popularity of the automobile, and construction of improved highways that brought tourists to the Black Hills in large numbers after World War I. Gutzon Borglum, already a famous sculptor, began work on Mount Rushmore in 1927 and his son, Lincoln Borglum, continued the carving of the presidents’ faces in rock following his father’s death in 1941. The work was halted due to pressures leading to the US entry into World War II and the massive sculpture was declared complete in 1941. Although tourism sustained the city throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, the gasoline rationing of World War II had a devastating effect on the tourist industry in the town, but this was more than made up for by the war-related growth.
Before Aberdeen or Brown County was inhabited by European settlers, it was inhabited by the Sioux Indians from approximately 1700 to 1879. Europeans entered the region for business, founding fur trading posts during the 1820s; these trading posts operated until the mid-1830s. The first ‘settlers’ of this region were the Arikara Indians, but they would later be joined by others.
The county and city were both named after one of South Dakota’s pioneer promoters, Wilmot Brookings (1830 – 1905). Brookings set out for the Dakota Territory in June 1857. He arrived at Sioux Falls on August 27, 1857, and became one of the first settlers there. He and his group represented the Western Town Company. After a time in Sioux Falls, Brookings and a companion set out for the Yankton area to locate a town in an area that was soon to be ceded by the Native Americans. This trip was begun in January 1858, and the two soon encountered a blizzard that froze Brookings’ feet which both had to be amputated.
Watertown was founded in 1879 as a rail terminus when the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad reactivated part of a line it had constructed to Lake Kampeska. Despite the prominence of rivers and lakes in the area, the city was named after Watertown, New York, the hometown of brothers John E. Kemp and Oscar P. Kemp, two of the city’s founders. The town’s name was originally planned to be named Kampeska.
The first settlement at Mitchell was made in 1879. Mitchell was incorporated in 1883. It was named for Milwaukee banker Alexander Mitchell, President of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (Milwaukee Road).
The site of Yankton was occupied by the Yankton Sioux (Nakota) prior to the arrival of European settlers. As part of the vast Louisiana Purchase, the site of Yankton was visited by Lewis and Clark in 1804. In the journals of the expedition, the explorers write of a meeting on August 30, 1804 with members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe on a Missouri River bluff presently known as Calumet Bluff. As recently as 1857, the present day site of Yankton was occupied by a village of Yankton Sioux led by Chief Pa-le-ne-a-pa-pe (‘Struck by the Ree’). Two years later, with the signing of the Yankton Treaty of 1858, the land was opened for settlement. The city was founded where the small Rhine Creek (renamed Marne Creek in World War I) flowed into the Missouri River. The city grew as a stop for steamboats to take on fresh water and supplies, especially after steamboat traffic boomed when gold was discovered in the Black Hills.
Huron, located in east central South Dakota, is a result of railroad and land booms in the 1880s. The early history of the town is closely linked with the Chicago and Northwestern Railway. At the direction of Marvin Hughitt, general manager of the railroad, the west bank of the James River was selected as the division headquarters of the railroad. The company gained title to 880 acres (3.6 km2) of land at that location. Huron was named for the Huron Indians. Exactly who gave it the name was never established, apparently either Marvin Hughitt or someone in the Chicago office of the C&NW railroad company.
Before the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876, the area was used by Native Americans (primarily bands of Sioux but others also ranged through the area). Once the gold rush started, the city was founded in 1876 at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon, and was originally called Queen City. Spearfish grew as a supplier of foodstuffs to the mining camps in the hills. Even today, a significant amount of truck farming and market gardening still occurs in the vicinity.
Lewis and Clark camped at the mouth of the Vermillion River near the present-day town on August 24, 1804. The previous day, they had killed their first bison; and the following day, they climbed Spirit Mound, according to Clark’s journal. In May 1843, John James Audubon visited the Vermillion ravine to view the bird life. The town was considered for the location of South Dakota’s first mental institution (now the Human Services Center) in 1873, although the hospital was eventually awarded to nearby Yankton. The original town was entirely below the bluffs on the banks of the Missouri River, and three-quarters of the town was washed away in the Great Flood of 1881.
Oh How Time Flies For The Oldest Towns And Cities In South Dakota
So there you have it, a look at some of the oldest places to live in South Dakota. If we missed your city’s ‘date of foundation’, let us know in the comments. Or feel free to take a look at the table of the oldest places in South Dakota.
And now, let’s raise our glasses, to the next 100 years of existence for these cities and towns in the Mount Rushmore State.
And for those wondering, here are the newest additions to South Dakota:
- Belle Fourche (Founded in 1905)
- Sturgis (Founded in 1905)
- Madison (Founded in 1905)
Detailed List Of The Oldest Cities In South Dakota