The first white men to see the Pierre area were the two LaVerendrye brothers. They were the sons of the French explorer who first claimed the region for France in 1743, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes. At the site above present-day Fort Pierre, South Dakota, at one of the bluffs above the Missouri River, the brothers left an inscribed lead plate, which thereafter lay covered until found by a group of children in 1913. The plate is now on display at the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the Sioux Indians, who had been pushed out of Minnesota by the Chippewa, arrived at the Missouri River. Their arrival challenged the claim of the Arikara, the native people who lived in palisaded forts around present-day Pierre. In 1794, the battle for control of central South Dakota finally came to an end when the Sioux drove the Arikara from the area.
In 1803, the United States completed the Louisiana Purchase from France, which included the area that would later be named South Dakota. In September 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark anchored their canoe at the site of present-day Pierre. During that time, Lewis and Clark met with 50 or more chiefs and warriors, including the Teton Sioux. They named the nearby river Teton, in honor of the tribe, but it is now called the Bad River.
The meeting started out badly but negotiations soon improved when the explorers and the Indians shared a feast of buffalo meat, corn, pemmican, and a potato dish. After all present smoked a peace pipe, the explorers continued their journey upriver. During their visit to the Pierre area, Lewis and Clark raised the United States flag there.
When the explorers returned to St. Louis in 1806, they described the streams full of beaver and grasslands full of buffalo, and they noted the lack of trading forts in the Pierre area. Their report soon attracted people interested in exploiting the riches of the region.
In 1817, Joseph LaFramboise built a fur trading post across the river from where Pierre now sits. In 1831, a representative of the American Fur Company, Pierre Chouteau, Jr., built Fort Pierre to replace the old LaFramboise trading post. In 1855, the U.S. Army bought Fort Pierre for use as a military post, but abandoned it two years later in favor of nearby Fort Randall. Even after the army departed, people continued to live at the site of Fort Pierre.
In 1861, the Dakota Territory was formally established. Once the railroad line made South Dakota more accessible, settlers began to pour in, causing the Great Dakota Boom of 1878-1887. During that period, in 1880, the new town of Pierre began as a ferry landing at the site of a railroad terminal, across the river from Fort Pierre on what was formerly Arikara Indian tribal grounds. Rapid growth ceased when droughts struck throughout South Dakota, bringing the period of prosperity to a quick end. On February 22, 1889, South Dakota entered the union as the 40th state.
The period from 1889 to 1897 saw development slowed by a depressed national economy, a time known in South Dakota as the Great Dakota Bust The number of new settlers greatly declined and some who had moved to Pierre and the rest of the state departed. But by the late 1890s, the state and the nation began to recover.
In 1890 Pierre was made the capitol of South Dakota after a drawn-out political battle between its supporters and supporters of the town of Mitchell, which was situated further east and nearer to the bulk of the state's population. In the end, however, Pierre won a statewide vote by a large margin.
In 1908 the cornerstone for the new capitol was set down, and the Capitol Building in Pierre opened its doors in 1910. As state government grew, the building expanded and separate office buildings were constructed. The original structure still stands today as part of the capitol complex.
During the 1930s, South Dakotans faced not only the Great Depression but severe problems caused by drought and dust. Many jobs were created for Pierre citizens by the Civilian Conservation Corps and other government agencies.
In 1944, the U.S. Congress passed legislation that resulted in the construction of the Oahe Dam near Pierre, which still serves the region. In 1949 a terrible blizzard struck the area, and the railroad line from Pierre to Rapid City, South Dakota, was blocked for weeks. A 1952 flood of the Missouri River caused severe damage to the town of Pierre but it was not destroyed, making clear to the citizens of Pierre the wisdom of the Oahe Dam building project. The project remains controversial among the Cheyenne River Sioux, who believe land was taken from them illegally for the dam construction.
The dam, the largest of six Missouri River dams and one of the largest dams in the world, has a generating capacity of 700,000 kilowatts. Along with the other dams on the Missouri River in South Dakota, it generates more than 2 million kilowatts of electricity. Other benefits of the dam include expanded recreation areas, irrigation, increased public water supplies, and fish and wildlife development.
During the wintertime, Pierre is abuzz with activity, as legislators from various parts of the state meet for three months to decide issues of state government. The rest of the year, Pierre is a quiet tourist town and farming center. In recent years, Pierre has invested millions of dollars in projects that benefit businesses and the community.
Historical Information: The South Dakota State Historical Society, 900 Governors Drive, Pierre, SD 57501; telephone (605)773-3458