Sioux Falls: History

Falls on Big Sioux River Attract Settlers

Attracted by the economic potential of the Sioux Falls on the Big Sioux River, Dr. George M. Staples of Dubuque, Iowa, organized Western Town near the falls in 1856. Staples and his group hoped that the settlement would become the capital of the Territory of Dakota, but it was not chosen. Instead, in the winter of 1856, the Legislature of Minnesota Territory chartered the Dakota Land Company and established the town of Sioux Falls.

In August 1862 the settlers, fearing violence from the local Native Americans, abandoned the village. Raiders did burn the buildings and destroy everything, including an old Smith printing press used by the Sioux Falls Democrat that was dumped in the Big Sioux River after it was stripped of decorative items. Fort Dakota, a military post, was established in the area in May 1865, to help assure the resettlement of Sioux Falls. Another incentive came when the water power of the falls was harnessed in 1873. A scourge of grasshoppers in 1874 hurt resettlement, but by 1876 Sioux Falls claimed a population of 600 people. Sioux Falls was incorporated as a town in 1877 and as a city in 1889.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Northern European immigrants were attracted to the Territory of Dakota, which resembled their homeland. The establishment of rail transport in the area in 1878 enabled locals to begin shipping "Sioux Falls granite," a pink quartzite bedrock second only to diamond in hardness. The city's two church-affiliated private schools date to this period; Augustana College, a Lutheran school, was founded in 1860, and the University of Sioux Falls, a Baptist school, opened in 1883.

Agriculture Provides Economic Base

Life on the Plains was a test of endurance. Snow began falling in October 1880 and continued until the following spring, isolating residents and forcing them to burn corn, wheat, hay, and railroad ties for heat sources. In spite of hardship, Sioux Falls gained in economic importance. South Dakota's lenient divorce law brought outsiders into Sioux Falls until the law was changed in 1908. One memorable case unfolded when the wife of heavyweight boxing champion Bob Fitzsimmons sought a divorce in Sioux Falls. Her distraught husband followed her and managed to change her mind. To celebrate their reunion, Fitzsimmons forged horseshoes and passed them out to admirers; in the process, the local blacksmith shop's floor gave way, injuring a young boy. Fitzsimmons then organized a benefit performance and gave the proceeds to the boy's family.

In 1942 the U.S. War Department leased Sioux Falls land for the construction of the Air Force Technical Radio School, invigorating the local economy and social life. Sioux Falls native Joe Foss won the Congressional Medal of Honor for shooting down 31 enemy airplanes in the Pacific campaign of World War II; after the war, Foss returned to Sioux Falls to become a successful businessman and commander of the South Dakota Air National Guard.

A Leader in Financial Services and Retail

Today Sioux Falls, through the processing of agricultural products, serves as a distribution center for farms in Iowa, Minnesota, and South Dakota. Ushered in by Citicorp, financial services has emerged as a primary industry, with healthcare close behind. The city is also a retail hot spot—the largest retail center between Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Sioux Falls attracts more than 14 million shoppers each year. Spurred in part by a statewide initiative, the city is focusing on becoming a driving force in research and technology. Sioux Falls offers amenities and points of interest including the University of Sioux Falls and Augustana College, a Baptist seminary, a school for the deaf, and its namesake, the Falls of the Big Sioux River.

Historical Information: Pettigrew Home & Museum, 200 W. 6th St., Sioux Falls, SD 57102; telephone (605)367-7097