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Exploring the Past in South Dakota

Archaeology and History Sites in South Dakota

Adams House

Located in the city of Deadwood, the Adams House was finished in 1892. Designed in the Queen Anne architectural style, it reflected the growing wealth apparent in the town, emerging from its role in gold mining. During the early 20th century the former town mayor W. E. Adams owned the house, giving it its present name. In 1992 the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission purchased the house and in 2000 opened it to visitors.

Chapel in the Hills

The Chapel in the Hills near Rapid City is a rare example of a Scandinavian stave church built in North America. A replica of the 12th century Borgund Stave Church in Norway, it was consecrated in 1969. The museum is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and was initially used as a radio station from which to broadcast vespers. A 19th century log cabin is also preserved on the site.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Still under constructions, the Crazy Horse Memorial site will depict an enormous representation of the famed Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. The monument is being carved into Thunderhead Mountain of the Black Hills area, a site considered sacred by some Oglala Lakota. And it was an elder of this tribe, Henry Standing Bear, that commissioned the sculpture. The sculpture was planned by Korczak Ziolkowski.

Fort Thompson Mounds

The Fort Thompson Mounds are scattered around the Crow Creek Reservation in Buffalo County. A series of low earthen mounds, they were used as burial sites; one was radiocarbon dated to 2450 BCE. From 1957, archaeologists excavated some of the mounds ahead of the construction of the Big Bend Dam, which was destined to submerge some of them beneath the water. In 1964 the mound complex was declared a National Historic Landmark.

Ingalls Homestead – Laura’s Living Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder is well known for her Little House on the Prairie novels, later made into a successful 1970s television show. The books were partly based on her childhood in De Smet, where her family moved in 1879 and lived till 1886. At the Ingalls Homestead heritage attraction, visitors can learn more about the rural life of homesteaders in South Dakota during the late 19th century.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Dominating the second half of the 20th century, the Cold War saw the U.S. and Soviet Union develop the ability to engage in annihilation on a colossal scale through nuclear war. At the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, visitors can learn more about the role of nuclear weapons in this era by exploring a U.S. missile base. As well as a visitor’s centre, the site also offers tours of a launch control facility.

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

The Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village in Davison County marks the site of a prehistoric settlement inhabited around the 9th century. Amongst the evidence of habitation unearthed here are various earthen-houses. The archaeological site was first discovered in 1910, with excavations having taken place at various points since then. The on-going excavation is now open to the public, allowing non-archaeologists a rare insight into the direct workings of the process of archaeological investigation.

Mount Rushmore

The most famous site in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore now hosts the faces of four U.S. Presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln – carved into the side of a mountain in the Black Hills. The sculptor Gutzon Borglum created the sculptures between 1927 and 1941. The site was designed as a tourist attraction and remains so to this day, having also become an internationally recognised icon of the United States.

Pettigrew Home and Museum

The Pettigrew mansion in Sioux Falls was built in 1889 in the Queen Anne architectural style. Senator Richard Franklin Pettigrew bought the house in 1911. Over the coming years he filled it with the archaeological and historical material he collected, much pertaining to the heritage of Sioux Falls and this area of South Dakota. At his death in 1926, the house was left to the state, who maintain it as a visitor attraction.

Spirit Mound

A natural feature, Spirit Mound near Vermillion is part of a publicly accessible park. The site is one of few locations which we know for certain were visited by Lewis and Clark during their early 19th century trek across North America. They visited the mound in 1804, noting at the time that Native communities living in the vicinity refused to approach it because they feared it was inhabited by malevolent little people.

Wounded Knee Battlefield

The Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890 saw the U.S. Army enter the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with the intent of disarming the Lakota living there. It resulted in the slaughter of between 250 and 300 Lakota, many of them unarmed women and children. Twenty U.S. soldiers involved in the massacre received Medals of Honor, an ongoing source of anger among Lakota communities. A museum at the site gives visitors greater information.

Museums in South Dakota

1881 Courthouse Museum

The 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer opened in 1976 thanks to the efforts of the Custer County Historical Society. The museum occupies an Italianate structure completed in 1880 which served as a centre for local government between 1881 and 1973. Exhibits in the museum showcase local history, exploring both the heritage of the Lakota Sioux people and the arrival of European Americans, focusing on incidents like the 1874 expedition of General George Custer.

Akta Lakota Museum

The Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain devotes itself to the heritage and culture of the Lakota people. Opened in 1991, the museum is an extension of the St. Joseph’s Indian School and operates out of a former school building. Its displays detail Lakota life before the arrival of European American settlers, the impact of this colonisation, and the continued cultural survival of the Lakota people. It also features the Outdoor Medicine Wheel Garden.

Black Hills Mining Museum

Based in the city of Lead, the Black Mills Mining Museum brings visitors’ attention to the gold mining industry that was a major component of the local economy during the late 19th and 20th centuries. Visitors can take a tour of a replica mine to gain a better insight into the harsh realities of mining life. A broad range of artefacts associated with this mining industry are also on display.

Codington County Heritage Museum

The Codington County Heritage Museum in Watertown explores the history of this county in eastern South Dakota. The museum occupies what was formerly the Carnegie Free Public Library, built in 1906 and open until 1967. A youth group used the building for a period before it became the museum. The permanent displays are accompanied by a range of temporary exhibitions and special events that take place throughout the year.

Days of ‘76 Museum

Taking visitors back to 1876, the Days of ’76 Museum in Deadwood is devoted to the story of the European American pioneers who settled this area near the Black Hills in the late 19th century. The museum opened in 1990, later moving to its present purpose-built premises. It derives its name from the annual Days of ’76 festival, a parade and rodeo that has taken place in Deadwood since 1924.

Journey Museum and Learning Center

The Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City focuses its attentions on the history of the Black Hills. Combining geology, palaeontology, and archaeology, the museum explores how the Hills formed and then the dinosaurs that once lived here before moving on to look at the evidence for early human habitation. It proceeds from the Paleo-Indian settlers through to the arrival of European American settlers. Several acres of garden surround the museum.

Mammoth Site

The Mammoth Site at Hot Springs marks the location where the remains of mammoths, ancient cousins of the elephant who are now extinct, have been unearthed. The bones were discovered in 1974, and since that time excavation has revealed over fifty specimens whose bodies came to rest here. The museum showcases the remains of these magnificent beasts, as well as prehistoric tone tools linked to the Clovis and Folsom cultures.

National Music Museum

One of the world’s foremost museums of music, the National Music Museum in Vermillion houses over 15,000 instruments in its collection. Opened in 1973 on the campus of the University of South Dakota, the museum showcases material associated with a broad and diverse range of musical styles. Many of its artefacts come from Europe, including the earliest known French grand piano, created in the 18th century.

South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center

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South Dakota’s Original 1880 Town

At this open-air museum near Murdo, over thirty buildings dating from between 1880 and 1920 have been assembled, decked out in authentic historical furnishings. Visitors can rent 19th century costumes for some memorable photographs. The 1880 Town also hosts the Casey Tibbs Museum, devoted to the nine-time winner of the World Champion Rodeo Cowboy trophy, and props from the film Dancing with Wolves. A Santa Fe Train car serves as a 1950s-style diner.

The giant carvings of four American presidents at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota.
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