Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Travelers heading west in South Dakota on Interstate 90 confront the geographic and cultural distinctiveness of the "west river country" as they cross the Missouri River at Chamberlain. The countryside they have traversed to that point is farm country, albeit increasingly sweeping, open, and treeless. Its talismans are the nineteenth-century white frame houses, the hipped-roof dairy barns, the fenced fields, the familiar crops of corn and soybeans. West of the river the land is starkly higher, drier, rougher, and emptier. Farms and ranches are far fewer, scattered so widely that travelers might scan the horizon in vain for several miles, looking for a telltale grove to mark human habitation. Farm and ranch buildings, when they do appear, are often less substantial than those east of the river. The twentieth-century homesteading frontier that shaped the west river country left its legacy in the small claim shacks that residents cobbled together to create homes and outbuildings once the boom years ended.

The mystique of the west river country lies in its harsh environment and its dramatic history. The Lakota people, nomadic buffalo hunters, skilled horsemen, and feared warriors, claimed the region as their own. When the U.S. government forced them to reservations after Red Cloud's War in 1868, the reservations and west river country became virtually synonymous. The west river country in many minds was the land of "savages." The open range cattle years, though short-lived, brought to the region hard-riding, hard-living ranchers and cowboys who lived without civilization or amenities, wresting their living from cruel nature and glorying in their freedom. The west river country, under their tutelage, became a land associated with physical prowess, self-reliance, and romance.

The final ingredient in the west river mystique came with the homesteading rush after 1900. It brought with it farmers, town builders, speculators, and dreamers–people who came to transform the land they perceived as both a savage and a romantic wilderness. They hoped to create a productive agricultural paradise. They reduced the size of the reservations, fenced the open range, laid railroad tracks, plowed the tough sod, and built market towns across the prairie. But repeated drought and hard times reshaped and reduced their ambitions until mere survival in the face of hardship became their definition of success. The west river country in the farming years became a land of hard work, struggle, and intense pride, virtues still prized there today.

Paula M. Nelson University of Wisconsin-Platteville

Nelson, Paula M. After the West Was Won: Homesteaders and Town Builders in Western South Dakota, 1900–1917. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1986.

Nelson, Paula M. The Prairie Winnows out Its Own: The West River Country of South Dakota in the Years of Depression and Dust. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996.

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