A Short History of the Black Hills in Pennington County

Pennington County, South Dakota, located in the western end of South Dakota, is one of the most picturesque counties in the state.  The geology of the county is a mixture of mountains, prairie and badlands.  The majority of the western end of the county is located in the Black Hills, while the central part of the county is prairie and grasslands.  The southeastern part of Pennington County is made up of the Badlands of South Dakota, which spread into Shannon, and Jackson counties as well.    The Lakota Sioux called this part of the area Mako Sica or "land that is bad".  Researchers after studying the various formations in the area discovered that this area had been part of a warm inland sea many millions of years ago.  As the Black Hills rose up, the sea was drained and area was covered with layers of silt, clay, sand and volcanic ash.  Today those different fossil-laden layers are visible in the harsh moonscape-like layers of eroded gullies and hills.  The first humans appeared in the area approximately 10,000 years ago.


The Early Years
The Black Hills are some of the oldest mountains in North America, but don't get the same attention as the taller younger mountain ranges.  They have been the homeland of numerous Indian tribes, but the Sioux Indians traversed the Great Plains before the incursion of Europeans, drove out other inhabitants, and settled in the Black Hills area probably sometime in the mid to late 1700ís. The Black Hills, named Paha Sapa by the Lakota Sioux, paha meaning "height" (whether hills or mountains) and sapa meaning "black".   The area was explored extensively by French explorers in the mid-1740ís, and Spain even acquired sovereignty over the region in approximately 1762. The United States obtained the area as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Fur trappers and traders were the primary Caucasian visitors to the Black Hills since the western part of the Dakota Territory was considered Indian Territory. Dakota Territory was created in 1861, with most whites congregated in the southeastern part of the territory.


Gold Is Discovered
When General George Armstrong Custerís expeditionary force entered the Black Hills area in 1874, gold was discovered.  This discovery of gold in the Black Hills initiated the influx of prospectors, causing disturbances in the region.   The Black Hills had been closed to white entry under treaty terms with the Sioux.  Even the intervention of the United States military failed to discourage prospectors from taking their chances in the hills. The Sioux considered the Black Hills as sacred ground and made numerous attempts to protect them from the influx of whites. Many people were willing to chance the extreme conditions in hopes of striking it rich.  Western Pennington County has the remnants of many of these early attempts by miners.  A number of the current towns began either as a direct result of this mining, or as a result of providing supplies to them.  Eventually the surface deposits of gold diminished and other types of mining took over, eventually other resources proved more important in the development of the Black Hills and Pennington County.


Unrest In The Area
The dramatic influx of whites into the area that is now Pennington, Custer, Meade and Lawrence counties resulted in a number of battles between the Sioux and the new settlers.  The Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1875 and numerous other battles through the 1880s resulted from this influx of new settlers.  The last major incident occurred at Wounded Knee in 1890 when soldiers who had been sent to the Pine Ridge reservation to enforce the ban on the Ghost Dance killed Chief Big Foot and a group of elders, women and children.  A number of treaties with the Sioux had ended the major barriers to settlement by whites and had allowed South Dakota to become a state in 1889.


Westward Expansion and The New Economy
Although the first transcontinental railroad was established in 1869, the first railroad didnít come into Pennington County until 1906/1907.   The Chicago & North Western and the Milwaukee Road both reached Rapid City and increased the trade with the east.  Now settlers and trade goods could leave Sioux Falls or Sioux City and arrive in Rapid City in just a couple of days, rather than a week or more.  Agriculture, primarily cattle ranching, eventually became the major economic emphasis of Pennington County and the railroads facilitated the movement of cattle to eastern markets.

It wasnít until the advent of the automobile and paved roads that the latest economic boom arrived Ė tourism.   And of course in 1927 a little known sculptor called Gutzon Borglum began carving on Mount Rushmore.  He died in 1941, before he could complete the sculpture, but his son Lincoln finished work on the Shrine of Democracy in October of that year.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt had created the Badlands National Monument in 1939.  These two attractions are visited by millions of people every year and provide a major economic impact to the area.