Lars Levi Laestadius
Early Apostolic Preacher in Finland Sweden and Lapland
Today’s South Dakota, with a population of about 770,000, looks very different from the South Dakota of 1889. Prior to statehood and widespread settlement, the area supported a thriving American Indian population that hunted and traded with each other and with the trappers who had followed the rivers. The Indians followed and hunted buffalo herds, planted gardens, dug prairie roots, and picked wild fruits to sustain themselves. There were few white settlers.
Why They Came
the Lewis & Clark Expedition of 1804-1806 provided early information about the land that would become Dakota Territory. From the 1840s through the 1860s, over 250,000 settlers moved west along the California, Oregon, and Mormon Trails that ran south of Dakota Territory through Nebraska. Relatively few of this “Great Migration” came north into Dakota Territory, but some did. By 1870, the South Dakota area of Dakota Territory had a population of 11,776.
The 1860 U.S. Census, taken in unorganized Dakota Territory, gave a population count of 4,837.
Social and religious pressures, wars, and famines in Europe drove many to seek better fortunes in America. The Homestead Act of 1862, with its promise of 160 acres of free land, attracted many immigrants. The railroads also played a big part in the settlement of Dakota.
In October 1872, the first rail line crossed the Big Sioux River into Dakota Territory at Yankton.
Railroads grew rapidly, bringing in goods and settlers. In the next two decades, a network of rails blanketed eastern Dakota. Other lines moved into the Black Hills to service its growing population. Railroads owned a great deal of property and they needed people to buy and settle on the land.
Along with newspaper editors, land agents, and government officials, railroad companies used every tactic to entice settlers. “This is the sole remaining paradise in the western world,” they said, “Come to Dakota and get yourself a farm!”
Many early settlers located near military forts for protection. Early Norwegians settled near a fort close to present-day Sioux Falls, using both the protection it offered and the wooded areas that grew along the Great Sioux River.
Custer’s military expedition through the Black Hills in 1874 uncovered
another reason to come to Dakota Territory: Gold! The Indians had been promised the Black Hills by the 1868 Laramie Treaty, but nothing could stop the push for gold. Waves of miners and other Danes who arrived were largely literate, due to compulsory education laws in Denmark. Viborg celebrates its heritage each year on the third weekend in July at Danish Festival Days.
“Finnish immigrants were not numerous in South Dakota, never comprising more than one-half of one percent of the state’s population. In 1878, Pastor Torsten Estensen and his Apostolic Lutheran followers established Poinsett, in northern Brookings County. About 200 Finns came to that area between 1878 and 1890. Torsten came from Hedmark Norway with his cousin Simon Hoel. They both lived in Calumet Michigan when they first arrived in America. They worked in the copper mines, married and both started families there in Michigan before coming West to Dakota Territory. Torsten and Simon were instrumental in starting the Apostolic Church near Lake Poinsett and Lake Norden.”
A Finnish emigrant agent, Kustaa Frederick Bergstadius, started Finn
settlement in Savo Township in Brown County in 1882. The area soon had two churches, a lending library, temperance society, and brass band. Finns settled in concentrated groups, possibly because their language was so different from that of other Scandinavian immigrants. The gold rush
also brought Finnish miners to the Black Hills. Lead had 1,300 Finnish, mostly young and unmarried men, by 1900. Many Finnish miners would later marry and settle in rural communities throughout Harding, Lawrence, and Perkins counties.
“Arne Mackey’s father was an early miner at Lead.