It is the year 1880. As railroads lay their tracks in Dakota Territory, a land trickle becomes a land rush. Fifteen years after the Civil War conflict ends, political fights over prohibition divide the country. Changing laws give women new rights to inherit property and gain custody of their children, but not the right to vote.
This is the year Thomas Edison receives a patent for the electric light bulb. It is the year of birth for the American Bell Telephone Company. Yet to be invented are the automobile, the film camera, and peanut butter.
By 1880, farmers seeking more productive land, and speculators hoping for quick riches, arrive in a county in Dakota Territory named Aurora for the Goddess of the Dawn. These newcomers will completely and irrevocably transform this area, unchanged for centuries, in a stunningly short period of time.
Before 1880, buffalo, antelope, coyote and prairie dog roam freely on the unbroken prairie. Grasses grow in rich soil atop ancient lake beds, prehistoric rocks and the fill of glaciers from an earlier age. Small creeks and lakes create a welcome habitat for fur-covered critters, several types of waterfowl and an abundance of fish.
Understanding the rhythms and cycles of this area, the native people survive hot summers, cold winters, grasshoppers, prairie fires, rain, drought, hail, blizzards and the endless wind. While hunting and fishing, they make camp near Firesteel Creek. When passing through, they follow an old trail between the James River to the east and the Missouri River to the west. Arriving in the early to mid 1800s, fur traders, explorers and United States soldiers temporarily visit the area as they move between the two rivers, crossing on the old Indian trail.
There are no roads, no towns, no homes and no schools. There are no farms, no crops, no cattle and no sheep.
After 1880, new people arrive. They quickly build roads and towns, homes and schools. They break the virgin sod, plant crops, raise cattle, and shear sheep. They come with big dreams of easy wealth, but no knowledge of the land, its climate, or the challenges of life on the prairie. And they change this place. Forever.
A few years earlier, as the tall grass danced in the wind on the treeless plains, eager adventurers, aspiring merchants, would-be farmers and ambitious politicians conspired to convert the open prairie into an agricultural paradise. Surveyors and mapmakers drew lines and markings to chart this particular place on the world’s atlas. Politicians took title to the land through treaties with local Indian tribes and met in the Dakota Territory capital of Yankton to carve that land into governmental units. First called Cragin County, then Aurora County, the boundaries, set in February 1879, included today’s Jerauld County.
After the mapping came the rush for free or cheap land. Some wanted to farm, but others hoped to quickly prove their claim and sell for high profit. Under the United States Preemption Act of 1841, “squatters,” meeting certain qualifications, could purchase 160 acres of government land for a very low price. More popular was the Homestead Act of 1862, promising 160 acres of free land to people who met the law’s qualifications, established a legitimate claim, and fulfilled specified criteria. Among them was living on the land five years. Another 160 acres of free land was available for those planting trees under the Timber Culture Act of 1873. Would-be settlers were allowed to acquire more than 160 acres by filing claims under any combination of these laws. The law also allowed claimants to pay cash for the land after six months of cultivation and residency.
A handful of people arrived in 1879 to claim land in Aurora County, registering their claims at the land office in the territorial capital of Yankton. By September of 1880, the government opened a land office in the county to the east, in the new city of Mitchell. By October, a new town called Plankinton was laid out, main street businesses were established and the train depot built. Oxen-pulled wagons brought the earliest settlers. Starting in 1881, the rail cars on the new tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway brought the rest. These new residents, both native-born and immigrant, arrived eager to make a quick fortune or establish a new life on the prairie in this place called Aurora County.
The history of those first years reveals a remarkable era of settlement and town building, forever changing the broad, rolling prairie into bustling towns and working farms. In 1880, the census reported 69 people and 21 farms in Aurora County. Five years later, the population had jumped to 5,950 and the farms numbered 1,278. After just seven years, in 1887, livestock counts included 6,314 cattle, 2,544 swine and 1,093 sheep. The 395 bushels of corn reported in 1880 had grown to 602,175 bushels. Average farmland value was $3.29 per acre. The county boasted two sizeable towns, Plankinton and White Lake, five banks, six newspapers, 72 schools, many churches and numerous business establishments.
In the before time, this land is an immense open space, with tall grasses rippling under the big blue sky. But, a new age dawned. People came from the east, turning the virgin sod as they planned new towns, new farms, new lives. In the after time, the wild prairie land was changed. Forever. It was the year 1880.
Andreas, A. T. Andreas’ Historical Atlas of Dakota, Chicago: R.R. Donnelley & Sons, 1884.
Aurora County History. Compiled by Aurora County Historical Society. Stickney, South Dakota: Argus Printers, 1983.
Hedges, Lynn S. Geology of Aurora and Jerauld Counties, South Dakota. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Geological Survey. Vermillion, South Dakota: South Dakota Geological Survey, 2001. http://www.sdgs.usd.edu/pubs/pdf/B-32.pdf.
Karolevitz, Bob. An Historic Sampler of Davison County. Virginia Beach, Virginia: Donning Co., 1993.
Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory, Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915.
Parker, Donald Dean, comp. History of Our County and State, Aurora County. Brookings, SD: South Dakota State College, 1960.
Updated version January 29, 2014. Original version published in The South Dakota Mail, Plankinton, SD on February 22, 2013.