A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Even before statehood, the Missouri River divided the State of South Dakota and her people into two distinct regions, East River and West River.  With farming in the east and ranching in the west, South Dakota has always had a split personality.

The East River area is more like the eastern United States, and the West River area is more like the rugged west.  Even the weather changes from east to west.  More rain in the east makes raising crops easier.  Less rain in the west makes raising cattle more common.  These differences have had an impact on the history and growth of the state.

The area west of the river contains more than one-half of the land area and approximately 28% of the population.    The area east of the river contains less than half of the land area; however, it claims 72% of the population.

The contrast between the two regions is striking.  East River is predominantly a corn and soybean region, with large numbers of pigs, poultry and dairy operations. West River is predominantly cattle ranching and dry land farming.  Folks living west of the river receive less rainfall than their neighbors to the east.

The two geographical sections of the state reveal differing patterns of European-American resettlement during the 19th and 20th centuries.  Throughout the second half of the 19th century, about 350,000 immigrants from western and northern Europe settled to the east of the Missouri River.  The later European immigrants, however, predominantly from southern and eastern Europe, settled in the West River region after 1889.  As a result of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, some 9 million acres of former Lakota land became available for purchase after the Great Sioux Reservation was broken up.  At the same time, the treaty reassigned the Native Americans to five smaller reservations west of the river and two on the east side of the river.

The area east of the river was heavily glaciated and largely covered by glacial till and loamy soil which is ideal for raising crops.  Glacial till is unsorted material deposited directly by glacial ice and shows no stratification.  It is sometimes called boulder clay because it is composed of clay and boulders of various sizes.

While driving in the rural areas east of the river, you will often see a pile of rocks located in the corner of the field from which they were taken.  In fact, on a prosperous and modern farm several miles north of Tyndall there is a large pile of rocks and boulders upon which is mounted a brightly painted John Deere tractor.  It is pulling a moldboard plow.  One might conclude that the farmer wanted to express his joy in winning the battle with the many rocks in that field and he was determined that his neighbors know about his accomplishment.

Loan soil is a mineral mixture of clay, sand, and silt.  In the right proportions, loam is the ideal medium for growing crops.  Its mineral content makes up less than half of the soil, while the rest is organic matter and empty space.  Without the latter two, little will grow in loam soil.

The soils west of the river are of three general classes, all fertile and productive.  North of the White River, Pierre Shale, commonly referred to as gumbo, extends back from the Missouri River to Belle Fourche.  South of the White River is the lighter sandy loan of the Niobrara River.  The Laramie soil extends into the Black Hills from Wyoming.

When wet, the gumbo makes travel next to impossible.  With each step forward, your feet increased in size until you were unable to move.  The wheels of wagons became clogged and movement forward was impossible until the gumbo had been removed.  In some cases this had to be done after only a few turns of the wheel.

The “Gumbo Lily” is a fragrant flower which grows close to the ground in dry or sandy soils on buttes or exposed hillsides.  It thrives in places where the conditions are similar to those in Badlands National Park.  The blossoms appear throughout the hot summer months, opening in the late afternoon and closing the next morning.

The “Gumbo Lily” is not a lily at all, but is in the primrose family.  It is also known as “Evening Primrose,” “Desert Evening Primrose,” and “Fragrant Evening Primrose.”  The blooms are large and bright white so as to be easily seen in the moonlight, to help hawk moths, its chief pollinator, find it more easily in the prairie night.

While European-American settlement of East River was largely by homesteaders moving west from Iowa and Minnesota, or immigrants arriving by train from eastern United States seaports, those who went to West River were first gold-seekers and miners, many from other gold rush locations to the west, such as Montana and Colorado.  They were followed by ranchers from Texas, Kansas, and Colorado.

As a result, East River was a high Scandinavian and German-descended population and culture similar that of Minnesota and Iowa.  The white majority population of West River was more ethnically diverse, with a culture similar to the Mountain states.

The differences between East River and West River are striking.  West River folks must have a tough and self-sufficient attitude and outlook regarding their world.  The closest fully-stocked grocery store could be more than one hour away.  Driving more than two hours to get groceries or see a doctor is nothing for West River folks.  For them, time takes on a totally different meaning – they call it “West River Time.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on March 6, 2024