25 Rugged Facts About South Dakota

Chloe Effron
Chloe Effron / Chloe Effron

Filled with fertile prairies, craggy mountains, and rolling hills, is it any wonder that adventurous American pioneers were initially drawn to South Dakota? Over the centuries, the state has seduced prospectors with promises of gold, and attracted tourists from around the world with its breathtaking state parks and monuments. Here are 25 bits of trivia you should know about America's 40th (or was it the 39th?) state of the Union.

1. Nicknames for South Dakota include the Mount Rushmore State, the Coyote State, and the Sunshine State. (Another, more fitting, state moniker is the Blizzard State.) South Dakota is also called the Artesian State, thanks to its large number of artesian wells, and is sometimes referred to as the “Land of Plenty" and "The Land of Infinite Variety."

2. South Dakota’s most famous landmark is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a larger-than-life sculpture that was carved into the side of a granite mountain in the Black Hills between 1927 and 1941. Constructed to attract tourists to the remote area, it features the faces of four U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Although each awe-inspiring head is 60 feet high, the entire project took only 14 years and less than $1 million to complete.


3. Speaking of Mount Rushmore, the renowned peak got its name from Charles E. Rushmore, a lawyer from New York City who made a business trip to the Black Hills in 1884 to check the legal titles on properties. He asked a local what the mountain’s name was, and he replied, "Never had a name but from now on we'll call it Rushmore."

4. While Mount Rushmore receives more than 2 million visitors per year, it may someday be dwarfed by a mountain sculpture of Lakota warrior Chief Crazy Horse. The privately-financed sculpture has been in the works since 1948. If it's ever finished, it will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long, making it the largest stone sculpture in the world. 

5. If you’re a loner, consider taking up residency in South Dakota. It’s the fifth least populous and the fifth least densely populated of all 50 states. 

6. Speaking of population, Pierre, South Dakota is the second least populous state capital in the U.S. As of the 2010 census, it only had 13,646 residents. (The least populous capital, Montpelier, had 7855.)

7. Pierre, South Dakota is also the only capital city in the U.S. that doesn’t share at least one letter with its state.

8. While Pierre is the capital of South Dakota, its largest city is Sioux Falls, which has a population of nearly 170,000.

9. South Dakota’s state motto is “Under God the People Rule,” its state song is “Hail! South Dakota!”, and its state flower is the pasque flower, a blossom that grows wild across the state’s prairies each spring. 

10. Sioux Falls, South Dakota was once known as the “Divorce Capital of the Nation." During the early 20th century, most states required at least one year of residency and grounds of adultery for a married couple to legally split up. In contrast, Sioux Falls had a residency requirement of only three to six months, and allowed individuals to divorce on six grounds. Thanks to these conditions, more than 6000 divorces were granted from 1889 until the laws were overhauled in 1909. (About two-third of those splits involved people who weren’t from South Dakota.) Recently, Sioux Falls paid homage to this dubious distinction by erecting a historical marker downtown.

11. In the late 1950s, Sioux Falls-based manufacturing company Raven Industries created the first modern hot air balloon system

12. The small ranch town of Belle Fourche, South Dakota bills itself as the geographic center of North America. Although city officials celebrated the distinction by building a giant stone compass landmark, the true center actually sits about 20 miles north of the town, and is marked with a humble red-tipped fence post. 

13. Famous figures that hail from South Dakota include TV journalist Tom Brokaw, actress January Jones, Ernest O. Lawrence, who invented the cyclotron particle accelerator and won the 1939 Nobel Prize for Physics, and Hubert Humphrey, who served as the 38th Vice President of the U.S. Laura Ingalls Wilder also chronicled the years she spent on a South Dakota homestead in her popular Little House book series. 

Wikipedia//CC BY 2.0

14. Each year, the tiny farming town of Clark, South Dakota throws a giant party to celebrate its chief crop: the humble potato. Potato Day features a Best Decorated Potato Contest, a Potato Dish Cooking Contest, and a Mashed Potato Wrestling Contest in which adults grapple in a huge tub of pureed spuds.

15. If you’re into corny roadside attractions, check out the world’s only Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota. Built in the Moorish Revival style, the fanciful multi-purpose community venue is covered in murals that were created from thousands of bushes of local corn, grain, and grasses. 

Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 3.0

16. Over the years, the Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota has yielded a treasure trove of fossils that date as far back as 35 million years ago. Scientists and amateur fossil hunters alike have unearthed now-extinct animals like three-toed horses, antelope-like creatures, creodonts (a type of carnivorous mammal), and more.

17. In fact, one of history's most famous dinosaurs, Sue the T. Rex, was discovered near the Badlands in 1990. At 42 feet long and 12 feet high at the hips, she's considered to be the largest and most-complete T. rex ever found. You can check out Sue if you visit The Field Museum in Chicago, where she's part of the institution's permanent collections.

Wikipedia//CC BY-SA 2.0

18. The Revenant (2015), a film adapted from the 2002 novel of the same name, tells the fictionalized story of Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th-century frontiersman whose companions left him for dead after he was attacked by a bear. In the film, Glass survives his injuries, and treks across the snow-covered South Dakota wilderness to exact his revenge on the man who abandoned him

19. With over 180 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, Jewel Cave in South Dakota's Black Hills currently ranks as the third-largest cave in the world.

20. Early pioneers who ventured into the Black Hills noted that the Native Americans who lived there possessed gold. Country officials caught wind of the riches, and in 1874 an expedition of more than 1000 men from the United States Army's 7th Cavalry set out in pursuit of the precious metal. They discovered small quantities in Custer, South Dakota. After the press caught wind of their findings, men from across the country traveled to the region in hopes of striking it rich. Today, the phenomenon is remembered by historians as the Black Hills Gold Rush. 

21. The largest and deepest gold mine in the United States was discovered in Lead, South Dakota. The Homestake Mine opened in 1876, and only recently closed in 2002. 

22. During the Black Hills Gold Rush, prospectors settled in lawless frontier towns like Deadwood, where brothels, gambling, and drinking were rampant and most arguments were settled with a shooting match. The town's rough-and-tumble past was brought to life in the HBO drama Deadwood, which spanned three seasons from 2004 to 2006.  

23. South Dakota gets its name from the Dakota Sioux Native American tribes, who originally settled the area. It's thought that the word "Dakota" means “friend” or “ally” in the Sioux language.

24. Would you rather settle in South Dakota, or Mars? That's a question that was recently posited by the South Dakota Governor's Office of Economic Development. They launched an ad campaign last spring telling potential residents why they should choose to live in their state instead of signing up to colonize the Red Planet. Their logic? Earth has air, not to mention jobs. Meanwhile, Mars has neither. "Why die on Mars when you can live in South Dakota?" the ad asks.


25. Three states in the U.S. have made rodeo their official state sport: Texas, Wyoming, and South Dakota.