Promoting Dakota

Farm Forum

Today, the South Dakota Department of Tourism spends millions to entice tourists to our state.

It’s a long-held practice, and it must work.

In the very early days, however, the upper midwest was looking for residents, not tourists. Our state needed people with gumption to settle here on free land, not just drive through with a stop for coffee at Al’s Oasis in Oacoma and a slug of free ice water at Wall Drug.

While many pioneers decided on their own to make a new life for themselves in Dakota Territory, others had to be talked into it.

Promotions sponsored by railroads and the territorial government to increase the number of settlers were needed to bring the population level up so it would qualify this area for statehood—and to help business.

Very often, what prospective settlers were told and read about this area were figments of early promoters’ imaginations with a little Jewish chutzpah and some American flim-flam added to the mix.

The first official effort to bring new residents to Dakota Territory was in 1865. The Territorial Legislature in Yankton appointed an immigration agent.

Lawmakers paid the expenses of Carl Meyer of Yankton to spend two months in his native Denmark working to convince Danes to emigrate to Dakota Territory. He convinced about 40 to come over.

Soon, three members on the Immigration Board were sent out to recruit residents. They handed out and mailed books and pamphlets extolling Dakota’s virtues and discounting the rumors of cold winters and hot, dry summers.

Railroads, look for passengers and freight, advertised, too. The opportunities in agriculture and free land were the big selling points.

One railroad ad extolled: “Vegetables of all kinds can be raised with little labor and the size they attain is almost marvelous.”

Photos of sod houses labeled 1880 and of three-story brick mansions labeled 1885 were included in the books.

Dakota had an exhilarating atmosphere in all seasons, making it a favorite for invalids, the books and advertisements said.

Dakota promoters referred to the “barren wastes of Iowa” and the “desolate plains of Nebraska.” Omaha was referred to as the Sodom of Nebraska. Sioux City was a “den of thieves.”

Whether any of this falderal convinced settlers to come here is difficult to judge. After all, the Sodom of Nebraska and the Den of Thieves became large cities.

Everyone in Sioux City can’t be that bad.

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