Coteau des Prairies

On our journey north earlier in the summer we hugged the western boundary of South Dakota. A few weeks later we skirted the eastern edge of the state. Our first stop was the little farm town of De Smet. The town owes its name to Father Pierre De Smet, a Jesuit missionary who worked among the Plains tribes during the mid 1800s. The town owes its fame to a series of children’s books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I devoured those books as a young girl—oh how I connected with Laura: her spunk, her tomboyishness, and of course, her stubbornness. So, no question about it—we had to take a side trip over to De Smet (lucky Lance).

Laura’s family was like many of the young pioneering families of the time that roamed across a wild and rugged landscape in hopes of creating a better life. What made Laura’s story so special was that years later, she took the time to write down her memories of her family’s many trials and tribulations. After several false starts in Minnesota, Iowa, and Indian Territory the Ingalls moved west one final time in 1879.

Charles Ingalls, Laura’s Pa, landed a job with the railroad working at the end of the line in the Dakota Territory. When Pa moved his wife and their four daughters into the Surveyor’s House they became the first residents of the newly minted town of De Smet. Laura, their second oldest child was twelve years old. It was a cold and lonely winter but in early 1880 Pa wisely homesteaded a section of nearby land and by late spring a bustling town had sprung up. Soon there were shops, hotels, a church, and even a school.

Four of the books in Laura’s Little House series, By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and The First Four Years chronicle the adventures and challenges the family experienced during the town’s early years. Though, as we learned while visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes Center, Laura chose to exclude some of the most harrowing stories from her books. We discovered a grisly little tale in a transcript of one of Laura’s speeches that I’ll summarize for you.

Two brothers and a sister ran a small tavern along a regularly traveled route. The Ingalls family often stopped there to rest their horses but since they never had any money they did not go into the tavern. Word soon spread that some travelers never made it to their destination. At first the disappearances were blamed on Indians but then someone noticed that the field in front of the tavern was always freshly plowed but never planted.

Finally a group of concerned settlers paid a visit to the tavern. The place was empty but the story soon became clear—there was blood on a curtain, on a hammer, and in the field was a partially dug grave. As the men dug through the field they came across more and more bodies. At this point a posse was formed to search for the murderous siblings, Laura’s Pa rode out with them that evening. He never discussed what happened that night but he later asserted that the trio would never be found. What a chilling little tale! It is easy to understand why that story never made it into her books.

During our muggy afternoon visit De Smet could’ve been “The Little Town on the Field.” Smoke from burning fields billowed in the heavy air searing our eyes while dust from harvesting operations irritated our noses. Though massive equipment now lumbers across the fields I don’t think the population of the area has grown much in the past 125 years. The Loftus Store still sells supplies in town, Pa’s cottonwoods still shade the lane by the old Ingalls homestead and the Big Slough still attracts all manner of waterfowl. In a funny quirk, the diminutive 4’10” Laura and her stories dominate De Smet.

Leaving the little town behind we drove down into Sioux Falls, our home for the next week. We arrived on the heels of doozy of a thunderstorm, one of many to recently pummel the Coteau des Prairies region1. The Big Sioux River, which runs through town dropping over a series of sandstone ledges (hence the city’s name), was on flood watch. Things were certainly buzzing in the state’s largest city: the Falls were flowing, the Sioux Empire Fair was in full swing, and a steady stream of motorcycles roared through on I-90 on their way to the rally in Sturgis.

Unfortunately, it was a busy week for us so we had little opportunity to participate in all the city had to offer. Although, considering the high temps and the high humidity it probably wouldn’t have been all that fun. On Saturday I carved out some time for a trip to Pipestone National Monument in neighboring Minnesota—after all I couldn’t be that close to a major archaeological site and not explore it.

Pipestone is a unique unit of our National Park system in that its main purpose as stated in the 1937 legislation that created the monument is “to administer and protect the pipestone quarries…for Indians of all tribes.” So while there is a museum, a gift shop, and a trail that winds through the heart of the property much of the land and all of the quarrying are off limits to tourists.

The area’s protection stems from the Treaty of 1858 in which tribes ceded thousands of acres of land to the U.S. government in exchange for various provisions. One of those was Article 8 which guaranteed the Yankton Sioux rights to the pipestone quarry. Pa-la-ne-a-pa-pe, Struck by the Ree, the leader of the tribe insisted upon the rights. Catlinite, the soft red rock prized for carving ceremonial pipes—primarily calumets—was sacred to his tribe and many others2.

The area’s quarrying history stretches back three thousand years. By insisting on that provision Struck by the Ree achieved some success in dealing with the white man. Perhaps his ability can be credited to his growing up in their presence. He was certainly no stranger to the white man’s ways—as a baby he was swaddled in an American flag by Captain Meriwether Lewis who led the Corps of Discovery through the area in 1804.

The treaty’s first real test came with the flood of settlers into the area in the 1870s. Settlers ignored the quarry’s boundaries and began homesteading, a railroad was built across the land, and everyone began digging up the precious red rock. Surprisingly the complaints of the Yankton Sioux were heeded and the government sent the U.S. army to reestablish the boundary. It possibly helped that the quarries had been shared with the public, and captured their imagination, first in the 1836 painting by George Catlin and later by explorer Jean-Nicolas Nicollet’s report of his 1838 survey.

While I’m dropping names here are a couple more for you: when Nicollet left Fort Snelling on his mapping expedition he was accompanied by John C. Fremont (a man who went on to play a prominent role in the west) and the aforementioned priest, Father De Smet. Don’t you just love it when all the threads weave together so nicely?

But, back to Pipestone. The years preceding the creation of the monument were full of legal maneuvers, land ownership changes, and even a boundary alteration all in an attempt to protect the quarries. These days only Native Americans from federally-recognized tribes can work the rock quarries at the monument. It is no easy task either, the desired catlinite layer is squished between two thick strata of Sioux quartzite and all of the rock must be removed without the help of power tools.

On the day of my visit I felt fortunate to witness part of the quarrying process. The men with their long black hair worked as a team, one breaking up quartzite with a sledgehammer and chisel, the other removing the debris by the bucketful. Later in the gift shop I watched another man masterfully tease an intricate pipe out of a chunk of catlinite. The entire process requires an impressive amount of work at every stage—one might be forgiven for asking, “All that effort just to smoke some tobacco?” Yes and no. While the pipes were used to smoke tobacco leaves, smoking was actually a ritualistic act. For many tribes smoking was an activity shared during important ceremonies when prayers were necessary. The puffs of smoke emitted from the pipe carried their prayers up to the spirits.

Gives an entirely different meaning to the phrase, “goes up in smoke” now, doesn’t it?

Photos: View our photographs from South Dakota.

Dates: We stayed in South Dakota from 08/08/10 to 08/15/10.


1 A large plateau in eastern South Dakota, northern Iowa, and southwestern Minnesota.

2 The Sisseton-Wahpeton, Iowa, Cheyenne, Arikara, Oto, Lakota, Winnebago, Dakota, Mandan, Ponca, Sauk, Fox, Santee, and Flandrau tribes all shared the quarries.

4 thoughts on “Coteau des Prairies

  1. Erin

    What a great idea, Karen – share them with the next generation! I’m currently looking for a couple of Rose Wilder Lane’s book (Laura’s daughter) that deal with some parts of Laura’s life but from a grown-up perspective. Should be interesting…


  2. [redacted]

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  3. Erin Willett

    Thanks for the kind words. The writing and all other content on our website is of our own creation and comes from our love for exploring, learning, and sharing what we’ve seen and experienced. No paid content of any kind.


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