Nathan Sanderson

Nathan Sanderson

To understand the roots of the 21st century politics of this area of South Dakota, venture back to the early 1900s on the desolate plains west of the Missouri River, where the odds were against those white settlers brave enough — or foolish enough — to stake a land claim.

Many were ranchers, and if the loneliness and droughts and harsh winters didn't beat them and their herds, the wolves might.

The gray wolf "is not the least backward about eating beef," proclaimed a guide to hunting and trapping wolves, published in 1919 by a West River "wolfer."

"They are a good deal like sheep-killing dogs; sometimes they will kill three or four cattle in one night," the guide's author wrote.

The state of South Dakota paid a bounty of $5 on grown wolves, according to the guide, but when that proved insufficient to protect cattle, ranchers took matters into their own hands and paid bounties of up to $20. 

That kind of individual resourcefulness was required of West River settlers who were scattered across the countryside in small numbers. Their experience was different from those who settled in greater numbers two decades earlier on the state's more fertile East River soil. And those differences contributed to political disparities between the two regions that continue to this day, according to newly published historical research.

Nathan Sanderson, a historian and member of Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s cabinet, wrote an essay titled “The Roots of West River Republicanism” for the recently released second volume of “The Plains Political Tradition,” a book published by the South Dakota Historical Society Press. Sanderson, who serves as Daugaard’s director of policy and operations, has a doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Sanderson found that in the 15 South Dakota counties west of the Missouri River and outside American Indian reservations, Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1.

One reason for that, according to Sanderson, is the rugged individualism that West River geography required of its settlers. The other three roots of West River Republicanism, according to Sanderson, are the Republican-leaning settlers from Midwestern states who populated the area; a delayed period of settlement compared to East River; and West River settlers' widespread desire for increased development.


Farming communities of East River bonded around their common identity and built communities centered on such institutions as churches, schools and clubs. Settlers brought some of that along when they moved west.

But in the West River region, they encountered unique and challenging landscapes such as the “wooded Black Hills, windswept badlands, and vast plains of western South Dakota” that forced them into a more isolated existence. Because the climate was drier and the soil less fertile than east of the river, more land was needed to make a living, and the settlers lived farther apart.

Thus, in the wilder West River, individualism was the norm.

“Because their population could support fewer law-enforcement officers and other government officials, West River residents had to develop close ties with their neighbors and fend for themselves,” Sanderson wrote. “The resulting culture of self-defense and self-reliance aligned most closely with the principles of the GOP, and over time this unique geographical area became a Republican stronghold.”

Republican settlers

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Many of the people who settled in the West River region came from Midwestern states such as Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Ohio. Those states, Sanderson noted, were the most reliable Republican voting bloc during the period that included West River settlement. In 12 of the 18 presidential elections between 1860 and 1928, the Republican candidate won all seven Midwestern states.

Local histories in West River places like Fall River County mention settlers from those Midwestern states and other places, including Europe and Canada, “but almost none of the new arrivals to Fall River County came from the heavily Democratic South,” Sanderson wrote, citing an example reflective of West River as a whole.

Delayed settlement

While railroads and homesteaders were venturing into the East River region in the 1870s and 1880s, the entire West River region belonged to Sioux Indians as part of the Great Sioux Reservation.

The Black Hills was cut out of the reservation in 1877, bringing some pioneers to that area. The rest of the Great Sioux Reservation remained intact until it was split into five smaller reservations in 1889, and about 9 million acres of West River land were opened to white settlement. By the time that happened, about 300,000 people had already settled in eastern Dakota Territory.

Even after West River was opened to white settlers, it remained largely unsettled for more than a decade, Sanderson wrote, “due to drought, geographic inaccessibility, stricter requirements to acquire homesteads on former Indian lands, and a national economic depression.”

West River settlement accelerated after 1907 with the advancement of railroads, and more than 100,000 people settled West River between 1900 and 1915. While many West River towns were springing up, many East River towns were already more than 20 years old.

“The relative delay in settlement resulted in a political culture defined, in part, by what West River residents did not experience,” Sanderson wrote.

One of the things not experienced west of the Missouri River was the late 1800s populist movement. It rose in response to what East River farmers perceived as “unfair practices on the part of railroads and other privileged economic actors,” Sanderson wrote, and it pitted everyday people against elites in a movement that was initially more Democratic than Republican. The movement briefly interrupted Republican dominance in the state but flamed out by the time settlers poured into West River.

“While those things were going on in eastern South Dakota, there was nobody in western South Dakota,” Sanderson said Nov. 13 in Vermillion at a launch event for the book.

Desire for development

The delayed settlement of West River contributed to the vast economic differences between it and East River. West River not only had a late start, but also had less rainfall, less fertile soils, less infrastructure and fewer people.

The Republican Party, viewed as more pro-development than the Democratic Party, was therefore a natural choice for many West River voters who shared “a tremendous, pervasive desire for further regional development,” Sanderson wrote.

Lingering populist sentiment may have aided Democrats in other areas, where voters resented the growing power of railroad barons and other large corporate interests. But in western South Dakota, voters knew they needed to attract moneyed interests to spark development.

“Many West River voters recognized that large companies would be necessary to the development of the region but thought that they should be held to some reasonable standards, and they trusted the Republican Party to achieve the right balance for the region’s economic growth,” Sanderson wrote. “In contrast, some feared that the Democrats would shut down trusts completely instead of merely regulating them, stunting the development of the West River country before it could reach its potential.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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