By Kathleen Block, Paha Wakan Chapter of Vermillion, South Dakota

History in South Dakota begins with the Civil War times rather than the Revolutionary. Daughters of the American Revolution will not be seen wandering through cemeteries looking for their ancestors’ graves or copying records in courthouses. Even the Civil War in 1864 in Vermillion, South Dakota, was not always uppermost in the settlers thoughts. South Dakota was not a southern state and neither was it a northern state. It was just a territory created on March 2, 1861, encompassing North and South Dakota and some of Wyoming and Montana, the area “left out” when Minnesota became a state and Minnesota territory no longer existed. Settlers were absorbed in trying to build shelters for their families and to prove up their homesteads. At the time of the Census of 1860 fewer than 1,000 settlers lived in South Dakota and half of them were concentrated in the southeast corner. Hamlin Garland in the poem, “Dakota,” dated 1885, describes the rest of the territory:

No voice in all that wide careen Of boundless surf and upflung swell That broke a-bloom; no trace was seen Of Hand of man – no shadow fell.

In graveyards far back in farmer’s fields, overgrown with virgin prairie grasses and flowers which in other places were plowed under and have all but disappeared today, searchers may come upon the sight of the graves of as many as eight children in one family who all died within two days of each other from dreaded diphtheria. Norwegian imported crosses testify to the waves of immigrants who came to this frontier not knowing what to anticipate.

In 1861 Captain Nelson Miner had organized Company A of the 1st Dakota Cavalry to protect the settlers from possible Indian attacks. One of his major concerns became to get some education for his children and the children of other settlers. In November of 1864 he asked the settlers to meet with him; he proposed that they build a schoolhouse. He led off by donating $30 and the services of his men. Several settlers volunteered to provide the logs, and together the men felled, hewed, and, with the help of the cavalry horses, dragged the logs into position. Almost in one day they had erected the first permanent schoolhouse to be built in Dakota Territory.

It was a one-room cabin with one door and windows on two sides. The logs were cottonwood found along the Missouri River, sixteen and twenty feet long and well over a foot in diameter. They were chinked with Dakota clay. The sides of the cabin were eight feet high. The floor was of planks laid on the ground and the pointed roof was of “Dakota Shingles”: mud, which fell down on the students in every rain. This roof was replaced at the earliest opportunity by wood shingles. The desks were long benches. A wood-burning stove was placed in the middle of the room so that the teacher and pupils could be as close to it as possible. School could not meet during the bitterest part of the winter; often fall, spring, and short summer sessions were held. One can not be sure whether the windows had glass panes in them. Glass was a scarce commodity then. Every homestead was required to have one windowpane, and many homesteaders borrowed a pane long enough to prove up their claim and then returned it to be used by other homesteaders.