Many local historical societies in South Dakota celebrated the centennials of their towns and counties by publishing commemorative books during the 1980s. Most of the stories focused on the contributions and experiences of the men, while overlooking the voices of the women who helped shape the local societies. When these books were written, pioneer memories were still alive in the minds of those whose parents had been among the first to arrive. Once published, these books often established the official pioneer accounts of their communities. Now, thirty years later, few, if any, local societies have thought to revisit these pioneer tales to complete the stories by recognizing the women who actively participated in establishing their local communities. Without women’s voices, the historical record has left an incomplete picture of the past.
For my master’s thesis in Public History, I am researching the role of Aurora County women in the formation of community on the frontier at the end of the nineteenth century. During the Dakota boom years of 1878 to 1887, Dakota Territory welcomed droves of new families. As the women entered this strange land, some hesitated to embrace pioneer life while others eagerly participated in the new adventure. Church, school, and town hall activities offered rural women opportunities to congregate with township neighbors outside of their homes. Political movements of the era provided additional avenues for women to participate in public life. Whether advocating for the right to vote, for an end to public drinking and the abuse of alcohol, or for farming people to enjoy greater economic freedom, women stepped into a more public role as they worked on these shared goals with members of their communities. Although historians have studied women’s lives in rural communities and women’s engagement in political movements, questions remain regarding small farming counties in South Dakota: What role did women play in developing and sustaining community in rural South Dakota townships between 1880 and 1920? How did these women build mutual networks through public involvement with church, school, town hall, and other voluntary associations, especially those associated with political reform movements? How did women’s participation in one institution or organization relate to their participation in other institutions and organizations?
Typical of many counties in eastern South Dakota that experienced rapid settlement after railroad tracks were laid, Aurora County, situated between the James River and the Missouri River in the southern third of the state, never achieved urban growth but, instead, retained its rural character. White men started making homestead claims in Aurora County in 1879, bringing their wives and children the following year. After the first year, single women also came to register for free land. Characterized by its agricultural focus, the county remained sparsely populated, with an average of seven people per square mile in the 1890s. Rural families organized many aspects of their community life within the thirty-six square miles of their township boundaries, with women playing a key role in establishing social structures. Documented in the Aurora County History, the township communities quickly built schools, churches, and town halls, making these institutions the centers of their social life. In some cases, ethnic and religious communities organized as subgroups within these townships. Some of these townships, even without an organized town, supported a religious school or a high school. Over time, the churches and schools consolidated.
The local commemorative history books are silent regarding women’s political role in suffrage, temperance, or the Populist movement. And yet, a recent book on suffrage campaigns in the West, writing about the unsuccessful 1890 campaign in South Dakota, identifies Plankinton, the county seat of Aurora County, as a town where a suffragist would be welcomed and “praised by the press.” Between 1890 and 1918, the legislature voted on nineteen separate suffrage measures, indicating strong public interest in the issue of suffrage. Temperance was another active issue for women in the county. Prohibition was adopted by state voters in October of 1889, one month prior to achieving statehood, but then was repealed in 1896. The issue stayed alive with new laws introduced in almost every legislative session in the early years of statehood. South Dakotans were also very active in the Populist movement during the early 1890s. The Populist Party favored woman suffrage. Surely, the women in Aurora County participated at some level in these political movements.
I am researching the reality of women’s lives in several specific townships in Aurora County to answer the questions: How did rural women participate in creating community in their townships between 1880 and 1920? What types of community did they help create? How important were churches, schools, voluntary associations and ethnicity in building exclusive and inclusive community or in building community for emotional and practical support? How did the sense of belonging to groups outside of the nuclear family change over time as people migrated in and out? I believe women were instrumental in building communities of mutality in rural townships on the plains frontier, and their role deserves more attention in the history of the frontier.
I will be visiting Plankinton in late July and again in mid-September. If your family has saved any diaries or letters, pictures or club minutes, scrapbooks or family stories that could shed light on the public activities of women in this era, please contact me to set up a meeting. I am especially interested in finding information about the local women who were involved in Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Suffrage Movement, the Farmer’s Alliance or the Populist Party.
Robert F. Karolevitz, Challenge: The South Dakota Story (Sioux Falls, SD: Brevet Press, 1978), 156.
Renee M. Laegreid and Sandra K. Mathews, eds., Women on the North American Plains (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011), 48–59.
United States. Census Office. Compendium of the Eleventh Census, 1890; Pt. 1. Population; Dwellings and families; Statistics of Alaska (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1895), 365. http://books.google.com/books?id=Q_RYAAAAYAAJ.
Aurora County History (Stickney, SD: Aurora County Historical Society, 1983), 25–122.
Jennifer M Ross-Nazzal, Winning the West for Women: The Life of Suffragist Emma Smith DeVoe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 57.
Sally Roesch Wagner, ed., Fighting for the Vote in South Dakota (Aberdeen, SD: Sky Carrier Press, 1995), 99–100.
George Washington Kingsbury, History of Dakota Territory, South Dakota: Its History and Its People. Edited by George Martin Smith (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915), 3:661–667, 735-763.