Butte County - Civic Life & History
Butte County is in the heart of ancient buffalo country along South Dakota’s western boundary with Wyoming and Montana. The rugged buttes which gave the county its name, and the broad, diverse, short grass prairie, sheltered massive herds of migrating bison, pronghorn, elk and deer, which supported the native Lakota and Cheyenne people.
French trappers and traders in the 19th century described the confluence of two local rivers as “belle fourche”—beautiful fork. But the Treaty of 1868 placed the region off limits to whites as part of the Great Sioux Nation. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1876, ranchers and homesteaders settled the rich agricultural bottomland along the Belle Fourche and Redwater rivers, and became the primary source of food and livestock for the booming gold camps of Lead and Deadwood.
The region was originally incorporated by the Dakota Territorial legislature in 1881 as the southern half of Harding County. Butte split off from Harding two years later. In 1891, Deadwood sheriff and land speculator, Seth Bullock, built a railroad terminal on the banks of the Belle Fourche, and began shipping cattle east. By 1895 the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad was the largest cattle shipping center in the nation, sending 2,500 carloads a month to eastern markets during the fall months of the year.
The town that grew up around the cattle economy was also named Belle Fourche, which quickly established itself as the county seat. In 1904 the Secretary of Interior authorized construction of the Belle Fourche irrigation project to support the growth of local agriculture. The project was completed in 1914. Irrigated land allowed the small town of Newell to become a national center of sugar beet production and a key part of the Butte County economy in the period between the World Wars.
Today, the Belle Fourche Project is managed by the Corps of Engineers, and irrigates 57,000 acres of corn and alfalfa. The Reservoir is also a popular fishing site for local anglers. The Rocky Point Recreation Area is managed by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Wildlife.
Historical Photos and Documents Online
The prints and photograps section of the Library of Congress has about a dozen images related to Belle Fourche mainly contributed by John Gabrill which depict Devil's Tower and ranching scenes from the late 1800's.
The Denver Public Library digital collection has Draft Registration from the area for World War I.
A 2010 survey of churches in Butte County provides only a partial reflection of religious adherence in the area. A majority of people (6,519) were not identified with a specific religion or denomination. Of those who did respond, 1,754 people were members of Mainline Protestant churches. Catholic churches accounted for 784 congregants, while another 626 people in the area were listed as Evangelical Protestant. We have graphed this data here.