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 Fort Laramie 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. Belle Fourche is also recognized as being the geographic center of the United States, as demonstrated by a monument at the Center of the Nation Visitor Center. 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.
Arts & Culture
Butte County has a variety of artistic and cultural events and opportunities for residents and visitors alike. During the summer months, Hometown Thursdays welcome people to Belle Fourche Main Street for a weekly music festival, as well as welcoming food and craft vendors and children’s activities. The Belle Fourche Arts Council works to promote arts and cultural events in Belle Fourche and Butte County. They offer a free summer concert series in Hermann Park. Originally organized in 1931, the Belle Fourche Cowboy Band performs at area events, parades, and fairs. Belle Fourche is also home to the annual Center of the Nation All Car Rally in June, which is a public event that includes a car show and other activities. The Center of the Nation Concert Association also works to bring events to Belle Fourche and the surrounding area with a yearly concert series. Every August, the Butte/Lawrence County Fair is held in Nisland. The Black Hills Round Up Rodeo is one of the oldest continually held outdoor rodeos in the United States. Held in Belle Fourche during the Fourth of July weekend, people come from all over the country and abroad to watch and participate in this weekend-long event. Residents and tourists can visit the Center of the Nation Visitor Center and Tri-State Museum to learn about Belle Fourche and the region’s history and what to do during your stay in the area.
Historical Photos & Documents Online
The prints and photographs section of the Library of Congress has several images related to Butte County, mainly contributed by John Gabrill, which depict Devil's Tower and ranching scenes from the late 1800s.
The Black Hills Knowledge Network, in partnership with Rapid City Public Library, has collected a number of photos, historic documents, and news articles regarding the Black Hills area, including Butte County and its communities.
Belle Fourche: A Black Hills Knowledge Network Collection: Belle Fourche: A Black Hills Knowledge Network Collection includes photographs of every day life in the early twentieth century for residents of Belle Fourche. The images capture farm life, livestock, Butte County farms, agricultural displays and competitions, youth groups, and much more.
To explore other Black Hills area anthologies on the Black Hills Knowledge Network, see our Digital Archives page.
Museums, Libraries, & Archives
Center of the Nation Tri-State Museum/Visitor Center: Located at 415 5th Avenue in Belle Fourche, the Center of the Nation Visitor Center and Tri-State Museum provides visitors the opportunity to learn about Belle Fourche's rich history and how to spend your time in Belle Fourche and the surrounding areas. Located at the Visitor Center is a Monument marking Belle Fourche as the geographical center of the United States.
Newell Museum: Located inside Newell City Hall, the Newell Museum has a variety of displays concerning early area settlers and eastern Butte County.
Belle Fourche Public Library: The Belle Fourche Public Library, located on 5th Avenue in Belle Fourche, offers residents a wide variety of services, including a large book collection, internet and computer access, interlibrary loan services, and children’s programs. The library also has special collections of South Dakota Genealogy and Census Records from 1860 to 1930.
Newell Public Library: The Newell Public Library is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and offers residents access to a wide variety of books, wireless internet, and public computers. Titles are also available via South Dakota Titles to go. Programs for birth to preschool aged children is run every Monday, as well as a Children’s Reading Program during summer months.
Butte County Historical Society: The Butte County Historical Society is dedicated to gathering, preserving, and promoting local history and research in an educational and interesting way. It is located in Belle Fourche.
Newell Historical Society: The Newell Museum is operated by the Newell Historical Society, which was established in 1985. The Historical Society takes part in an annual Labor Day Open House, traveling exhibits, and educational and historical displays.
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. View a Black Hills Knowledge Network graph of this data here.
The city of Newell was born out of the construction of Orman Dam in 1904. At the time, the dam was the largest earthen reservoir in the world. The town got its name from Frederick Haynes Newell, who was the chief engineer of the United States Reclamation Services.
Newell is home to various service clubs and organizations, including Community Club, incorporated in 1967. Records on the club go back to 1950 and the Newell 50th Anniversary book reports that the club may have got its start in 1911.
Other organizations include the Newel Lions Club and the Newell Garden Club. The Garden Club was formed in 1959.
The second week in September each year, Newell celebrates the Annual Ram Show & Sale. Newell is considered the nation’s sheep capitol and more than 1,000 head of sheep are bought and sold in that single day.
Newell welcomes visitors with recreational opportunities, a friendly small-town atmosphere, a museum and an annual Labor Day celebration.