South Dakota Legends

The Legend of Jesse James

Jesse James was one of the most notorious outlaws in history, and tales of his prowess still live on in South Dakota's historic Palisades State Park. On Sept. 7, 1876, Jesse and Frank James, along with seven other bandits, attempted to rob a Northfield, Minnesota, bank. That robbery proved to be one of the most daring and least rewarding of Jesse James' career. Two gang members were killed, and all but Jesse and his brother, Frank, were captured by lawmen. With an avenging posse of nearly 500 men hot on their trail, Jesse and Frank headed southwest to Dakota Territory. The two split up, each following one side of Split Rock Creek. Suddenly, Jesse found himself facing a 15-foot-wide gorge. Spurring his mount, he reportedly jumped the gorge and sped away. Folks still marvel at Jesse's daring feat, at what is known as Devil's Gulch, near Garretson.

The Petrified Park Legend

Located in the northwest corner of South Dakota is a manmade park unlike any in the world. During the 1930s, Ole Quammen, an amateur geologist, discovered a collection of petrified logs, stumps, fossils and prehistoric mudballs near Lemmon, South Dakota. A crew was formed to gather petrified wood found within a 35-mile radius of Lemmon. Nearly 40 men worked with wagons and mules, scaffolds and pulleys for two years. In all, 6.4 million tons of the ancient wood were harvested. Today, two blocks of downtown Lemmon are filled with turrets, towers, wishing wells and castles, all constructed with petrified wood and each displaying the wonderful color and texture of prehistoric times. A museum stands nearby, paying tribute to the man who turned a pile of rocks into a monument to another era...the world's only Petrified Wood Park.

The Legend of Tipperary

For 10 years he took on the best of the West and then retired a champion. His list of victims reads like a "Who's Who" of rodeo riders. Tipperary was a bucking bronc who achieved fame along the rodeo circuit. Born more than 70 years ago, no one knows what set him off on his one-horse campaign to rid the world of rodeo riders. Tales of Tipperary's vicious bucking and lightning speed spread through the West like wildfire. The legend even grew to the point that cowboys refused to ride him. A handsome purse waited for the cowboy who could master this wild beast. But few did. Passing his prime, Tipperary was allowed to spend his golden years in the pastures near Buffalo, South Dakota. Today, what could be the only monument erected in honor of a bucking bronc reads: "Tipperary...World's Greatest Bucking Horse."

The Legend of Sam Brown

He could see nothing but the blinding snow, hear nothing but the howling wind. Thoughts of being lost forever began to trouble him. In 1866, Sam Brown was chief scout for Fort Wadsworth, now known as Fort Sisseton. Having been told of an approaching Sioux Indian war party, Sam sent a warning message to a fort further north. Sam mounted his horse and set off to scout a camp 60 miles west. When he arrived, he discovered that the war party was simply several Indians delivering word of a new peace treaty. Sam knew that in order to prevent bloodshed he must intercept his warning. Struggling through the freezing rain and snow of a spring blizzard, he managed to reach the fort by morning. But as he slipped from his horse, exhausted and half frozen, he was unable to stand. Sam Brown's heroic 150-mile ride cost him the use of his legs. He never walked again.

The Legend of Hugh Glass

Mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead, he crawled and staggered nearly 200 miles across the wild prairies of western South Dakota. In 1823, at the fork of the Grand River, legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass was hunting with the Ashley Fur party when he was attacked by a grizzly bear. Horribly mauled, he could not be moved. Two members of the Ashley party, who were to remain behind with him, instead took Glass' weapons and deserted him. Alone, unarmed and critically wounded, Glass survived on berries and buffalo meat he garnered after driving two wolves from a downed calf. Glass crawled, by sheer instinct, to Fort Kiowa on the Missouri River. Today, a historical marker preserves the story of Hugh Glass on the southern shore of the Shadehill Reservoir, 12 miles south of Lemmon, South Dakota.

The Grasshopper Legend

They tormented the cattle and horses and ate the leaves off vegetables, the wood of pitchforks, rakes and hoes. They flew in swarms thick enough to choke a man. Beginning in 1874, an infestation of the worst kind plagued the plains of eastern South Dakota. Fighting the swarms of grasshoppers was beginning to look like an effort in futility when Father Pierre Boucher decided to appeal to a Higher Authority to help save the crops. The pastor led a pilgrimage on an 11-mile trek from field to field. In each field a giant cross was erected to ward off the grasshoppers, and the people prayed for divine intervention to stop the horrible plague. Miraculously, their prayers were answered. The grasshoppers disappeared that very same day.

The Divorce Legend

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was once in the national spotlight, playing host to a number of affluent men and women. The townspeople of Sioux Falls did not welcome the recognition, however. In the early 1900s, Sioux Falls acquired the name "Divorce Colony." Because of the ease of obtaining a divorce in South Dakota, the city became a popular stop for unhappy couples. State law required only that residents live in the state for six months before they could obtain a divorce. Easily accessible by rail, Sioux Falls rivaled the Reno, Nevada, of today with as many as 145 divorces in a single year. In 1908, a bill extending the length of residency to one year became law, thus ending the era of "quick and easy" divorce in South Dakota.

The Legend of Jack McCall

The trap was sprung at 10:10. Jack McCall was dead 10 minutes later. An unrepentant murderer of a man who had done him no wrong. Deadwood, South Dakota. August 2, 1876. Wild Bill Hickock, the famed gunman, was shot in the back of the head by a man known as Crooked Nose Jack McCall. But McCall was not heralded as a hero, nor was he allowed to go free. Throughout his trial and sentencing, McCall put on a bold front and a casual air. On the morning of his execution, Jack McCall looked out over a throng of onlookers. As the Marshal drew the noose over his neck, Jack McCall's last words were only, "Draw it tighter Marshal." Seconds later, Jack McCall paid his debt to society.

The Legend of Pollock

Abandon, consolidate or move? It's not often a town has to make such an agonizing decision. But that's just what one South Dakota town had to do in 1955. Founded in 1901, Pollock, South Dakota, thrived until the early 1950s, when construction of the Oahe Dam threatened to leave the town under water. For several years the people of Pollock struggled with whether to move, abandon their town or consolidate with nearby Herreid. After much consideration, the town decided to move. But in what direction? A vote was held, and ballots cast, some with a touch of humor. One vote even called for Pollock to be put even deeper under the waters of Lake Oahe! Groundbreaking ceremonies for the "new" town were held on June 4, 1955. Today, Pollock, South Dakota, is surrounded on three sides by water and enjoys its history of being one of South Dakota's most mobile cities.

The Lawrence Welk Legend

In 1928, a new radio station called WNAX played host to a young musician who later would become one of the nation's most popular TV personalities. That year, the young accordionist from Strasburg, North Dakota, arrived in Yankton with his novelty band. Hoping to restock their dwindling cash reserves, the band sought out the local radio station and asked if they might perform. After feeding the hungry group, the station's manager arranged to put them on the air. Listener reaction was so great that the manager offered to add the band to the station's roster of regular entertainers. The leader of the band realized that, though the pay was sparse, the gig could help the band attract better-paying bookings. That "brief stop" in Yankton lasted almost nine years. Thus began the illustrious career of the great Lawrence Welk.