Images of the Past: Settlement Stories

Last Updated by Brian Gevik on

The first white settlers in South Dakota came from different places but with the common expectation that they would somehow be better off here than where they had been. Over time, the stories of where they came from and what they made of their new life blended to create the history of early South Dakota.

The Anabaptist Germans from Russia who settled in southeastern South Dakota were among those who had little choice but to leave their homeland.

Many others simply chose to trade whatever life they may have had for the prospect of prosperity on free land rich in resources.

West River Expanse - The Frawley Ranch

Henry Frawley was among the thousands of fortune-seekers and settlers who came to Deadwood in 1877, just after the Fort Laramie Treaty was broken. Originally from New York and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin law school, Frawley quickly established a successful law practice, at times representing the interests of the railroads and gold mines running through and taking over the Black Hills.

In 1890, Henry Frawley married the daughter of a successful rancher operating in the Centennial Valley, north of Deadwood and just east of Spearfish. Frawley purchased his own ranch in Centennial Valley and began to acquire more land as it became available. By 1913 Frawley owned more than 4,500 acres on the edge of the northern Black Hills. Unfortunately, Henry Frawley’s fortunes turned after a bad business deal in 1920. He suffered a “nervous breakdown” and was hospitalized in Nebraska where he died in 1927.å

Henry Frawley’s wife Christina ran the ranch from 1920 until 1942 when she passed it on to her eldest son Henry James, who in turn passed in on to his son Henry James “Hank” Frawley Jr. Hank Frawley and his wife Molly kept the property whole and operating as a ranch.

The Frawley Ranch was named a National Historic Landmark in 1974.

Economic and other changes in the ag industry took their toll on the ranch during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, it had seen its best days as a large ag operation. Hank Frawley died in 2017 and the ranch was eventually sold to a Denver developer, who promised to keep the property and the historical structures of the ranch intact. Nearly $50 million has been spent on restoration of the historic stone courtyard barn and other original buildings. Most of the land, some 3000 acres, has been enrolled in a federal conservation program. Now called “Elkhorn Ridge,” the development features single and multi-family homes, a golf course, a luxury RV park, and an event center.

Freeman’s Heritage Hall - East River Haven for German Russians


For more than a century, ethnic Germans living in Russia had been allowed to speak their native language, run their own schools and other social institutions and worship as they pleased. When that began to change in the mid-1800s, tens of thousands of these Germans in Russia were forced or otherwise strongly motivated to leave. Many came to the northern Great Plains, settling from southern Canada through the Dakotas into Nebraska and Kansas. They spoke German and most were Anabaptists – Amish, Hutterite, and Mennonite.

In the 1870s, three distinct groups of ethnic Germans from different regions of the Ukraine settled in and around the town that would become Freeman, South Dakota. These Hutterite, Swiss and Low German Mennonites carved out a new life among the Scandinavian other European immigrants attempting to do the same thing on land formerly owned or inhabited by Native Americans.

Freeman’s Heritage Hall Museum is a repository for many of the artifacts and mementos of life in the area from settlement days to contemporary times. Immigrant trunks, old farm implements, and other vintage objects of everyday life are on display – from furniture to kitchen utensils. There are restored churches, a school, and a farm house constructed and furnished in a style that is unique to the Germans from Russia. The museum also houses an archive containing thousands of books, documents, and other artifacts that chronicle some of the area’s history from settlement to the present day.

SDPB’s Images of the Past is a multiplatform project comprised of documentaries, blogs, and interviews presenting South Dakota history. SDPB producer Brian Gevik works closely with South Dakota historians, museum professionals, archivists and others to provide this service. See

The first installment of Images of the Past: Settlement Stories premieres on SDPB1 Monday, January 15, 8pm (7 MT).

Information and photos courtesy of: Bernie Koller, Jeremy Waltner, Nancy Schmidt, Norman Hofer, Duke Kleinsasser, Willis Wipf, Reuben Goertz, Freeman Courier, Ben Bengston, Elkhorn Ridge at Frawley Ranches and Heritage Hall Archives.


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