Women in Local History: The Story of Jessie Sundstrom
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Documentation of Black Hills history was greatly advanced thanks to the life and career of Jessie Yuill Sundstrom. Born in Rapid City and raised in Deadwood, Jessie dedicated her life to local history and service, contributing to multiple organizations over her lifetime. She spent several decades operating the Custer County Chronicle with her husband, Carl, and continued as owner and publisher after his death. With a passion for history and writing, Jessie was an influential member of a variety of civic organizations, including the Black Hills Girl Scouts, the Crazy Horse Memorial and the 1881 Courthouse Museum in Custer. Her papers, photographs and manuscript collection detail an incredible lifelong commitment to Black Hills history.
Jessie was born in Rapid City on May 18, 1922 to Camille and Roy Yuill. She developed an early interest in history and the newspaper industry thanks in large part to her mother’s career in journalism. Camille was an incredible pioneer for women’s history as well. She was a frequent contributor to area newspapers, including the Black Hills Weekly. Camille became the city editor of the Deadwood Daily Pioneer-Times in the early 1940s, where she would go on to author a weekly column, The Backlog, for over thirty years. Gutzon Borglum and Frank Lloyd Wright are amongst her famed interview subjects.
Jessie’s writings indicate that much of her own subsequent career was inspired by her mother’s, and at the age of nine, began folding newspapers at The Black Hills Weekly. In her high school years, she authored small local news pieces for the newspaper.
Graduating from Deadwood High School in 1940, Jessie pursued other interests; attending school and working as a secretary in North Dakota, Deadwood and Sturgis. She returned wholeheartedly to the newspaper industry in 1947 after marrying Carl H. Sundstrom, publisher of the Custer County Chronicle. During her career working with the Chronicle, Jessie became a jack of all trades. She developed her skills not only as an author, but as an editor, publisher, photographer and accountant. After Carl’s death in 1972, Jessie took the helm as publisher until 1981. At the time, she was the only female publisher in the Black Hills. She later served as secretary and president of the Black Hills Press Association and as a member of the South Dakota Press Association.
In a more personal role, Jessie was involved with the Black Hills Girl Scouts. As a child, she was a girl scout for several years before moving on to become a leader and then a neighborhood chairman in Custer. She moved up the chain of leadership within the Black Hills Girl Scout Council, eventually becoming the President of the board of directors.
Jessie formed a personal relationship with the Ziolkowsksi family. Korczak Ziolkowski was the initial carver of the Crazy Horse Memorial. Jessie worked as an assistant administrator for Korczak’s wife, Ruth, and served on the board of directors for the memorial for 35 years. Throughout her lifetime, Jessie gave special attention to the Indian community, and was complimented for her thorough and fair representation of Native Americans in the press. Additionally, she was active in creating the Indian Museum of North America, located at the Memorial.
In the later decades of her life, she authored books on Custer State Park, Badger Clark, a history of Custer County, Carl Sanson and a brief biography of her mother. She continued to author articles and was instrumental in the careers of other Black Hills historians through the publication of a montly periodical titled “Hills and Plains History.”
In 1999, she received the South Dakota State Historical Society Individual Award which recognizes individuals for commitment to the interpretation, preservation and advancement of history. The award describes Jessie as creating a link to the past for present and future generations.
A link to the past is an excellent way of describing the incredible life and career of Jessie Sundstrom. Her decades long involvement in multiple organizations truly advanced Black Hills history and is exemplified through the Yuill/Sundstrom collection housed at the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center (HARCC) in Deadwood, South Dakota. After Jessie’s death in 2013, her extensive collection of professional and personal papers were donated to the HARCC due to their unique connection to Black Hills history. The donation included hundreds of unique photographs of the Black Hills area and prominent historical figures and events. The records not only detail the lives of Camille and Jessie and their influence in advancing women in professional careers, but they also show a dedicated and thorough interest in the history of the area.
A guide to the collection is available on the Deadwood History website,
Educational Resource: Activity Idea History Blog - During this activity your students will review many blogs entries. Then your students will write a historical blog about an event that took place in your community. Your students will also learn about the career of Jessie Yuill Sundstrom, whose papers, photographs and manuscript collection detail an incredible lifelong commitment to Black Hills history.
Jessica Michak, Deadwood History Inc., on the life and times of Jessie Sundstrom.
Host: Lori Walsh