South Dakota Scenes

Week 6: #52 Ancestors – Maps

By Eilene Lyon

Back in the late 1870s and early 1880s, promoters encouraged people to move to Dakota Territory. Naturally, land speculators played up the rich farmland and other selling points, not necessarily squaring with reality.

1886 Railroad map of Dakota Territory. Click to enlarge. Codington County is below the second “A”. (Wikimedia Commons)

My father was born in South Dakota, though he grew up in Oregon. I didn’t have to go back far on the family tree to locate my ancestors in Codington County. The Halses moved there around 1881 from northeastern Iowa. They did not go without company. Drakes, Murphys, Cuttings, Painters, Darringtons, Peepers, Castertons, and others joined them. My Springer and Gusso ancestors moved there from Wisconsin.

My uncle loaned me this book about the history of the county, which contains many family biographies, as well as stories about the various townships and cities, and reminiscences about “the old days.” Inside the back cover is a property ownership map from 1902. (Yes, it does require a magnifying glass!)

Though the Cuttings had left by then, most of the other families remained. I’ve highlighted properties belonging to people connected to my tree by blood or marriage. I may have missed some, but it’s clear that they spread out over a large chunk of Dexter Township, and part of Fuller and Phipps Townships.

Selection from the Codington County property map from 1902, highlighted to show ancestors and related families. (Click to enlarge)

The town of Florence, laid out on Christ Stemwedel’s land by Dry Lake, didn’t exist until 1906, so it doesn’t appear. We can see the juxtaposition of people to the land and to each other, but the map tells us nothing about what the area actually looked like.

I visited South Dakota in 2012 and 2015, and learned more about the family properties. Most, if not all, the trees were planted by homesteaders. Try to imagine this country as a vast open prairie, punctuated by pothole lakes. It’s easy to understand, then, how people perished in blizzards in the early homesteading years. I often wonder if my ancestors ever wished they’d stayed in Iowa and Wisconsin.

My great-grandfather Walter Gusso’s farm sat partly on Dry Lake (“the back 40”) in Florence.
The farm when I visited, though no longer in the family.
Except now the back 40, in “Dry Lake” is no longer dry!
This property was my great-grandfather Guy Halse’s place – also no longer in the family.
This farm, south of the Guy Halse farm, was homesteaded by his uncle, Samuel V. Halse. It is still in the family today.

Genealogy without maps is incomplete. But even maps cannot convey as much as visiting a place in person. A bonus is when family still live in the area, as is the case for Codington County. I met aunts, uncle, and cousins on my two trips which was the real highlight of the journey.

This photo of women and children was taken around the time Florence was founded. The woman fourth from the left in the back row is my 2nd great-grandmother, Lucy (Painter) Halse. Other related families represented here are Drake, Thorson, Peeper, Brooks, Casterton, Darrington, Johnson. I have not identified everyone, though. Click to enlarge. (Courtesy of W. Halse)

Feature image: Sign welcoming me to Florence, Codington County, South Dakota, home of my Gusso cousins.

37 thoughts on “South Dakota Scenes

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    1. The problem with the Homestead Act was that it assumed you could make a living on 160 acres, which was hogwash. The cousin who owns the Samuel Halse farm owns or leases like ten times that amount, and still has side businesses (e.g. mini-storage) to make ends meet.

      But it is interesting how an interconnected family group covered so much ground in one area. I’m related to nearly everyone in the Dexter Cemetery. I even created a family tree and blog post for the cemetery!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Homesteading on the prairie was not for the faint of heart. The furthest west my husband’s family got was eastern Kansas; relatively more tame compared to South Dakota. Your stories are always factual and interesting. The pictures and maps added to understanding the time and place. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love those old maps. Highlighting it really gives a sense of how spread out your family were. Perishing in a blizzard is still a risk today. Sadly, a farmer in SK perished in a blizzard this winter when his tractor got stuck and he attempted to walk to his farmhouse and became disoriented.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a shame that still happens today. They used to string ropes between house and barn, but once you were out of sight of a building bad things could, and did, happen. Some people get stranded in their cars on mountains and perish, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That was quite a map – for sure you’d have to study next to a lamp or with a magnifying glass. What a difference in the landscape through the years! I liked the last picture of the families when Florence was founded.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. South Dakota is a bucket-list genealogy road trip for me. One of my first “big” discoveries was that my 3rd-great-grandfather is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood. Oh, the drama in that man’s life…it was something else! Your post makes me want to get back to planning that trip out west. Thank you for sharing these amazing photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re very welcome. That reminds me that I should share some photos from the western part of the state. My great-aunt still lives in Spearfish (age 94), though I only met her on one of those two trips. We do stay in touch. I visited Deadwood at that time, as well as the Badlands. It’s much more interesting than Codington County, actually.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The map is fascinating. It seems like large plots of land, but maybe at that time and place it was the norm. I like the family photo with the baby carriage. No need to leave out the little ones. Very sweet

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A typical homestead was 160 acres (a quarter section; a section being a square mile). A tree claim could be had as well, usually a 40 acre piece. I wonder where the teen boys and men were when the photo was taken.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this post. The gardener and I have never been to either of the Dakotas. We have tried to plan a trip so many times and something else always came up. But we won’t give up. We will get there!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Fascinating to see the map, Eilene, and all the photos from the past and present. How wonderful that you took the time to explore SD. I especially enjoyed that final photo of Florence in 1905 with the women and children. It says so much about their world then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have seen much of the state and do like parts of it. The area around Florence would not appeal to me, however. That is a special photograph. The women look like they had rough lives, for the most part.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Those property maps are something else – I’m truly envious!!! I can kinda, sorta, work out approximately where my ancestors might have been in the rural areas, but there’s nothing like those property maps you have. So cool! Thanks for sharing – I agree, living out there on the open prairie without central heat or A/C must have been a major challenge!!

    Liked by 1 person

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Eilene Lyon

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