Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
Pierre and Fort Pierre, South Dakota 

Politics and Government

Capitol Entrance
Capitol Entrance
State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society

Pierre's identity has always been closely tied to its status as the State capital. Any history of the city is incomplete without some discussion of Pierre as the seat of government. Likewise, any trip to Pierre is incomplete without visiting the South Dakota State Capitol. Soon after the formation of the community in 1880, talk of the capital began, but achieving the designation as State capital did not come easily for Pierre. It was a long drawn out process that involved several hotly contested campaigns and a few key challengers. Becoming the State capital was a sought after honor, not only bringing prestige to any city and its citizens, but also almost guaranteeing rapid population growth, higher property values, and an increase in income and revenue from visiting legislators and tourists. Almost immediately after Pierre won the temporary capital fight, the town experienced a “building boom of over $700,000 in new houses, hotels and building blocks.”

The struggle for the South Dakota State capital began on February 22, 1889, when the United States Congress passed the Enabling Act, which divided Dakota Territory into North and South Dakota and authorized each to write a constitution and form State governments. On October 1, 1889, South Dakota held an election to choose legislators, judges, and representatives, and to select a temporary location for the State capital.

The quest proved to be a long and brutal ordeal. In all, six cities earnestly vied to be the capital: Pierre, Huron, Mitchell, Sioux Falls, Redfield, and Watertown. Pierre won the 1889 capital election with 27,096 votes compared to Huron’s 14,944. Although Pierre won, the quest to be the State capital was far from over, because the 1889 election only made Pierre the temporary capital. Article XX of the South Dakota Constitution stated that voters must decide on the location of the permanent capital in the November 1890 election. Pierre and the 1889 runner-up Huron fought hard in the 1890 campaign.  Pierre easily won the capital race once again with 41,969 votes to Huron’s 34,610.

The 1890 election did not settle the issue either.  Legislators introduced bills to move the capital in 1893, 1895, 1897, and 1899, but each failed. In 1904, Pierre’s opponents gained enough support and organization to force another vote.  Among Mitchell, Huron, and Redfield, a caucus of the whole legislature selected Mitchell as Pierre’s opponent. In the final vote, Pierre again won the capital fight with 58,617 votes to Mitchell’s 41,155.

South Dakota State Capitol Cornerstone
South Dakota State Capitol Cornerstone
South Dakota State Historical Society

Pierre was finally unquestionably the State capital. Attention next turned to plans for a permanent capitol building.  Built in 1890, the temporary wood frame capitol needed replacement. Outgoing Governor Charles Herreid in his 1905 message to the legislature said, “South Dakota needs a new state house, fireproof, commodious and in harmony with its progress and prosperity”. To save money, South Dakota hired Bell & Detweiler Architects of Minneapolis, Minnesota and adopted the firm's Montana State Capitol design for the South Dakota State Capitol with some variations. The design and construction of the four-story Neoclassical building from 1905 to 1910 cost just under $1,000,000. Building materials included a 30 inch base of Ortonville granite from Minnesota, Marquette Raindrop sandstone from Michigan on the first-floor exterior, and Bedford limestone from Indiana on the second and third floor exterior walls and the lower rotunda.

The granite cornerstone in the southwest corner of the building is a four-foot by four-foot cube with the State seal on one side and 1908 on the other. Laid on June 25, 1908, the cornerstone contains coins, the building contract, capitol bills, a Bible, inaugural addresses, photographs, architectural drawings, and newspapers.  In 1932, the State added an addtion to the north side of the State Capitol building to meet the growing needs of the government.

Interior of Capital - Second Floor Rotunda
Interior of Capitol - Second Floor Rotunda
State Archives of the South Dakota State Historical Society

The interior of the capitol with its fine art and interior decoration is just as exquisite as the exterior. The William G. Andrews Decorative Company of Iowa was the contractor for the large murals and other interior art. The interior materials include mosaic marble and hardwood for the floors, plaster for the walls and ornamental work, marble for the wainscoting, stained glass on the dome, and scagliola on the columns. According to one legend, 66 Italian artists worked on laying the Terrazzo flooring throughout the capitol. Most artists like to leave their signature on their artwork, but rather than allowing all 66 to sign their names somewhere in the capitol, each artist had a special blue signature stone. Only 55 of the 66 blue stones have been found.

After Pierre became the permanent State capital following the 1904 election, the city experienced another building boom. Many of the buildings and homes constructed during this period are still extant today and, along with the State Capitol, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Examples included the Stephens-Lucas House (1904), Hyde Block (1906), Capitol Avenue Block (1908), Pierre Street Block (1909), St. Charles Hotel (1911), and the Karcher-Sahr House (1911).