The prairie is a harsh environment. Extreme variations of temperature, moisture, and wind are always present. To eke out a living on the prairie one must be ready to meet these conditions head on. Much of the area in and around Wind Cave National Park was actively homesteaded in the 1890s, with one of the most successful homesteads belonging to the Sanson family.

August and later Carl Sanson were the type of people who could eke out a living on the prairie. They and their family successfully homestead a large plot of land that is now part of Wind Cave National Park. August Sanson started his homestead in 1882. In 1916 Carl, at the age of 15, took over for his ailing father. Throughout the years they adjusted to the ever-changing prairie and fluctuating financial markets. When the rains stopped coming, they adjusted. They endured by being able to adapt, to change with the times and conditions. The homestead of Sanson's father and later Sanson himself is testament to the tenacity of these early homesteaders and how they protected and cared for the land. According to Sanson "it took courage to live in a place eight miles from town [Buffalo Gap], with neighbors three to ten miles apart. There were many problems along the way - dry years, grasshoppers, hail storms, and range fires, but they endured them all."

Click here to read more about the Sanson Homestead.

Several mining claims were established at Wind Cave in the 1880s and 90s, but the most noteworthy one was by the South Dakota Mining Company in 1890. J.D. McDonald was hired to manage the claim. The mining was unsuccessful, but McDonald and his family realized they could make money by giving cave tours and selling formations from the cave. They filed a homestead claim over the opening and worked on improving a manmade entrance and enlarging passageways for tours. In 1892, John Stabler, saw the financial value of the cave and bought an interest in the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. During the next few years ownership of the cave and associated lands became a major question and by 1899 the land office had made a decision that was important to the creation of Wind Cave National Park. Explore the challenges of understanding who owned the cave by reading about theearly history of the area.


A personal narrative by Birdie McDonald about her experiences homesteading on the Great Plains.

Pioneer Narrative of Birdie McDonald

I was born May 15, 1885, on a farm near Spring Valley, Minnesota, being the seventh child born to Thomas and Anna Crowell. In harvest time of the next year, I should say in July or August, our large farm house burned to the ground from a defective chimney, in mid-afternoon. My Dad and his brother saved some of the furniture, bedding and clothing. My parents decided then instead of re-building that they would move to Dakota. As soon as the harvest was finished they loaded their remaining possessions and family into two ox brawn covered wagons and started west. They settled about one and one-half miles from the then, very small town of Roscoe, South Dakota, where my Dad filed a homestead, also a tree claim, 320 acres. He then bought a few Durham milk cows and supported the family by selling milk in Roscoe. This was a very dry bleak country at that time, and I don't think either of my parents liked it very well there. I can remember only a few incidents of what happened while we lived there, as I was too young to remember much. A sister was born soon after we arrived there. She was sixteen months younger than I.

I do remember one terrible blizzard, and of my Dad tieing the clothes line to one corner of the sod house carrying the other end with him to the sod barn to enable he and the older boys to get back and forth in taking care of the milk cows and oxen. We lived there in a two room sod house.

I can remember on stormy days of my Dad and two older brothers taking turns sitting out in the little sod annex twisting long, coarse slew grass for fuel. They had two iron drums about the size and shape of a wash boiler, which they would pack full of the tight twisted slew grass, which had been cut and stacked for that purpose the previous summer. One full drum would be inverted over the two front open lids of the old hearth cooking stove, and would make a hot fire, while the other drum was being filled. There was no wood around there, and coal was too high for our finances. In summer time the older children had the job of gathering buffalo chips for the cooking fires.

I also remember my third birthday, May 15, 1888, on which my sister, Julia, even years my senior, invited my little sister Lou and I to go on a hike with her picking wild flowers. It seemed to me that she kept us hiking, picking and resting for a long time, however, when we finally retuned to the house we found a neighbor lady there, my mother lying in the bed with a new little baby brother in her arms.

At that time my Dad relinquished both of his claims back to the Government and when this baby brother was not quite two months old they loaded the two wagons up again, still ox-drawn, and started on farther west. By then my Dad had thirty-two milk cows, and the four oxen. The cows were trailed along with us, two neighboring men accompanying us on this trip: John Sulivan, I should judge about thirty-five and Ed Crossett, about twenty-five Ed had a team of horses and a wagon of his own and hauled some of my Dads machinery to pay for his board on the trip. I can only remember a few special incidents on this trip. It was quite hot some days and an ox would get hot and tired and would lay down. No amount of prodding would get a tired ox up on his feet until his yoke was removed from his neck. Then he would get up and go grazing, perfectly all right. This, however, only slowed up the progress for a short time, as my Dad would walk out to the cow herd, pick out one of the biggest cows, put her in the oxes place and move on.

We crossed the Missouri River at Pierre, South Dakota, our whole outfit being taken across on a large ferry boat called the Jim Leighton, piloted by Cap Horn. This man picked my sister Lou and I up and set us up quite high near his pilot wheel on some sort of a little shelf. Lou was quite scared from being away from Mothers side, but I thought it was quite a treat and have always remembered it. On the Fort Pierre side of the river there was plenty of grass and lovely shade, so we camped there for a few days to let the stock feed and rest. While there we camped near some other people also moving west and their name was McGroff: two brothers Charley and John McGoff, with their widowed mother who partially lost her mind. I have been told since that her affliction was caused by a terrible prairie fire; the scare, excitement and suffering from it. I mention there people because I was so terribly, and of course, foolishly afraid of this poor lady, that it was something that I could never forget.

We pushed on until we reached the mouth of the Belle Fourche River, where it empties into the Cheyenne, this being a distance of about 95 or 100 miles almost west of Fort Pierre. In the last thirty or forty miles of the trip we saw Indians and passed by Indian camps but none molested us in any way. My parents decided to locate in the very fork of the two rivers, it being a very pretty spot also a very good cattle ranch. As near as I remember the folks telling me later, that it took us nearly one month to make the trip from Roscoe. My Dad, two older brothers, and John Sulivan, began cutting and preparing logs to build a cabin. Ed Crosse with his team of horses and mowing machine, started mowing hay. It was through cutting down trees to make the cabin and mowing the hay that we learned that the Indians did not approve of us or of such proceedings, as it would ruin their hunting grounds and deprive their ponies of the best grazing places. However, the men kept on with the work until the cabin was completed, one room sixteen by sixteen, with hewn small logs, or large poles for roof, with what is now known as ramed earth plastered heavy on the top of the poles, which surprisingly shed rain very well, also a very heavy strong door also made of hewn poles. While these men were still working on the cabin a band of Indians came to where Ed Crossett was mowing hay and scared him badly that he unhitched one horse from the machine, jumped on his back, with harness on and fled, leaving the other horse sill hitched to the machine. My Dad saw him ride away and expected him to return after dark, but he never did and we never knew what became of him. The horse he left at the machine we used as a saddle horse until he died of old age, a very kind, faithful animal and the first horse I ever rode.

As soon as the cabin was finished, the other men began putting up hay. One day while they were all out at work a large band of Indians came to the cabin, my mother saw them coming and she closed and bolted the door. They were dressed up in fine buckskin beaded robes with pained jawk or eagle feathers in their hair, also streaks and figures painted on their faces. They looked in through two small, high, open windows, and talked to, or at my mother. She could not understand their language at that time, but could understand that they were very angry about the men cutting down and jauling away the hay. She knew something about passifying Indians. She had a fire in the cook stove and had just baked bread, so she made two large kettles of coffee, poured it out in cups, bowls and cans and set it, with a lot of sliced bread on the high window sills. When they had eaten and drank it all they thanked her and went away, never bothering any of our family again. I guess I had better tell that while the Indians were there that day my sister, Lou, and I scurried in back of the cook stove and remained there like scared rabbits until they were gone. My mother was frightened too and refused to stay there through the winter with so many small children, so after the haying was finished my Dad again put an ox team to one of the wagons and took the family, except my oldest sister and two oldest brothers to Rapid City, a distance of ninety miles, he returned to the new ranch taking provisions for the entire winter, also lumber to build more house room. This part of the family remained in Rapid City until the spring of 1891, at that time returning to the ranch on the Belle Fourche river.

I am not positive of this date, but I would say that in the fall of 1890 a company of soldiers from Fort Meade were stationed on the Cheyenne River, eight miles northeast of our home. I do not believe the Indians in that part of the country were dangerous, at that time, but white people that wanted to come there to locate were afraid of them. The company of soldiers stationed gave them peace of mind. My mother had provided herself with school books and school supplies to teach we younger children at home, which she did for a couple of years. As other settlers came in near by, a teacher would be hired and paid by the county, the school building being provided by the parents, also boarding the teacher for free. I went to school in a log cabin, until at the age of fourteen I went to Rapid City to attend High School, earning board and room by assisting with housework, as my two older sisters had dome, they both becoming school teachers.

We all learned to like the Indian people. My mother and oldest sister learned their language and enjoyed visiting with the Indian women trading fancy work, beads, shawls and may such things with them. My sister Lou and I had many Indian children play mates and it's safe to say we learned some of their language and they some of ours.

I was married at the age of eighteen and half years. In 1903 we took up a homestead four and half miles west of Ash Creek and twelve miles south of Pedro, South Dakota, where we lived for twenty-nine years. We had four children, loosing one boy in infancy. My three children are married and I have nine grand children and five great grand children. My husband passed away in January of 1949. I still live on a ranch and enjoy outdoor ranch work.

Last updated: February 10, 2019

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