South Dakota (USA)

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1959 Article

Mennonites began to arrive in southern Dakota 16 years before the territory was admitted into the Union. The first group, under the leadership of Daniel Unruh, reached Yankton in October 1873, coming directly from the Crimea in Russia. It was the forerunner of many groups to follow during the 1870s and early 1880s—all from Russia. The great bulk of the immigrants arriving in those years settled in Turner and Hutchinson counties in the southeastern part of the territory. From the very first there were four rather distinct groups even though all came from Russia.

The northern part of the settlement was predominantly Low German with the following family names rather common: Tieszen, Regier, Schmidt, Berg, Goosen, Koehn, Buller, Vogt, Peters, Ratzlaff, Dalke, Becker, Unruh, Ewert, Tiahrt, and Schartner. South of this group were the Swiss settlers who had emigrated from the Province of Volhynia in Russian Poland. Common family names in this group were Albrecht, Fliginger, Gering, Graber, Kaufman, Muller, Preheim, Ries, Schrag, Senner, Stucky, and Schwartz. To the west of these two settlements were the Hutterite Mennonites, whose ethnic background was the same as that of the Hutterian Brethren but who had left communal life long before the movement out of Russia. The more common family names in this group were Hofer, Tschetter, Wipf, Stahl, Gross, Kleinsasser, Mendel, Wollman, Waldner, and Walter. The fourth group represented the Hutterian Brethren. All of the 110 Hutterite colonies in the 1950s in the United States and Canada stemed from the three original brotherhoods planted in Dakota in the 1870s. The original three were Bon Homme, on the Missouri River, near Tabor; Wolf Creek, on the James River, west of Freeman; and Old Elm Spring, near Milltown. An estimated 1,200-1,500 Mennonites came to Dakota in this early period, not including the approximately 300 Hutterian Brethren who established the original three colonies.

Eastern South Dakota Mennonites
Mennonite Encyclopedia, v. 4, p. 585.

The difficulties pertinent to the establishment of pioneer homes on the western prairies have been repeatedly rehearsed by writers. Suffice it to say that the Mennonite tillers of the soil experienced the whole gamut of pioneering problems. Prairie fires, grasshoppers, Dakota blizzards, spring floods, crop failures, and countless other barriers impeded progress again and again.

That the western states were anxious to get Mennonite settlers is clearly revealed in the editorial policies of the newspapers. The Yankton Press and Dakotan was especially anxious to give "this class of immigrants the best chance possible, for we have already seen enough of their thrift and enterprise to convince us that they will make most desirable citizens" (4 December 1873). The paper pleaded for more united action to secure as much as possible of this "most valuable tide of humanity" (28 May 1874).

In most instances early church services were held in the homes, and when schools were built these were utilized for worship services. The first meetinghouse was constructed in 1877 in the western part of the settlement by the Hutterthal congregation. The Bethesda congregation in the northern part of the territory erected its first building in 1879. Others followed until by 1900 there were at least a half dozen or more.

At least 80 per cent of the Mennonites in South Dakota in the 1950s were farmers. This dependence on the soil was a contributing factor to the movement of large numbers of Hutterian Mennonites from Hutchinson County to counties in the state farther north and west, notably Beadle, Spink, and Sully. Here cheap marginal land was available which under the stimulus of high prices for farm products brought on by World War I proved tempting for many hundreds of Mennonites. Spurred on by the real-estate men, these people became alarmed lest opportunities for buying land would be curtailed. The dry years in the 1930's brought real hardship to many of these people, since rainfall was considerably less in these counties than in Turner and Hutchinson counties. An increasing number of Mennonite farmers received recognition at county and state fairs through the exhibition of grain products and purebred livestock and poultry.

Except for the Hutterian Brethren the Mennonites of South Dakota have generally participated in local politics and have quite universally exercised the right of franchise. The only Mennonite ever to hold a major state elective office by the 1950s was David D. Wipf of Freeman, who served two terms as Secretary of State (1905-1909). The following Mennonites also represented Hutchinson and Turner counties in the lower house of the state legislature: John J. Wipf, six terms; P. P. Kleinsasser, two terms; Emil J. Waltner, three terms; David J. Mendel, Andrew J. Waltner, J. J. Kleinsasser, J. P. Kleinsasser, John J. Gering, and Joseph K. Schrag, each one term. P. P. Kleinsasser also served two terms in the Senate, and the following each served one term in the upper house: John J. Wipf, A. A. Wipf, J. C. Graber, and John J. Gering. All of these legislators were affiliated with the Republican Party. On the local level there have been county commissioners, county judges, state's attorneys, township supervisors, mayors, and city councilmen.

The most important institution established by the Mennonites in the state was Freeman Junior College at Freeman, which was incorporated on 14 December 1900 under the name of "South Dakota Mennonite College." The name was changed to Freeman College in 1921, and in 1939 to Freeman Junior College. From the first this institution was a cooperative endeavor supported by virtually all the Mennonite groups in the state. It did much to make Freeman the Mennonite center of the state. A later institution located at Freeman was the Salem Mennonite Home for the Aged, which first began to operate in 1949. It also was cooperatively supported by the Mennonite church groups in the Freeman and Marion communities. -- John D. Unruh

1954 Statistics

Congregation Location Conference Members
Bethany Freeman General Conference Mennonite
Bethel Marion General Conference Mennonite
Bethesda Marion General Conference Mennonite
Emmanuel Doland General Conference Mennonite
Fairfield Hitchcock General Conference Mennonite
Friedensberg Avon General Conference Mennonite
Hutterdorf Freeman General Conference Mennonite
Hutterthal Freeman General Conference Mennonite
Hutterthal Carpenter General Conference Mennonite
Mt. Olivet Huron General Conference Mennonite
Neu Hutterthal Bridgewater General Conference Mennonite
Salem Freeman General Conference Mennonite
Salem Zion Freeman General Conference Mennonite
Zion Bridgewater General Conference Mennonite
Bethel Carpenter Krimmer Mennonite Brethren
Ebenezer Doland Krimmer Mennonite Brethren
Emmanuel Onida Krimmer Mennonite Brethren
Salem Bridgewater Krimmer Mennonite Brethren
Silverlake Freeman Mennonite Brethren
Bruderthaler Marion Evangelical Mennonite Brethren
Miller Miller Mennonite Church
United Missionary Church Dolton United Missionary Church

Hutterian Brethren 1954

Colony Location Population
Bon Homme Tabor
Glendale Frankfort
Graceville Winfred
Huron Huron
Jamesville Utica
Maxwell Scotland
Millerdale Miller
New Elm Spring Ethan
Pearl Creek Iroquois
Platte Academy
Riverside Huron
Rockport Alexandria
Rosedale Mitchell
Spink Frankfort
Tschetter Olivet

1990 Update

Several changes have occurred among Mennonite institutions in South Dakota between the 1950s and 1980s. Due to declining enrollments, increased costs of operation, and increasing debt brought on at least partly by the depressed farm economy, the Freeman Junior College Corporation decided on 17 October 1985 to close the college program in May 1986, and to concentrate efforts on the academy. At the same time, plans were initiated to add grades seven and eight to the academy beginning with the 1986-87 school year. Another important institution developed was Swan Lake Christian Camp near Viborg. Owned and operated by the Northern District Conference (GCM), the camp had a full summer program for youth and many winter weekend retreats. The Salem Mennonite Home for the Aged in Freeman expanded its capacity to 52 beds and four low-rental apartments for the elderly. This supervised personal living facility operated at full capacity.

Membership in the area Mennonite churches appeared to be declining, perhaps by 10 percent or more by 1988. Several factors contributed to this including smaller-size families and out-migration of young people seeking employment. Freeman, SD, continued to be a Mennonite center and was the home of the Mennonite Historical Archives and Heritage Hall Museum, located on the Freeman Academy campus. Also located on campus was the annual spring Schmeckfest, a "festival of tasting" that featured foods and exhibits from the various local Mennonite ethnic groups. -- Leroy D. Saner


Gering, J. J. After Fifty Years, A Brief Discussion of the History and Activities of the Swiss-German Mennonites from Russia Who Settled in South Dakota in 1874. N.p.,1924.

Graber, Edwin P. "An Analysis of Social Change in a Swiss-Mennonite Community." M.A. thesis, University of South Dakota, 1932.

Horsch, James E., ed. Mennonite Yearbook and Directory. Scottdale: Mennonite Publishing House (1988-89): 41.

Unruh, John D. "The Mennonites in South Dakota." South Dakota Historical Review 2 (1937): 147-170, taken from his unpublished Ph.D. thesis at the University of Texas.

Author(s) John D. Unruh
Leroy D. Saner
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Unruh, John D. and Leroy D. Saner. "South Dakota (USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 21 May 2024.

APA style

Unruh, John D. and Leroy D. Saner. (1989). South Dakota (USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 21 May 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, pp. 585-587; v. 5, p. 847. All rights reserved.

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