The shotgun that bought Pierre, SD

PIERRE, S.D. – Pierre has been the capital of South Dakota since 1889, and the city itself was only founded 9 years prior, in 1880. The story of Pierre’s founding is a story of a landowner, a railroad, and a shotgun.

In 1880, Ft. Pierre and the surrounding area had little special significance to the state as a whole. The capital of the Dakota Territory, as it was known prior to statehood, was Yankton, and it dominated territorial politics, according to the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Joseph Kirley

Joseph Kirley – Credit South Dakota State Historical Society

This began to change with the spread of the railroad. Chicago and Northwestern Railroad wanted to bring their Dakota line all the way to the Missouri River.

The spot that is now Pierre, situated along the eastern bank of the Missouri and directly between the Native American reservations to the north and south, was determined to be the perfect place to put their westernmost rail station. The only thing standing in their way was Joseph Kirley.

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Courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

Kirley was a pioneer who operated a ferry on the east bank of the Missouri River, transporting travelers to and from Fort Pierre, said Katy L. Schmidt, collection curator for the South Dakota State Historical Society. While he didn’t own the land, he squatted on it, and claimed the right to purchase it.

One day in 1880, Kirley received an offer for his property.

“They gave him this shotgun and a small plot and $1500,” Schmidt said. “Mr. Kirley thought that was a great price, and he was so happy and accepted it and moved off the land, only to later find out that the men who approached him were from the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad.”

The offer wasn’t chump change. When adjusted for inflation, that $1500 would be worth around $50,000 today. However, it was a far cry from what the land would end up being worth when Pierre became the capital of South Dakota decades later.

The shotgun is now a piece of South Dakota history and is just one exhibit showcased at the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society. For more information, check out their website here.



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