Scope & History of the Big Sioux River Watershed

On the River

The Big Sioux River is 419 miles long, stretching from the northeast corner of South Dakota all the way south to North Sioux City. Many eastern South Dakota towns cross paths with this lengthy river. The following towns/townships, listed in alphabetical order, are situated on the Big Sioux River.

Baltic (Minnehaha), Big Springs (Union), Brookings (Brookings), Canton (Lincoln), Castlewood (Hamlin), Dayton (Lincoln), Dell Rapids (Minnehaha), Dempster (Hamlin), Egan (Moody), Eden (Lincoln), Elk Point (Union), Enterprise (Moody), Estelline (Hamlin), Eureka (Brookings), Fairview (Lincoln), Flandreau (Moody), Fremont (Moody), Florence (Hamlin), Highland (Lincoln), Hudson (Lincoln), Jefferson (Union), Lake (Codington), Lake (Roberts), Mapleton (Minnehaha), Medary (Brookings), North Sioux City (Union), Oakwood (Brookings), Ortley (Roberts), Preston (Brookings), Rauville (Codington), Richland (Codington), Richland (Union), Riverview (Moody), Sheridan (Codington), Sioux Falls (Minnehaha), Sioux Valley (Union), Sisseton/Lake Traverse Reservation (Roberts), Split Rock (Minnehaha), Spring Creek (Moody), Springdale (Lincoln), Summit (Roberts), Sverdrup (Minnehaha), Trent (Moody), Virginia (Union), Volga (Brookings), and Watertown (Codington).

The Watershed District

Though a town or township may not lie along the river’s edge, the area may still be vital to the health of the Big Sioux River. When a town is not located on a river but its runoff water (through streams, tiles, canals, etc.) still makes it to that river, that area is considered part of that river’s watershed district. Brookings, Clark, Deuel, Hamlin, Lake, Lincoln, Minnehaha, Moody, and Union counties all fall within the Big Sioux Watershed District. Towns and townships within the district include but are not limited to: Afton, Alcester, Alliance, Altamont, Alton, Argo, Arlington, Aurora, Bangor, Bemis, Benton, Beresford, Blinsmon, Brantford, Bruce, Bryant, Buffalo, Burk, Bushnell, Clear Lake, Clare, Clark, Cleveland, Colman, Colton, Crooks, Dell Rapids, Dexter, Dixon, Edison, Elkton, Elmira, Elrod, Fairview, Florence, Franklin, Fremont, Fuller, Garden City, Garfield, Garretson, Germantown, Goodwin, Graceland, Grand Meadow, Grovena, Harrisburg, Hartford, Hayti, Hazel, Henry, Highland, Humboldt, Jefferson, Kampeska, Kranzburg, Lake View, Lake Hendricks, Laketon, Leola, Lennox, Logan, Lone Rock, Lynn, Lyons, Madison, Moe, Naples, Nora, Norden, Norway Center, Nunda, Oaklake, Oakwood, Opdahl, Orland, Oslo, Oxford, Palisade, Pelican, Phipps, Parnell, Preston, Ramona, Red Rock, Rutland, Sherman, Shindler, Sinai, Smiths Park, South Shore, Split Rock, Sterling, Taopi, Tea, Trenton, Union/Ward, Valley Springs, Vienna, Wallace, Wall Lake, Ward, Waverly, Wayne, Wellington, Wentworth, White, Winsor, and Worthing.


Though not exhaustive, the following is a collection of creeks and rivers that deposit into the Big Sioux. Waterways include: Bachelor Creek, Brule Creek, Dry Lake Outlet, Finnie Creek, Hidewood Creek, Indian River, Lake Campbell Outlet, Lake Kampeska Outlet, Lake Poinsett Outlet, Little Beaver Creek, Mahoney Creek, Medary Creek, Mud Creek, Nine Mile Creek, North Deer Creek, Pattee Creek, Pelican Lake Outlet, Richland Creek, Rock River, Sayles Creek, Sergeant Creek, Silver Creek, Skunk Creek, Slip-Up Creek, Soo Creek, Split Rock Creek, Spring Creek, Squaw Creek, Stray Horse Creek, Union Creek, and Willow Creek. Like the Big Sioux, these creeks, rivers, and waterways have tributaries of their own, creating an even large network of interconnected waterways.


Delicate and powerful forces shaped the landscape of South Dakota. Before the area boasted the towering Black Hills and sprawling prairie, layers of ice dominated the land. For eastern South Dakota, the most defining geological era occurred nearly 2 million years ago, when continental glaciers moved overland, polishing and flattening the terrain. As the ice melted, the Late Wisconsin Glacial Sediment Deposits and Early Wisconsin Glacial Sediment Deposits were left behind, creating the Big Sioux River Watershed area.

As early as the 13th century, the Big Sioux River area was settled by the Santee and Yankton tribes of Sioux. The area around the river teemed with fertile farmland and wild game. In addition to the land, the Sioux looked to the Big Sioux as an invaluable resource, turning to the river for fish. Throughout the century, the Sioux followed the river, settling along the course of the Big Sioux and extending southward. The 419 mile long river course provided food and water for these first settlers as well as a sacred space for the Sioux to collect red rock for pipes.

The Sioux tribes began to encounter French trappers in the 16th century.  Many French fur trappers hunted the Big Sioux River while using it for northward travel. The Frenchman, who would later lead Lewis and Clark through Sioux land, spent many years trapping in this area. The earliest recorded documentation of the Big Sioux River is a map published in 1701 in Paris, France, depicting a fur trader’s route.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Americans began exploring Dakota Territory. According to the journals of Lewis and Clark, the two adventurers passed the mouth of the Big Sioux River on August 21st, 1804 on their way through present day South Dakota. Lewis and Clark go into great detail as they describe the location and sanctity of the river. As they journey, they note, “Here began a range of bluffs, which continued till near the mouth of the great Sioux river, three miles beyond Floyd’s. This river comes in from the north and is about one hundred and ten yards wide. Mr. Durion, our Sioux interpreter, who is well acquainted with it, says, that it is navigable upwards of two hundred miles to the Falls, and even beyond them; that its sources are near those of the St. Peter’s. He also says, that below the Falls a creek falls in from the eastward, after passing through cliffs of red rock: of this the Indians make their pipes; and the necessity of procuring that article has introduced a sort of law of nations, by which the banks of the creek are sacred, and even tribes at war meet without hostility at these quarries, which possess a right of asylum.” Looking at a modern map of the Big Sioux, one will find that Durion’s description of the river is incredibly accurate. One will also note the reverence held for the political and religious significance of the Big Sioux.

Lewis and Clark were not the only explorers to come across the Big Sioux River. As white settlers began westward expansion, military men found and took notice of the river. Captain James Allen explored the river area in 1844, finding buffalo, elk, and antelope. Allen initially dismissed the smallness of the river, until he came upon the Falls. In his journal, Allen states his party “marched on down the river. In about twelve miles, came to a great picturesque fall…These falls present a remarkable feature of the river and country; the river, until now, running nearly due south, makes about the falls a bend to the west, and round to the northwest, and passes the falls in a due east course, and continues below in a northeast course for sixes [sic] miles, when it resumes its former direction. The rock of these falls is massive quartz, and is the first rock formation, or rock in place, that we have seen since we left the St. Peter’s river…The fall, as near as I could measure it, is 100 feet in 400 yards, and is made up of several perpendicular falls – one 20, one 18, and one 10 feet. The rock…on the borders of the stream is split, broken, and piled up in the most irregular and fantastic shapes, and presents deep and frightful chasms, and extending from the stream in all directions. There is no timber here on the borders or bluffs, and only a little on a small island at the head of the rapids.” River enthusiasts can see for themselves what Allen describes in Sioux Falls.

Just as the land had appealed to the Santee and Yankton tribes, the rich soil and abundant wildlife attracted white settlers to Dakota Territory. The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged westward movement and agricultural development of unoccupied land. The encroachment of white settlers on Native American lands led to violent conflicts and the eventual displacement of the Sioux. In 1875, Congress granted homesteading rights to Native people. As a result, the Flandreau (Santee) Indians banded together to acquire titles for farmland as a guard against losing their land. Though the Flandreau only farmed between one and ten acres, the Native Americans took 160-acre claims, situating their lands to have the Big Sioux River running through most of them in an attempt to keep their connection to the river. Today, the Big Sioux cuts through the heart of the Flandreau Indian Reservation.

As the homesteaders developed the Big Sioux region, they introduced livestock and large-scale farming techniques. The early twentieth century bore witness to a boom in agriculture in the state of South Dakota. The over-tillage of soil and loss of native prairie grasses ushered the state into the Dustbowl Era. After conservation efforts by the CCC and the economic boost associated with World War II, South Dakota once again prospered. The Big Sioux Region of Eastern South Dakota has continued to develop, still boasting a proud rural, agricultural tradition while growing the urban as cities like Sioux Falls and Brookings expand.

The history of the river takes a more melancholy twist as rural and urban development put more and more strain on the Big Sioux. Fecal matter, e. coli, and suspended solids have been and are being dumped into the river or being deposited in the river by runoff. In 2012, the Big Sioux was listed as the 13th dirtiest river in the nation. As the Big Sioux area continues to develop and extends its long and compelling history, it has become more important than ever for South Dakotans—urban and rural—to take an interest in their river.