Return to Home

Unit 5


Notable Dakotans, 1850-1900


Lesson 4
Niels E. Hansen and Doane Robinson


     Land west of the Missouri River was now open for homesteading. Agriculture was not easy there. Grasshoppers sometimes ate crops as fast as they grew. Dry summers, cold winters, and high winds made farming hard. New plants and ways of farming needed to be found.


Niels E. Hansen and Cossack Alfalfa

     Niels E. Hansen was a plant scientist. He adapted plants so they would grow in South Dakota. He was born in Denmark in 1866. He and his family were immigrants. He came to America when he was seven years old. He went to school at Iowa State College. Then he got a job at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Niels E. Hansen
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


     Beginning in 1897, Hansen went to Europe and Russia. He looked for "hardy" plants from "hardy" climates. He thought these might do well in South Dakota. His most important find was Cossack alfalfa. This plant can survive harsh cold and dry weather. From the steppes of Siberia, Hansen brought back one teaspoonful of seed. Alfalfa soon became an important crop in western South Dakota. Hansen also brought smooth brome grass and crested wheat grass to the state.


     In all, Hansen found three hundred plants that would grow here. They were fruits, flowers, trees, and forage crops. He won many awards for his work. He died in Brookings in 1950.


Doane Robinson and South Dakota History

Doane Robinson
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     The 1890s were busy years. South Dakota became a state. Government was set up. Officials were elected. Laws were made. Railroads began to connect the state to the rest of the nation (read about this in Unit 6). South Dakota now had a past and a future to think about.

     Doane Robinson believed in South Dakota. He wanted to learn the history of its peoples. He wanted to save that history for people who would live here in the future. He was born in Wisconsin in 1856. His parents named him Jonah, but his baby sister called him "Donah." This became Doane. He moved to Dakota Territory to practice law. But other things were more important to Robinson than law.

     He wrote poetry and fiction. He gave talks about the history of South Dakota. He started a magazine. It was called the Monthly South Dakotan. It was about the history and culture of the state. Soon Robinson helped to start the South Dakota State Historical Society. He became a historian for the state. He collected items important to our history. He talked to Indians and non-Indians who lived here in the early days. He put the things they told him into magazines and books. He started a state museum and library. There he kept safe the things he collected. Today, we can still see and study these things from our past. They are in the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.

South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Robinson had many good ideas. Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills was one of his ideas. He worked for good roads and tourism. He died in 1945 in Pierre.

agriculture (n.), the raising of crops or livestock; farming

forage (n.), food for animals like sheep or cattle

historian (n.), a person who studies the past

steppes (n.), treeless plains; grasslands

tourism (n.), traveling for fun