Potter County History


History of Gettysburg, South Dakota

"New City" of Gettysburg

Blizzard of 1888

Medicine Rock

The Tornado of 1892



Source: A newspaper clipping in the Potter County History files at the Potter County Library, Gettysburg, SD. Name of newspaper is unknown. Article is dated July 22, 1892.

Transcribed by the staff of the Potter County Library

File Title: Tornado of 1892 (July 19, 1892)

Gettysburg, S.D., July 22, 1892.

Tuesday night at 10:05 o’clock a terrific wind and rainstorm swept over this section. A lawn fete was being conducted by the Excelsior Dramatic Club of this place near the residence of Dr. F.B. Bullard, and was numerously attended by people of all ages, from babies in arms to the old and infirm. First came the great drops of rain, spattering on the tents and awnings, warning the congregated people that the storm was approaching, although the appearance of the heavens at sunset was not such as to warrant anticipation of such a calamity as has befallen our community. Suddenly and without warning, a fierce gale set in from the northwest which rapidly increased in force until it became a tornado, carrying almost everything before it.

The magnificent Methodist Church, a costly structure with a seating capacity of about 300, is a mass of shapeless ruins, scattered literally to the four winds of heaven. A timber from the church was blown through a window in the residence of A. G. Williams, through a partition, and then through a closet door and was so tightly wedged in that the partition had to be cut away to take it out.

Teall’s store building was carried to the east, both side walls and the front giving away and letting the roof down until the ceiling nearly touched the show cases, and the building was a total wreck, except that the roof was not broken. (Teall’s store, in its descent, bore heavily against the jewelry store of L.R. Hyde, who was pinned fast between the edge of an open door and a partition, and the Hyde store and dwelling were crushed out of all shape.)

The Baptist Church was carried twelve feet to the east, off of the foundation and over into the side yards of the residence to the east of the church. The Episcopal church was moved on its foundation about three inches, cracking and plastering badly.

The Chicago and Northwestern railroad warehouse was blown from its underpinning and onto the main track of the road. The incoming train on the Chicago and Northwestern would have been blown back in spite of all the engine could do to retain it had not the brakes been tightly set. Cars on the sidetracks were carried eastwardly up the road and away, and one large freight car turned over and over but landed safely at the bottom of a fill, right side up.

Both our school houses are in total ruin with books, papers, maps, charts and other paraphernalia of education scattered over the prairie.

The postoffice building was wrenched and torn partially from its foundation, necessitating the removal of the postoffice to the Odd Fellows Hall.

All the elevators and warehouses were more or less badly damaged. Ogden’s lumber shed was entirely demolished and Booth’s badly damaged.

The tower of the courthouse was blown down, the coal shed carried into the air and dropped bottom side up, depositing the contents on the under side of the roof. The town windmill and tower were blown down.

Michael’s harness and hardware shop was unroofed. Sparling’s hardware store had its front knocked entirely out by flying boards and pieces of buildings. Tillotson’s general store met with a similar fate. The large barns and corral opposite Fisk’s office were struck by lightning and a portion of the roof torn off.

McMaster’s Dakota House was twice struck by lightning and badly damaged. The French residence, occupied by Brooks George and family, was struck by flying portions of a barn and torn all to pieces. The residence of James Bryson was totally demolished, as was also his barn.

The house occupied by John Clements was blown bodily into the air a great distance and dropped to the earth, a mass of ruins. The members of the family were standing chin deep in water in the cellar where they had sought refuge when rescued by several young men at great risk to their own lives.

The residence of W.A. Herron was entirely demolished, catching in the ruins his wife and a 4-year-old child, killing the mother instantly. The little girl lingered only a few hours and died.

Men were blown a distance of two and three blocks and dropped onto their feet or knees, but no fatalities, other than those of Mrs. Herron and her child, occurred.

Telegraph wires are all down and communication with the outside world is entirely shut off.

At Forest City, sixteen miles west of here, but not connected by wire, great damage was done. The round house of the Forest City and Sioux City Railroad Company was blown down and torn to pieces, and a coach of that road standing on the track was overturned and ruined. Houses, outhouses, barns and all small structures are laid low, while Crockett’s River View Hotel is a complete ruin.

Across the river at the Cheyenne Indian Agency, the new Catholic Church, only dedicated on July 4, was blown entirely down and demolished. The Episcopal Church was blown from its foundations. The government buildings were all more or less damaged and will have to be almost entirely rebuilt. Boats were blown adrift and have gone down the river.

Gettysburg has been full of country folks, drawn here to see the devastation of the storm. No outside assistance is needed, as the Gettysburg people, true to their past history, will care for the unfortunate ones.


Compiled by Cece and Ruth Stilgebouer, Gettysburg, South Dakota 75th Anniversary: Through 75 Years 1883-1958, pp.30-31.

Transcribed by staff of the Potter County Library, Gettysburg, SD.

Medicine Rock

From the standpoint of its historical background, no one thing in Gettysburg or the surrounding territory has attracted greater attention than our famed Medicine Rock. It is reported that Lewis and Clark, who stopped near the Missouri River in the fall of 1804, considered it unusual enough to mention in their diary. Atkinson and O’Fallon, who made the treaty with Indian tribes along the Missouri in 1825 to exclude the English, stopped to examine it. In 1863, General Alfred Sully and a force of 1200 men camped near it, and the historian of the expedition wrote about “the great stone.” George B. Custer, whose forces were later wiped out at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, made camp near the rock in 1873 when enroute with the 7th Cavalry to garrison at Fort Abraham Lincoln near Mandan. His wife, who accompanied him on this trip, made references to Medicine Rock in her writings. In later years its geological significance has attracted archaeologists from the Smithsonian Institution and from the University of Wisconsin as well as those from our own state.

This limestone rock, which is approximately 10x20 feet, was originally located on a bluff near the mouth of the Little Cheyenne River fifteen miles west of Gettysburg, Its significance is attributed to the imprint on the hard rock of five tracks of bare human feet as if made by two persons running on parallel lines. When first discovered, the heel marks were 2 inches deep. The tracks, perfectly lined, were of the same size showing that they were made by the same person.

To the early Sioux Indians, they were the footprints of the Great Spirit, Medicine Rock. Before going to war, the band held its pow-wows around it and there made sacrifices to the Great Spirit so that they might win victory. The sick sacrificed their garments by placing them on the rock as a sovereign remedy for disease. Sometimes they tied bags of herbs on poles around the rock, believing that virtue would enter into the article left. Bright metal was also deposited as an offering to the unseen god.

According to archaeologists of the Smithsonian Institution who examined it in 1899, the footprints were of the pre-glacial men who ran across the rock when it was in a soft, calcerous mud which afterward hardened. Others think the prints were chiseled out by some prehistoric Indian tribe. A cast of the footprints was made by the Smithsonian Institution in 1889, and this cast now rests in the State Museum at Pierre.

The theory has also been advanced that the rock is probably a glacial boulder of Trenton limestone and might have been formed on the bed of the deep sea in this region a million years ago. A state geologist suggested that it might have been a deposit of ice that is older than the last sheets deposited in Wisconsin or Iowa.

At the centennial of the Atkinson and O’Fallon peace expedition held in 1925, Shield Eagle of the Two Kettle Tribe of the Dakotas, gave the Indian interpretation of the markings. He said in ancient times a wise man inspired by the Great Spirit engraved the footprints on the stone to remind the Indians that they were in the care of God. His tribe looked upon the rock as an oracle. They believed that when the proper prayers were offered, it would direct them to the best hunting grounds or lead them to victory. Indian women used to go there to offer prayers for the safety of their children.

In addition to the footprints, there are two other depressions at the lower end which resemble the claws of a large animal. This inspired this fanciful legend: “In the days long ago when the stone was soft like bars along the Missouri, an Indian girl was chased across the rock by a huge animal, leaving the impressions of her bare feet. In her flight, she stumbled and pressed her right hand in the cement-like mud. The tracks of the pursuing animal bear witness.”

Whatever the interpretation, the markings on Medicine Rock have been significant enough to command the attention of those who traveled by while participating in history-making events and later of prominent archaeologists.

In the summer of 1954, knowing that within a few years the rock would be inundated by the Oahe reservoir, the Gettysburg Fire Department decided to move it to Gettysburg and establish it there as a historical marker where it could be preserved and protected. Accordingly, the firemen, with the help of a local mover, transferred the rock from its original location to its new one on the north side of Highway U.S. 212 at the east side of town. This being accomplished, a sign was erected, and it was formally dedicated on August 21, 1954. Present at the dedication were old timers and other interested spectators, together with representatives of the Potter County Historical Society, State Historical Society, Cheyenne Tribal Council, and the Fire Department. Glenn Hart, treasurer of the Potter County Historical Society, emceed the program and welcomed the audience. Earl Olsen, representing the Fire Department, spoke on the development of the grounds surrounding the rock. Mrs. Frank Ducheneau, of Cheyenne Agency, secretary to the chairman of the Tribal Council of the Cheyenne Reservation, spoke on the Indian lore of the rock and expressed the appreciation of her people for its removal to Gettysburg for preservation. Will Robinson, secretary of the State Historical Society, delivered the principal address in which he gave the history of the landmark and paid tribute to the firemen for their interest and efforts in moving the rock to a safe location. Following Mr. Robinson’s talk, Shirley Vail, president of the Potter County Historical Society, and George Adams, chief of the Fire Department, unveiled the marker which bears this inscription:

“Medicine Rock

Originally located near the mouth of the Little Cheyenne River, 15 miles west, it was to be inundated by the Oahe Dam and so moved here. While ascending the Missouri River, observers noted this huge rock on a hillside and were told by the Indians it was a sacred rock because of the deeply incised footprints. In 1863, when Sully’s expedition against the hostile Sioux was nearby, Capt. John Filner was ambushed by Indians and killed. On August 17, 1889 casts of these prints were made.”

[Potter County Library note on Jan. 20, 2012: The Medicine Rock is currently housed indoors at the Dakota Sunset Museum, Gettysburg, SD.]




Rella McIntosh, [personal narratives of life in Potter County, South Dakota]. circa 1958.

Transcribed by the staff of the Potter County Library, Gettysburg, SD.

Blizzard of 1888

So long as there is a history of South Dakota, there will be echoes of the blizzard of January 12, 1888.

We had a beautiful autumn extending until after the middle of December. The first snowfall was heavy and the weather was unusually severe during January, climaxed by the great blizzard on the twelfth.

The previous day was cold and clear with a strong wind blowing from the southeast. The upper strata of air was filled with frost crystals, giving a wonderful display of crescents, circles and sundogs. Temperatures moderated a little during the night and the sky became overcast. There were about twenty inches of snow on the ground. Toward morning the wind swung into the northwest and brought with it a fine, powdery snow which soon reduced visibility to zero. Objects two feet from the door were invisible. It was dangerous to venture out, and it was impossible to breathe without a scarf over the nose and eyes. Eyes soon froze shut and clothes were driven full of snow. The temperature dropped rapidly during the day and reached forty below by the next morning.

The starting time was favorable in our section for the farmers who got up early, for they had time to feed the stock and see that they were securely housed. However, much concern was felt throughout the storm for fear that even the housed animals might be buried in snow in the barns and suffocated. This, however, proved to be false, and all stock properly housed came through in good shape.

Nearly everyone remained indoors during the duration of the storm. However, there were some near tragedies in our territory. Our teacher, Miss Arnold, who had gone to school in the morning, had a difficult time returning to her boarding place. Snow banks four feet deep barred her path. She missed the house by a few feet. Only her alertness in noticing a slackening of the wind as she came opposite it helped her to find the door and get refuge from the storm. One farmer tried to go to the barn. The storm was so severe he decided he could not make it, and upon trying to return against the wind to the house, he found he would have to get on his hands and knees and crawl to make it. Only the voice of his wife guided him to safety. Two other farmers tied binding twine to the door and used it to guide them to and from the barn. Many who ventured out even these short distances wound up with frozen feet and hands.

When the weather cleared, we scarcely recognized our surroundings. Many high places were swept clear of snow. It was piled high in others. What had been hard packed snow was a skeleton framework of ice with the fine snow blown out. Since there were no telephones, we had to wait until we could see our neighbors to find out if they had survived. Telegraph and transportation lines were all down, and it was several days before we knew what a severe loss of life and property the northwest had suffered.

It may be a hundred years before there is another like it. At any rate, seventy years have now passed and it still remains the measuring stick for all other storms. While there have been a few bad ones, none has ever reached it in magnitude and we hope none ever will.


Clarence W. Taber, 12 People Make Up First Population of New City, Potter County News, Gettysburg, SD, ? ? 1933.

Transcribed by Peg Williams

It is difficult to establish the exact precedence of the coming of early settlers to Gettysburg. Feb. 27, 1883, Capt. James Bryson with two other parties camped at Eagle Peak (north of town) over night, but they left the county to return at a later date. C.E.M. Oliver arrived from Appomattox May 21, 1883, and was immediately followed by Wm. Combellick, Sr., Charles George and Fred Robinson, A.H. Higgins, Messrs. Regan, Force, Young, Benster, Hayward, Burdick, Teall, Millard, Todd, May, Hulshizer, Brink, and others. The first women were Mesdames Hayward, Garret, Abbe, and Walker, Mrs. Benster and daughters, Mrs. Mary O’Brian and daughters, and Miss Platt.

March 25, 1895, the Ladies Relief Corp published a special edition of the Gettysburg Courier, consisting of historical facts pertaining to the early settlement of the county. A sketch entitled “Reminiscences of Gettysburg” by Mrs. M.M. Benster, gives a good insight into the early life of the settlers. She wrote as follows:

“The village consisted of two tents, one called by our soldiers a ‘wedge tent,’ and calculated to shelter one person and his belongings; the other a wall-tent being 8x10 ft. and considered a great luxury; one covered wagon or prairie schooner. Our number, I believe, was twelve. Mrs. O’Brian and her family of four increased the number to seventeen, after which, settlers came in rapidly. An attempt was soon made to find water, but without success, and it was found necessary to haul what was required in barrels and tanks from the Artichoke Creek. The second week an attempt was made to establish Sabbath service. As we had one of our number, Dr. Valentine, who was studying for the ministry, we asked him to deliver a sermon, which he did. Our first meeting was held in his tent, our seats being his bedstead and trunk. There were nine present. The next service was so well attended that we were obliged to go into the dining room of the Buffalo House, which hotel consisted of two very medium sized tents, and an extremely rough board shanty without a floor. We occupied the shanty, and I think, no minister ever had so appreciative an audience. Our mail was addressed to Blunt, and anyone coming to our village was given all the mail addressed to anyone known to have come to the locality, the bundle of mail being placed on the counter of our grocery store, from which each selected his own letters. We had been trying to select a name for our village, and in September after sending the post office authorities several names which had for various reasons been rejected, we were officially recognized by the name of ‘Gettysburg’ and a post office appointment was made and the post office located in the grocery store mentioned.”

If the writer is correct, the first postmaster was M.M. Benster, and it was his grocery store in which the post office was first located. The first public school was organized in the spring of 1885. Mrs. Benster wrote that “the only available room was over a tin-shop, which was the regular resort of all loungers. The knot-holes in the floor formed an easy source of communication and current topics were much more easily learned than book lore. The teacher tried to have the pupils drown the gossipers down stairs by having much concert work.” There were no stairs to the schoolroom on the upper floor which was reached by means of an oil barrel. This room was used for all religious services and adults often found it difficult to reach the door gracefully. After using this room for four months, stairs were built.

[to be continued]

A Brief History of Gettysburg, Potter County, South Dakota, information compiled by Potter County Library staff, 2010.
Transcribed by Peg Williams

Gettysburg’s Great History


Veterans of the Civil War founded Gettysburg in 1883. The group sought to name the new town Meade in honor of General Meade, renowned for his leadership in the Battle of Gettysburg.  When the Post Office rejected that name because it was already too popular, Captain John W. Kennedy, a member of Gen. Howard’s 11th Corps during the Battle of Gettysburg, submitted the name Gettysburg instead.  That was accepted. One hundred eight years later, Gettysburg, SD, and Gettysburg, PA, became “sister-cities” because of their shared heritage.


The founding veterans laid claim to the area through the government program of scripping.  History relates that in the very beginning the town was made up of two tents, one called a wedge tent just large enough to shelter one person, the other a wall tent, being 8x10 and considered a great luxury, and a covered wagon known as the Prairie Schooner.  What water they had was hauled from the now dry creek bed of Artichoke. 


But all did not go well.  Personal differences interrupted the deal the founding men had made.  After some months, Captain Bryson stepped in and offered free lots to anyone who would move his buildings from the old town site into Bryson’s addition.  By the spring of 1884, the problems had been licked and the entire business block had been moved.


The first church service was held in a tent the second week after the men arrived. The first church building in Gettysburg was located above a tin shop on Main Street.  The first school was organized in 1885 above that same tin shop.  For a long time the Buffalo House, a frontier hotel and boarding house, was the recreational center for the little settlement. The first saloon is said to have sported a sign that read, “Who enters here leaves hope behind.” 


The Post Office was established in 1883, as was the first newspaper. The first bank was established in 1884.  Telephone service arrived in 1906 and the first volunteer fire department was organized in 1909.


Although the first physician, Dr. M.H. Willy, came in 1883 and drug store services in 1885, hospital services had to wait until 1952.


Legal services were here before Gettysburg existed.  Samuel Cosand, a lawyer from Indiana, came to this area of Dakota Territory in 1881 and stayed the rest of his life.


The town has survived prairie fires, a Typhoid epidemic, blizzards, an Indian scare, and a devastating tornado. 


There are 11 cemeteries in the area, some dating back to the 1800s.  Most of the Civil War veterans are buried in the Gettysburg Cemetery and are marked by the traditional white military stones.


From 1955-1968, Eagle Peak, a high point near Gettysburg, was home to the 903rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron, locally known as the Air Force Radar Base.   Today the Federal Communication Commission operates a facility on the site.


Gettysburg is the county seat for Potter County, but it wasn’t always so.  The county, created in 1875 and organized in 1883, was first named Ashmore County in honor of a territorial legislator.  In 1877 it was renamed for Dr. Joel Potter, a member of that year’s Territorial Legislature.


The county commissioners held their first meeting Dec. 27, 1883, at the temporary county seat in Forest City.  In April of 1884, an election was held to establish a permanent county seat, and Gettysburg won by overwhelming majority.  A fierce struggle ensued. Finally 100 men forcibly took the documents from the temporary courthouse in Forest City and moved them to Gettysburg. 


The Oahe Reservoir bounds Potter County on the west.  Most of the Indian village sites, Forest City, and the headquarters for the Cheyenne Indian Reservation located in that area were covered by waters from the Oahe in 1957.


No one thing in Gettysburg has attracted greater attention than the famed Medicine Rock.  It is reported that Lewis and Clark considered it unusual enough to mention in their journals.  This 10’x20’ limestone rock was originally located on a bluff fifteen miles west of Gettysburg.  Its significance is attributed to the imprint in the hard rock of five tracks of bare human feet.  When first discovered, the heel marks were 2.5 in. deep.  The early Sioux Indians believed these were the footprints of the Great Spirit, Medicine Rock.  In addition to the footprints, there are two depressions at the lower end that resemble the claws of a large animal.  The Medicine Rock currently holds a place of prominence at the Dakota Sunset Museum in downtown Gettysburg.


In 2010 Gettysburg is a friendly community of 1100 people and 200 licensed businesses including a medical center with a variety of services.  Farming and ranching provide the economic base; however, recreational activities including hunting, fishing, and golf are beginning to play a larger role.





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