The South Dakota prairie is a harsh environment. Extreme variations of temperature, moisture and wind are always present. To eke out a living on the prairie individuals must be ready to meet these conditions head on. August Sanson, an immigrant from Bjorksjon, Sweden, was the type of person to do just that. He and his family successfully homesteaded a large plot of land that is now part of Wind Cave National Park.
August Sanson left his native Sweden in 1870 for the United States. He arrived in Michigan and gained employment working the copper fields for the Snolders Mining Company. In 1878, the mining company sent Sanson to the Black Hills to prospect for gold. The company also established a secondary enterprise called the Wyoming and Black Hills Cattle Company. Under Sanson’s care, the company drove 325 head of cattle from Iowa to South Dakota. The cattle enterprise failed after one winter and the business gave their remaining 90 head to Sanson as payment.
In 1882, at the age of 33, August Sanson received 160 acres of land as per the Homestead Act. Signed into law in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, the act turned over roughly 270 million acres of public domain to private citizens for the purpose of settlement. His property is situated in present day Custer County along Beaver Creek just west of Buffalo Gap, South Dakota. This property was added to by August’s marriage to Johanna Grashorn in 1888. Johanna and her mother, Louisa, had a nearby homestead which eventually became part of the Sanson Ranch. With future purchases, additional homesteads and untimely deaths in the family the ranch eventually became 3,700 acres in size.
As a cattle rancher, Sanson had to adjust to the harsh, ever-changing conditions nature threw at him and survive. He endured by being able to adapt with the time and conditions. The homestead is a testament to Sanson and his decedents to their tenacity and how they protected and cared for the land. According to Sanson’s son, Carl, “there were many problems along the way… dry years, grasshoppers, hail storms and range fires, but they endured them all.”
Raising cattle was the major focus of ranching in the Southern Black Hills in the 1870s and 1880s. Many large cattle ranches sprang up near the then thriving town of Buffalo Gap, just eight miles from the Sanson Homestead. The topography of the Southern Black Hills provided less severe winter conditions and promoted more robust livestock. The arrival of the railroad in Buffalo Gap in 1885 allowed cattle to be shipped to eastern and European markets. During these years cattle ranching flourished and then suddenly collapsed. The seemingly endless prairie grasses had their limits. Too many cattle grazing in too little spaces and catastrophic weather incidents depleted the land.
In 1916, August’s son, Carl, took over the management of the ranch. Throughout the years they adjusted to the ever-changing prairie and fluctuating financial markets. The Sansons understood that protecting the range was as important as protecting the livestock. Carl explained it in his memoir, “with care and no overgrazing, the grass is still here, which can’t be said of some ranches. To overgraze the range will get you if you keep it up. We have sold out our cow herd twice in my lifetime when we had too long a spell of dry years but have always built back up when years were better.”
To survive on the frontier you not only needed tenacity, you needed a support community, and the local community was an important part of the Sanson story. In his memoir, Sanson wrote “Like any business, the ranching business has many problems that had to be solved the best way we could. The neighbors were always ready to help anyone anytime; your troubles were their troubles. There couldn’t be a better neighborhood anywhere. We always helped each other… if we didn’t, a lot of us wouldn’t have survived this frontier country.”
The surviving buildings of the Sanson Ranch represent a way of life in Western South Dakota at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The family home burned in 1910 and they lost everything. While living at Johanna’s old claim shack at half mile east of the burned residence, the Sanson family began rebuilding the ranch house. They celebrated the completion of the house and August and Johanna’s 31st wedding anniversary on May 19, 1919 with 150 friends and neighbors present. The barn, chicken coop and root cellar demonstrate how each building had a specific purpose and was utilized to make the most of the modest supplies available. The various outbuildings show that a working ranch is more than taking care of livestock before shipping them to market.
The ranch is nestled within a varied landscape due to the location of the property at the convergence of the Black Hills and Great Plains. The western portion of the property is characterized by rock outcroppings and steep hills. The upper most rocky topography of the landscape supports dense stands of firs and pines typical of the Badlands. Traveling towards the eastern boundary of the ranch, the landscape is composed of vast expanses of flat, rolling prairie. Stretching out on its own unbounded scale, the prairie supports the traditional grasses in rich red soils. The ranch property is bisected by Beaver Creek, currently dry, and other still active tributaries which are partially responsible for shaping the present landscape.
In 1987, the Sanson Ranch was honored as being the oldest working ranch in Custer County, South Dakota. In 2000, the Casey family owned the former Sanson homestead and approached the National Park Service about selling the land. In 2005, Congress passed legislation to expand Wind Cave National Park pending an appropriation to purchase the land. The land was put up for auction by the Casey Family in 2010. The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting important places across America, purchased the property. The nonprofit held the land for the National Park Service until federal funding became available. On October 6, 2011, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the National Park Service had acquired 5,555 acres of former ranchland, which included the Sanson Homestead. The acquired acreage became part of Wind Cave National Park.