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January 2014 - Symbolizing Life in South Dakota

The great seal of South Dakota does more than authenticate official documents.

It serves as a symbol of life in South Dakota.

Within the circle of the great seal of South Dakota are representations of commerce, industry and natural resources.

South Dakota became a state on Nov. 2, 1889. A look back at the history of the state’s emblems and symbols is a fitting way to commemorate the 125th anniversary of South Dakota’s statehood.

The history of the great seal goes back to the days of Dakota Territory. As constitutions were drawn and steps toward statehood were taken, the description of official seals to authenticate official documents had to be addressed. Committees were created at constitutional conventions for that purpose.

State historian Doane Robinson, in his Encyclopedia of South Dakota, stated, “The great seal of South Dakota was devised by a committee of the Constitutional Convention of 1885, of which Dr. Joseph Ward was chairman and the device and motto are his suggestion.”

Ward came to Yankton in 1868. He was the first minister called to the first Congregational Church established in Dakota Territory. In addition to being a religious leader, Ward was a leader in many civic and educational enterprises and in the movement for statehood. He was a member of constitutional conventions in 1883 and 1885.

Ward and his committee offered a description of the state seal at the 1885 constitutional convention. With a few changes, such as changing the word Dakota to “State of South Dakota” and adding the actual year of statehood, this description was approved when South Dakota’s constitution was ratified on Oct. 1, 1899.

The state seal as described in the South Dakota Constitution, article 21, is: “The design of the great seal of South Dakota shall be as follows: A circle within which shall appear in the left foreground a smelting furnace and other features of mining work. In the left background a range of hills. In the right foreground a farmer at his plow. In the right background a herd of cattle and a field of corn. Between the two parts thus described shall appear a river bearing a steamboat. Properly divided between the upper and lower edges of the circle shall appear the legend, ‘Under God the People Rule’ which shall be the motto of the state of South Dakota. Exterior to this circle and within a circumscribed circle shall appear, in the upper part, the words, ‘State of South Dakota,’ in the lower part the words, ‘Great Seal,’ and the date in Arabic numerals of the year in which the state shall be admitted to the union.”

Thus, the smelting furnace represents the mining industry. The plowman and the field of corn symbolize farming, and the cattle feeding on the plain portray ranching and dairying, all representing agriculture. The trees indicate lumbering. The sky and hills represent the Black Hills and the state’s scenic beauty. The steamboat stands for transportation and commerce, and the river is the Missouri River that winds through the state.

The state Legislature authorized Richard Cropp of Mitchell to design an official colored reproduction of the great seal in 1961, and it is stored in the South Dakota State Historical Society --State Archives at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. In 1986, Gov. Bill Janklow commissioned John Moisan of Fort Pierre to create a painted version of the state seal. Current color reproductions are based on this version of the state seal.

The secretary of state is designated by law as the “keeper of the seal.” Anyone who wishes to use the state seal in publications or other purposes has to ask for and receive permission from the secretary of state’s office in order to do so. This protects the image of the state seal and ensures its tasteful and respectful use.

Instead of the seal being an embossed image, a foil seal is now placed on documents filed with the secretary of state’s office. About 30,000 documents a year receive the foil seal.

South Dakotans do not need to look at official documents to see the great seal. The state seal, and all that it symbolizes, is incorporated into the design of the state flag.

This moment in South Dakota history is provided by the South Dakota Historical Society Foundation, the nonprofit fundraising partner of the South Dakota State Historical Society. Find us on the web at Contact us at to submit a story idea.