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Pickstown, SD

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By Tom BrokawPhotographs by Vincent J. Musi

Dam-building spawned a workers town on the Missouri and the Tom Sawyer youth of a favorite son.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

When I returned a few years ago for a reunion of the original population, Pickstown was in a modest renewal as a retirement, hunting and fishing community. . . . I found my schoolboy friend Armand Hopkins at the Yankton Sioux casino and restaurant on the reservation. We laughed about the time we skipped school to go fishing in the river before his father’s farm was submerged by the lake. Now Armand and some other Sioux are petitioning the federal government to get additional compensation for their lands that were condemned. They say they had been paid only $33 an acre at the time, and they figure it’s worth at least twice as much.

Armand knew that 25 years ago I had bought a headstone to mark the grave of my friend Sylvan Highrock, who had died from too much drinking. When I asked about other Indian friends, the answer was a depressing litany. “Elmer Ashes?” “Dead,” he said. “Peter Archambeau?” “Dead,” Armand said. “They’re all dead.”

Survival is a point of pride for Armand and a subject that weighs on Sonny Soulek. . . . Sonny returned from a hellish time in Vietnam with what he calls survivor’s guilt. He’s undergone therapy and returned to the family farm not far from Pickstown, hunting and fishing and reflecting on what it’s been like to grow up in this corner of South Dakota. “There were two kinds of people,” he says, “the tough and the dead.”

Even during the boom times when I was living there, it was a place for the tough. The winters are long and usually harsh. And there haven’t been many good jobs since the dam was finished in 1956. But while Pickstown may not be what it once was, it still is framed by the natural beauty of the ancient river, the sweep of the Great Plains, and the long, unbroken shoreline of the lake behind the dam. It gave me a 19th-century childhood in a modern mid-20th-century town, and for that I will always be grateful.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


Television journalist Tom Brokaw lived a Tom Sawyer boyhood in Pickstown, South Dakota, but his aspirations took him to the big city. What are the pros and cons of living in a small town? Tell us your stories.

Journalist Tom Brokaw talks about the many pros—and few cons—of growing up in small town.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Fort Randall Military Post was considered the best built military fort on the upper Missouri when it was renovated in 1871. Those stationed at the fort provided military protection to settlements along the Missouri River and escorted wagon trains and survey parties as they made their way across the plains. But after a United States military expedition led by Gen. George Custer announced it had discovered gold in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1874, the troops at Fort Randall were faced with an additional duty: keeping thousands of gold seekers from trespassing on Native American lands. The Black Hills were the hunting grounds and sacred territory of the Sioux, whose claim to the area had been legally established in 1868 by the Fort Laramie Treaty.

The soldiers’ new responsibility didn’t last long, however. Shortly after Custer’s discovery of gold the government set the treaty aside, and the commissioner of Indian Affairs announced that all Sioux not settled on reservations by January 31, 1876, would be considered hostile.

Sitting Bull, legendary chief of the Sioux Nation, was one who continued to resist American military power. After spending four years in Canada in hopes of establishing a safe place for his people, Sitting Bull turned himself in to the U.S. government and was held as a prisoner at Fort Randall from 1881 until 1883. Hundreds came to glimpse the man best known for his involvement in the defeat of General Custer and his troops at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

—Cate Lineberry

Fort Randall Dam
Discover the history of Fort Randall Dam and the military fort that gave it its

Sioux Heritage
Learn more about the Sioux, including their history, culture, and language.


Brokaw, Tom. The Greatest Generation. Random House, 1998.

Griffith, T. D. Compass American Guides: South Dakota. Fodors, 1998.


Dunn, Jerry Camarillo, Jr. “This Memorial Rocks!” National Geographic World (June 1997), 28-31.

Kostyal, K. M. America’s “State Parks: 10 of the Best,” National Geographic Traveler (March/April 1994), 54-78.

Case, Leland D. “Back to the Historic Black Hills: The Old West Rubs Elbows with the New in a Frontier Vacationland Rich with Memories of Indians, Covered Wagons, and Gold Fever,” National Geographic (October 1956), 479-509.

Gray, Ralph. “Following the Trail of Lewis and Clark: In a Station Wagon Loaded to the Axles, an American Family Traces the Nation’s Oldest Path to the Pacifiic,” National Geographic (June 1953), 707-750.

Bump, James D. “Big Game Hunting in the Land of Long Ago,” National Geographic (May 1947), 589-605.

Simpich, Frederick. “Taming the Outlaw Missouri River,” National Geographic (November 1945), 569-598.

Grosvenor, Gilbert Hovey. “The Black Hills, Once Hunting Grounds of the Red Men,” National Geographic (September 1927), 305-329.


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