Book offers new perspectives on the big forces in South Dakota history
'Old Trails and New Roads' will be the subject of discussion at the 55th Annual Dakota Conference at Augustana University on Thursday.
SIOUX FALLS – A new book offers fresh takes on quintessential elements of South Dakota history.
“Old Trails and New Roads in South Dakota History” is a compilation of 13 essays by a collection of home-grown, national and international authors.
The book was inspired by the sudden passing of John E. Miller, a longtime professor of history at South Dakota State University, on May 1, 2020.
That brought together two previously unacquainted friends of the professor, John Lauck and Jan Hovey Johnson, who quickly realized they wanted to do something to honor Miller’s legacy.
“Right up until his death he was interested in continuing the work of analysis of South Dakota history, which I think is really important,” Johnson said in an interview with Sioux Falls Live. “He was 75 and yet he hadn’t retired-retired. He was working and thinking about what would come next.”
Johnson reached out to Lauck through Facebook after reading a tribute he’d written to Miller that was published in the Brookings Register. Lauck, as it turned out, knew that his old friend had wanted to compile a new collection of essays on the state’s history.
That led to a call to Harry Thompson, director of the Center for Western Studies at Augustana University and the idea for the book suddenly had real legs.
South Dakota history doesn’t get the attention that it deserves, said Lauck. A comprehensive history of the state hasn’t been written since Herbert Schell’s work in the 1950s. There aren’t many historians working in the state and there’s no university press like there is in Nebraska or Oklahoma.
Miller’s death left a “massive hole” in the effort, said Lauck, a Sioux Falls resident who edited the book and wrote the introduction.
“He was the beating heart of South Dakota history and now we don't have anybody like him,” Lauck said in an interview.
“Old Trails and New Roads” is an effort to fill that hole, if only a bit. The authors and topics were selected to highlight the major influences in life here.
That includes the first chapter on the rise of the Lakota Nation, by Pekka Hämäläinen, the Rhodes Professor of American History at the University of Oxford.
There are chapters on the weather, the railroads, why the border is where it is, sports in general and hunting and fishing.
Politics and government are included as well, with a chapter on radicals, another on the politics of nature and the American Indian Movement.
“It gives you a bunch of different angles on the state,” said Lauck. “Why it is the way it is.”
“Old Trails and New Roads” will be the subject of a panel discussion at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, April 27, at the Center for Western Studies at Augustana University. The panel is just one element of the 55th Annual Dakota Conference at the center this Thursday and Friday.
The conference features an array of panel discussions and presentations. The overall topic for this year is “The Outlaw Plains.” Presentations will examine past and recent criminal activity and responses in the Northern Plains and the West, including the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s.
The intersection of Miller’s friends was as much serendipitous as it was coincidental.
Lauck is an advocate for the regional history of the Midwest and adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota as well as an advisor to Sen. John Thune. He is the editor of other anthologies and author of several books, most recently “The Good Country: A History of the American Midwest,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 2022.
Johnson was an English instructor for 13 years at Mt. Marty College after earning a master’s degree in English at SDSU. Along with husband David W. Johnson and sons Reid and Ethan, she owns Reliabank.
She sponsored the first phase of the work on “Old Trails and New Roads” and wrote the forward.
“What I love about this is that we are looking at a new generation of contributors,” said Johnson. “There are people who are in the field and are experts on their topic in so many respects. It adds to the value of the history of South Dakota.”
Miller never quit working on history, Lauck said. Even in retirement he continued to write papers and attend conferences. He was working on a biography of the late U.S. Sen. George McGovern when he died.
“John was a dear friend and we were very close,” Lauck said. “We were both history nerds who enjoyed the same stuff and read all the same magazines and journals. There aren’t that many people who do that. I could call him up and say, ‘Did you see the new Nebraska History Quarterly?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I did see that.’”
The book is available at the Center for Western Studies and Zandbroz in Sioux Falls, the State Historical Society in Pierre, DDR Books in Watertown and through Amazon online.