Of all the nicknames for South Dakota, perhaps none is more unusual than” The Swinged Cat State.”
This nickname originated from remarks made by South Dakota’s first governor, Arthur C. Mellette, according to an article from the South Dakota State Historical Society – State Archives.
In 1890, South Dakota was in the midst of a drought. Mellette was doing everything in his power to help settlers and keep them from leaving the state. On a trip to Chicago for aid, Mellette was met by Moses P. Handy, a friend and newspaperman. Handy asked Mellette, “Well, governor, how is South Dakota?”
Mellette replied, “Oh, South Dakota is a swinged cat, better than she looks.”
By swinged, Mellette meant “burnt” or “singed,” according to the article.
The next day, the Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper had a story about Mellette, governor of the “swinged cat State.”
“Coyote State” might have been its first nickname, and while most people probably assume the nickname was inspired by the state animal, it may actually have been inspired by a horse.
According to Volume IX of South Dakota Historical Collections Compiled by the State Department of History, a race took place in October 1863 at Fort Randall between horses owned by two soldiers from Company A Dakota Cavalry and a major from the 6th Iowa Cavalry.
The major’s horse was badly beaten.
A soldier from the Iowa infantry remarked “that the Dakota horse ran like a coyote.” The owners immediately gave their horse that name, which became applied to the entire Dakota Company and to all residents of the state.
With a nod to the number of artesian wells in the state, another South Dakota nickname is “The Artesian State.”
With plains, hills, mountains, cities, towns, farmland, pasture, lakes, rivers, hot weather and freezing cold, South Dakota has also been called “The Land of Infinite Variety” and “The Land of Plenty.”
Weather is a factor in two of South Dakota’s nicknames. As “The Blizzard State,” it shares a nickname with Texas because of both states being subject to frequent storms.
And while “The Sunshine State” is Florida’s official nickname, it was also South Dakota’s slogan for decades.
In 1992, the sun set on “The Sunshine State” as South Dakota’s official nickname. State Rep. Chuck Mateer, a Republican from Belle Fourche, introduced legislation that year to change the state’s nickname from “The Sunshine State” to “The Mount Rushmore State.”
“Everybody’s got a lot of sunshine, but we’re the only ones who’ve got Mount Rushmore,” he was quoted as saying in an article in the Jan. 26, 1992, Sioux Falls Argus Leader.
Getting the bill passed wasn’t all sunshine for supporters. Opponents argued that dropping the nickname “The Sunshine State” would cause people to think the state was in a “frozen tundra,” according to Republican Rep. Mary Edelen of Vermillion in the Feb. 1, 1992, Argus Leader. Others in favor of keeping the sun shining on South Dakota said that the state’s American Indian population did not want South Dakota to be known as “The Mount Rushmore State.”
The legislation did pass and was signed into law by Gov. George S. Mickelson, who favored the new nickname.
Who knows what the future will hold for South Dakota’s nicknames? While “The Mount Rushmore State” might seem set in stone, clearly nicknames come and go.
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 at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre.