Oahe Chapel - History
Pierre, SD

Oahe Chapel Historic Photo

In 1874, Reverend Thomas L. Riggs, a Congregationalist minister, and his first wife, Cornelia Margaret “Nina” Foster, established the Oahe Mission to serve the Sioux Indians of central South Dakota. The missionaries chose to build on the site of an old Arikara Indian village called Ti Tanke Ohe (meaning "site of the large house" referring to the council lodge), later shortened to “Oahe.” The name of the Indian village was eventually adopted by not only the Mission, but also by the dam and lake that now cover the site. The Oahe Chapel is the only remaining building associated with the Oahe Mission.

The Oahe Mission was located on the east bank of the Missouri River about five miles upriver from the modern-day location of the chapel. In the beginning, a log house was the center of the mission. In only three short years the house became too small and the American Indians agreed to help Reverend Riggs build a chapel, which was finished by September of 1877.

As with any other building on the frontier, the chapel was expected to serve a dual purpose--as a schoolhouse and as the center of religious life. Starting with an ABC primer, the men, women, and children of the mission all learned to read the Bible, first in the Dakota language and later in English. As Europeans settled in the community, they joined in Sunday and holiday worship at the chapel. Services were originally conducted in the Dakota language but by 1931 only English was used.


While the dam was being built, it became evident that the Oahe Mission would be completely flooded. In the 1950's, the chapel was given to the State of South Dakota. The State Historical Society was put in charge of the restoration and continued preservation of it. In 1957 the chapel was moved to a temporary location to escape the flooding. It was moved again in 1964 to its current location, eleven miles downstream from the original site.

In 1984, local citizens formed the Oahe Chapel Preservation Society in order to restore and preserve the chapel. With donations and volunteer labor, plus the assistance of the South Dakota State Historical Society and the State Historic Preservation Office, the major restoration was completed in 1988. While the South Dakota State Historical Society owns the building, the Oahe Chapel Preservation Society continues to maintain the chapel.