A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the sixteenth President on the 4th of March, 1861. Earlier, Congress had passed a bill creating the Dakota Territory near the end of President Buchannan’s presidency.  As one of his last official acts as president, he signed that bill on March 2, 1861.

Early in April of 1861, President Lincoln appointed Dr. William Jayne as the Governor of the new Dakota Territory.  He was from Springfield, Illinois, and had served as Lincoln’s personal physician.  Jayne selected Yankton as capital because of its location on the Missouri River.  It was then the major travel route into the area and the northwest.  When Yankton became the capital, the town was only two years old.

When created, the estimated population of the territory was no more than 1,000 settlers and the Sioux population was no more than 25,000.  For several years, settlement was limited mostly to the area along the Missouri River from Sioux City to Yankton and near the Sioux River north about sixty miles.  Settlers had also come south from Canada to establish homes in the far northeastern corner below the current Canadian border.  Originally, the territory comprised an area that included the present states of North Dakota, South Dakota, and much of Montana and Wyoming.

On the 6th of June 1861, the first edition of the Weekly Dakotian was issued by the Dakotian Printing Company.  The Dakotan was the first newspaper published in the territory after the passage of the Organic Act.  It later became the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan, the oldest newspaper in the state.

Once he arrived in Yankton, the governor proceeded without delay to set the wheels of government in motion.  His first official act was the appointment of persons to take the census of the territory.

The results of the census showed a total population of 2,376.  After reviewing the results of the census, the governor expressed his dissatisfaction with the returns from what was called the Red River District (just below in Canadian border).  He had learned that a large number of settlers were off on their annual summer hunt.  He also felt that the number included in the Western District (Fort Randall to Bijou Hills) was overrated and the agent had been deceived by those providing him with necessary information.  Apparently, he was satisfied with the census count provided by the Vermillion and the Big Sioux District (Elk Point to Bon Homme and Sioux Falls).

The report of the census taken by the Federal Government in 1860, which was the year following the treaty with the Yankton Sioux and also the year preceding the passage of the organic act, gave the Territory of Dakota the following agricultural and livestock statistics:  84 horses, 19 mules, 286 milch cows, 318 working oxen, 338 other cattle, 22 sheep, and 287 swine.  In grain and other farm products, 915 bushels of wheat, 700 bushels of rye, 20,296 bushels of corn, 250 bushels of peas and beans, 9,489 bushels of potatoes, 1,670 pounds of butter, 1,122 tons of hay, and 20 gallons of maple molasses.  Number of white population was 2,128.

This was supposed to represent the entire area included within the boundaries prescribed in the Organic Act.  According to the census of 1860, the Territory of Dakota contained a total population of 2,376.

After the arrival of the newly appointed governor of Dakota Territory, the next appointed official to arrive in Yankton was the Attorney General.  Mr. Gleason was a rather fastidious gentleman from Maryland — a staunch, southern republican.  His apparel fit his station in life and tradition has it that he came wearing a magnificent stovepipe hat.

The governor was aware of the limited accommodations in Yankton at the time so he invited the Attorney General to share his quarters which was a humble cottonwood log home.  Realizing he could stand anything the governor tolerated, Gleason accepted.

When he arrived in Yankton, he placed his belongings in the governor’s home and established his official residence.  His first concern was to find water and a suitable wash basin.

Some local wit reported that the governor, when approached by his guest, told him that there was an abundance of water in the Missouri River.  It is said that the governor pointed toward the river and suggested that the water was free.  Nevertheless, the Attorney General proved himself a very capable Dakota Territory official and a genuine southern gentleman.

Citizens of the territory were to vote by paper ballot and the qualifications were prescribed in the Organic Act.  They included: Every white male inhabitant of the U.S. above the age of 21, had been a resident of the Territory at the time of the passage of the act, shall be entitled to vote in the first election.  Each voter was required to vote in the district (precinct) in which he resided at the time the election was announced.

Remember, all this information, the location where folks could vote, and the voting procedure had to be conveyed to 2,376 settlers without all of today’s electronic communication devices and newspapers.  This all had to be done over thousands of acres of unspoiled prairie.

For many, this would be the first time they ever voted in a federal or state election!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on October 26, 2022

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