A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Before the Dakota Territory was established by the U. S. Congress, the majority of the population was located on the north side of the Missouri River between Sioux City, Iowa on the east and Fort Randall on the west.  By 1859 the question of securing a political organization for the Territory was the most import thought on the minds of these settlers.

To them, it was as important an issue as their safety.  The Yankton settlers were supported by those of the other settlements along the Missouri slope.  In Washington, Senator Fitch had introduced a bill to organize the Territory of Dakota in December of 1858.  It was referred to a committee and no action was taken on the bill.

In the House of Representatives on January 29, 1859, Alexander H. Stephens introduced a bill for the establishment of a territorial government in Dakota.  This measure got no further than to be referred to a committee.  About two years later, Stephens was elected vice president of the “Confederate States of America.”

A settlers’ mass convention was held in the Bramble store in Yankton on the 8th day of November, 1859.  Resolutions were adopted and a memorial to Congress setting forth the needs was authorized to be drawn up and circulated throughout the territory for signatures.  D. T. Bramble was chairman of the convention.

The memorial was a strong statement and had been prepared with considerable care.  Though it failed to secure the affirmative action of Congress during the current session, it made a favorable impression upon the members.

It was then that the question of territorial organization became an all-absorbing task.  The early settlers to the area felt that they would be seriously handicapped until Congress furnished them with a government under which they could secure their property rights.

John Todd spent the winter in Washington working with members of Congress to facilitate the passage of an act establishing the Dakota Territory.  Congress adjourned, leaving the territory helpless so far as government was concerned.  This put a serious damper on all territorial activities during 1860.

On the 15th of January, 1861, a second territorial mass convention was held in Bramble’s store at Yankton.  The purpose was the promoting the long deferred organization of the Dakota Territory.  This was not, however, a time when conditions seemed to favor the affirmative action of Congress.  Looming on the horizon was the Civil War.  Regardless, a memorial signed by 478 Yankton citizens was forwarded to the officer of the Senate.

The name “Dakota” had been applied to this country after the admission of Minnesota as a state in 1858.  The area covered an area of about three hundred and fifty thousand square miles.

President Lincoln was inaugurated on the 4th of March, 1861.    On March 2nd, two days earlier, the Dakota Territory was created by an Act of Congress.  In April, Dr. William Jayne of Springfield, Illinois was appointed Governor of the new Dakota Territory by his friend and neighbor, President Lincoln.

The Federal Government conducted a census in 1860.  That was a year following the treaty with the Yanktons and also one year before the passage of the organic act.  It gave the Territory of Dakota a white population of 2,128.

From the very beginning, it was said that the earliest Dakota settlers, were, above all else, proficient and skillful in the art of politics.  Dakota Territory was said to have more politicians per square mile than any other part of the nation.  The early Dakota settlers showed interest in elections and were willing to become involved in political skirmishes at the local and territorial level.  The first political convention was held in Vermillion on June 1, 1861.

The first General Election in the Territory was held on September 16, 1861.  Members of the first legislative session were selected and they were to meet in Yankton at noon on the 17th day of March, 1862.  The people of the territory were now as Dakotians for the first time to have a voice in their government through their chosen representatives.  These representatives were to lay the foundation of a governmental structure that would endure for all time.

The 17th of March, 1862, was a very pleasant day.  The ground was bare and the sky cloudless.  At high noon on that eventful Monday the members-elect of the council and House assembled in Yankton for the first time.

During that first legislative session, excitement was at a fever pitch, and the lobby was packed with spectators.  Early in the proceedings a body of United States troops from Company A, Dakota Cavalry with muskets entered the hall and marched to the speaker’s stand whey they remained during the session.  They came on the order of the governor by the request of Speaker Pinney to prevent riot and disorder.

During the legislative session, an unusual amount of snow had fallen and immense drifts were everywhere.  When the ice broke in the Missouri, the bottom lands between Yankton and Vermillion were flooded and the water was twelve miles wide in many places.

That fall, the Dakota Territory residents would hold their first election under the new territorial law.  Things were just beginning to “heat up!”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on November 30, 2022