The organization of the Dakota Territory by the U.S. Congress in the spring of 1861 resulted in attracting wide attention to a large part of the Midwest. Folks who moved to this new land were assured of a stable government where they established new homes.
Before the ensuing winter settled into the area, there was a good fringe of settlers along what became known as the Missouri Slope (Sioux City to Fort Randall) and the Sioux River. With the coming of spring in 1862, the arrival of those seeking homes was renewed.
There was a good deal of steam boating on the Missouri River; however, a remarkably few settlers came into the new territory that way. By far the largest number drove their own conveyances.
Governor Jayne issued a call for the legislature to convene on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1862 in Yankton. He had already established crude and limited living quarters in the town for himself.
The Council (Senate) of this first legislature consisted of nine men who were elected on September 16, 1861 from the following communities: Vermillion, Yankton, Sioux Falls, Brule Creek, Fort Randall, and Bon Homme. The House was composed of thirteen members from the following communities: Bon Homme, Elk Point, Vermillion, Yankton, Pembina (northeast corner below Canadian border), Fort Randall, and Sioux Falls.
To the settlers of the territory, the convening of this body was a significant event. The destiny of ambitious men and aspiring communities would be determined by their actions or inaction. Much depended upon their preliminary organization and activities.
Long before the legislature convened, the Yankton men were busy with schemes for the organization which would result in Yankton being selected as the location of the capital. Sioux Falls also wanted that honor; however, Bon Homme and Vermillion were Yankton’s most formidable opponents.
Yankton and Vermillion each had two councilmen, while Bon Homme had only one. In the House, Vermillion had four representatives. Yankton and Bon Homme only had two representatives.
The Yankton men immediately saw the need for an alliance with the Bon Homme delegation. They proposed to make John H. Shober president of the Council and George M. Pinney speaker of the House. This gave Bon Homme the top position in both bodies. This arrangement was predicated on a written agreement that Yankton would be made the capital and the penitentiary would be located in Bon Homme.
When it came time to determine the location of the capital, Speaker Pinney from Bon Homme failed to abide by the written agreement with the Yankton delegation. He left the speaker’s chair, took the floor and moved that the word “Yankton” be stricken from the bill and “Bon Homme” be inserted. This motion failed, he then moved that Vermillion be substituted for Yankton and the motion prevailed. The bill which originated in the Council passed the House with the Vermillion amendment. The Council (Senate) refused to concur and after a bit of parliamentary skirmishing, out of which the Vermillion men secured the location of the Territorial University, the House receded from its amendment and Yankton secured the capital.
The conduct of Speaker Pinney exasperated the Yankton men beyond endurance. At that time the test of honesty in a statesman was to stay bought! They felt that Pinney had violated the very rudiments of political honor.
The fellows from Yankton were determined that Pinney would be punished. Their plan was as follows: Jim Somers, a noted desperado of the Dakota frontier and ruffian, was sergeant-at-arms of the House, and Jim was to seize Pinney and throw him bodily from the window where they met. The speaker’s chair was then to be declared vacant and a new speaker elected.
It was a good plan; however, it was somehow leaked to Pinney. He immediately appealed to Gov. Jayne for protection. A detail of 10 soldiers with guns loaded were sent to the House to preserve order. The members of the House refused to do business while the soldiers were present. They walked out into the street. The matter was solved with the resignation of Pinney, the withdrawal of the soldiers, and the election of John T. Tiernon as speaker of the House. As a joke the members of the House elected a speaker who knew absolutely nothing about parliamentary law.
Although Pinney had been disposed of as Speaker, Jim Somers and his crowd did not propose to be deprived of their fun. That afternoon the ex-speaker entered a saloon on Broadway. As Pinney approached the bar, Somers grabbed him in his arms, carried him across the hall to a closed window, and threw him out. The speaker carried the sash with him and landed on the ground outside, wearing the sash around his neck. From the outside, Jim Somers could be seen through the broken window.
The 1862 Dakota Territory Legislature which began on March 17 continued in session until May 15 of that year. Many wondered what their elected legislators would do next! Despite the recklessness of the members of the Pony Congress, that body passed an extensive code of wise laws which guided the formation and development of South Dakota.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on September 27, 2023