With the establishment of the earliest counties in what was to become South Dakota, the county seat was usually located by the organic act which created the county. However, later counties were created far in advance of any settlement and when the time for organization came, the location of the county seat often became a contentious issue.
In the early 1880’s, the organization of counties and selection of the county seat was one of the most exciting chapters in Dakota history. This political process involved several stages.
The first was the temporary and short-term organization of a county by a board of three county commissioners who were appointed by the territorial governor after being petitioned by fifty lawful settlers. This temporary board appointed other temporary officials and selected, by majority vote, a temporary county seat.
The second step was an election for the purposes of choosing county officials and determining the permanent location of the county seat. In a number of circumstances, there was a third step required which took the form of a contest to relocate the county seat.
In 1880 there were six counties organized, seven in 1881, three in 1882, and twenty-six in 1883. With forty-three counties organized in four years, the governor and his political appointees had ample opportunity to select county seat sites which were influenced by bribes, corruption, and greed. However, not all county seat sites were selected on the basis of outside influence and money or land.
Towns in the newly settled areas sprang up and flourished with intense rivalry prevailing among them. This was often increased by “county seat fights” when two or more proactive communities in a county competed for the location of the county seat. Competition was entered into which even to this day influences the affairs and relationship of some communities.
County seat fights and feuds seemed to be a natural sequence in the development of a new country. Unfortunately, the county seat fight got under the skin of some voters about as surely and quickly as any issue on earth. It was sort of like that itch that they couldn’t scratch. It just drove them “crazy.”
Without a doubt, the West was the stronghold of nationalism. To the early settlers out on the prairie, those highly artificial boundary lines on a map suggested that they were little more than convenient units organized to secure the blessings of self-government.
To be sure, in America there was no section in which this entitlement was respected more highly. The general attitude was: “Nothing should be done in Washington that can as well be done in the state, and nothing should be done at the State Capital that can be done at the county-seat, and nothing should be done at the county-seat that can as well be done in the township.”
As early as February of 1891 the legislature considered H. B. 41 which called for the fencing of grazing land in the Black Hills and all unorganized counties west of the Missouri River. The sponsors of this bill “. . . received numerous protests from Gregory County” who did not want to be liable for the damage done by their cattle. Cattlemen preferred that the counties remained unorganized.
The numerous county seat conflicts before 1900 prompted the legislature to make changes to the state constitution. In 1902 and again in 1912, the legislature allowed the citizens to vote on measures which made it easier to arrive at what was hopefully a satisfactory solution.
During the general election of November 1902, voters of the state had three important constitutional amendments to consider. One of them provided for the relocation of county seats to railroad towns upon a vote of sixty percent of the electors. This amendment was approved by a seventy-one percent favorable vote. The favorable vote in Gregory County was seventy-seven percent. Only Pennington County by twenty votes failed to support this change.
In November of 1912, one of the Referred Laws was introduced by Representative Buffington and was referred to as the “County Seat Primary Bill.” It was designed to remedy the perennial county seat fight dead-locks which regularly occurred in Gregory County, Buffington’s home county, and Charles Mix County, where there were several rivals for the honor.
It provided that prior to the primary election as many towns as can secure a fifteen percent electorate on a petition can have their name placed on the primary ballot. The two leading towns were placed on the general election ballot as the two possible sites for the county seat. The one receiving the majority vote became the permanent county seat.
Before the passage of this law, a majority was required for the removal of the county seat and this was difficult to secure with the likelihood of many candidates for the site. The 1912 law which prescribed how county seats could be removed was approved by sixty-four percent of the voters. Seventy-two percent of the voters in Gregory County approved of the change in the law. Three counties failed to support this law. They were Brule County, forty-three percent; Campbell County, forty-six percent; and Edmunds County, forty-eight percent.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate Dec. 16, 2020