In 1859 the question of securing a political organization for the Territory of Dakota was uppermost on the minds of the settlers in the region. They realized that there would be little incentive for the establishment of business and homes until the settlers were secure in some form of government that would protect them.
The first settlement, or attempt at settlement, made on the town site of Yankton was made by a group of men from Sioux City. In March of 1858, this small group came up the river from Sioux City on the Nebraska side and halted about six miles below Yankton. They crossed the river in canoes to the Dakota side. They had resolved to be the first on the ground at Yankton and locate the site for the coming metropolis.
They also hoped to secure a share of the surrounding country as well. Spring floods along the Missouri were extensive in 1858 and the bottom lands between the Missouri and James rivers below Yankton were partially covered with water and huge chunks of ice. In some places the water was four to five feet deep.
The men waded through the flood about five miles, carrying their provisions and equipment on their backs. The finally reached dry land on the first bench west of the James River. They came on to the present site of Yankton the same day and found it vacant — not a vestige of human habitation. Their tents were pitched near the foot of Pine Street. The date was about the 20th of March, 1858.
The early pioneers in the Yankton and surrounding area were cordially supported by those of the other settlements along the Missouri slope. On the 15th of January, 1861, a territorial convention was held in Bramble’s store in Yankton for the purpose of promoting the long deferred organization of the territory.
This was not a time when conditions seemed to favor the affirmative action of Congress, and the settlers were by no means optimistic of success. However, they were encouraged by recent suggestions from General Todd. He was in Washington laboring with Congress and the folks in Yankton felt it their duty to support his efforts as best they could. The nation was on the verge of a long and bloody civil war. Congress was torn with dissensions and absorbed in efforts to avert the impending national calamity.
Little more than a month remained before Congress would adjourn and a new administration would be installed. The importance of speedy action and unceasing effort was very apparent.
Despite the many discouraging circumstances at the time, good fortune favored the pioneers on the prairie. On February 14, 1861, Senator Green from the Committee on Territories reported a bill “To provide a temporary government of the Territory of Dakota and to create the office of surveyor general therein.” It passed the Senate on the 26th and the House on March 1st. President Buchanan signed it on March 2nd, less than forty-eight hours before his term as president expired.
It took eleven days for the good news to reach Dakota on Marth 13th. There were no telegraph lines north of St. Joseph, Missouri, at that time, and none that extended very far west of the Mississippi River in Iowa. In this part of the country, at that time, the good news traveled slowly. But it finally reached Dakota and found the settlers in a mood to receive it and give it a most generous welcome.
George Kingsbury, in Volume 1 of his History of Dakota Territory, later wrote: “It is said that the shouts of joy that went up made the welkin (firmament, the celestial abode of God) ring and started a jack rabbit stampede for the distant bluffs that was a sight to behold.”
The name “Dakota” had been applied to this country by common consent after the admission of Minnesota as a state in 1858. It came from the powerful Indian nation that claimed and occupied the greater portion of the territory at that time. The territory covered an area of about three hundred and fifty thousand square miles, extending from Minnesota and Iowa on the east to the dividing ridges of the Rocky Mountains on the west, and from the Missouri, Niobrara, and Keya Paha rivers and the 43rd parallel of the south to the 49th parallel on the north (Canadian Border).
President Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated on the 4th of March, 1861. One of his first acts as president was the appointment of Dr. William Jayne from Springfield, Illinois, as the governor for the new Dakota Territory. General Todd was a cousin to Mary Todd Lincoln, a relationship which he exploited with his Washington, D. C., contacts. His involvement in business and in area politics increased thereafter. He later served as a delegate to Congress from Dakota Territory.
When William Jayne came to Yankton in June of 1861, he established the executive office in a log structure on Broadway, opposite the Ash Hotel. This log structure thus became the first capitol building of the Dakota Territory. This humble structure became his home and capital for a number of weeks as he had no authority to determine the location of the capital. This was reserved to the Legislative Assembly which was not yet in existence. In the early days of his administration he carried the seat of government with him wherever he went. The proclamations and official documents which he issued were from the “Town of Yankton.”
On the 6th of June, 1861, the first edition of the Weekly Dakotan was issued at Yankton. It was the first newspaper published in the Dakota Territory and is still published today as The Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan. It was published in a building on the west side of Broadway less than a block from the Governor’s residence.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on August 25, 2021