A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The first legislative session of the Dakota Territory convened on March 17, 1862 in Yankton.  The organization of this first legislative body was subordinated to a single interest — the location of the capital at Yankton.  By previous arrangement, powerful positions were assigned to certain individuals in return for their support for Yankton.

Before the session had advanced very far, the well-laid plans of Yankton threatened to miscarry.  Individuals soon became involved in a disagreement which quickly became personal in nature.  The controversy over the capital bill caused intense excitement and dire threats were made against Speaker George Pinney.

Pinney had armed himself in his anticipation of a move to oust him by force.  Governor Jayne, alarmed over the situation, sent a small detachment of troops to the lower chamber to prevent violence.  House members resented the actions of the governor and they voted to immediately adjourn.

The next day, Pinney resigned the speakership.  This placed in nomination as his successor a twenty-two year old member who was entirely unversed in parliamentary procedure.  Finally, order was restored and some important decisions were made.

The Clay County representative wanted Vermillion to be the site of the capital; however, since that was not possible, he was anxious to have the territorial university located in Vermillion.  He decided that an educational institution was considered a fair trade for the capital.  The location of a penitentiary at Bon Homme also played a part in this trade.

Yankton got the best of the political deal.  Bon Homme remained an unorganized community without a public institution and Vermillion’s reward did not happen until 1882.

The members of the first legislature were generally of high caliber.  The majority were young.  Some had played an important part in public life before coming to Dakota.  They were all ambitious men eager to take advantage of the opportunities the young Territory offered.  Given to the rough-and-tumble ways of the frontier, they were a representative group.  It is little wonder that their conduct at times would not have been appropriate in older capitals.

George Kingsbury would later write:  “A little blood was shed, much whiskey drank [sic], a few eyes blacked, revolvers drawn and some running done.”

Governor Jayne and an official of the land office became involved in fisticuffs while trying to settle their differences of opinion.  According to Kingsbury, “Hair pulling, choking, striking, blood spitting and pugilistic exercises were the order which were performed with grit and relish.”

From the very beginning, Governor Jayne and those in his administration were apparently concerned that some of those who had come to the Dakota Territory would not stay.  It appears that they were concerned that settlers would be disappointed in the primitive living conditions and they would return back east to their earlier home.

The following appeared in the Sioux City Register in 1862:  “General Booge (Dakota Territory Adjutant General) has issued an order to Mr. Bigelow, of this city (Sioux City), requesting him to prevent ‘all able bodied male citizens of Dakota Territory from going East of Sioux City, unless they have passes from Governor Jayne.’”  The paper editorially commented: “This may work well, but we doubt it.”

The lawmakers, in their work of writing the code during the legislative session of 1862, borrowed freely from older states.  Despite some occasional lapses from the dignified procedure expected of legislative bodies, those legislators applied themselves conscientiously to the task of creating a political structure.  They gave legal status to local units and attended to the various problems of law and order.

Section 20, Chapter 9 of the Laws of 1862 provided the death penalty for those found guilty of committing murder.  This law stood unchanged until the enactment of Chapter 158, Laws of 1915, which abolished the death penalty.

The first time this penalty was enforced by the territory was on March 1, 1877, when Jack McCall was hung at Yankton for the murder of “Wild Bill” Hickok of Deadwood.  He was the first to be legally executed in Dakota Territory.

McCall was buried in the southwest corner of Yankton’s Catholic cemetery.  In 1881, when the cemetery was moved to make room for the Territorial Mental Hospital, his body was exhumed.  It was discovered that he had been buried with the noose still around his neck.  Though his remains were reburied in an unmarked grave in the Yankton Cemetery, the exact location was lost over time and remains unknown today.

Execution by hanging was the most popular legal and extralegal form of putting criminals to death in the United States from its beginning.  It was brought over to this country from our English ancestors; however, the method actually originated in Persia (now Iran) about 2,500 years ago.  During the first part of the 1800’s, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, gamblers, and other “desperadoes” of the Old West were the most common targets of the vigilantes.

“Lynching” found an easy acceptance as the nation expanded westward, where raw conditions encouraged swift punishment for real or imagined criminal behavior.  Vigilance committees, consisting of several or many individuals, were formed quickly by those who had without due process decided to hang the villain.  Even where official law enforcement existed, prisoners were sometimes drug from jail by a lynch mob and hung.


Note:  You can also read  more about the first Sioux Falls (wrongful) execution in this Argus Leader article, or in the book Drop Him Till He Dies:  The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas  Egan by C. John Egan, Jr.

Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on September 1, 2021

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