For forty-three years, the location of the seat of government was an important factor in the history of South Dakota. The time which was needed to determine the final location of the capital is perhaps longer than that required by any other state in the nation to find a home for their capital. When we were first part of the Dakota Territory and later as the State of South Dakota, the site of the capitol was a contentious subject. At times, it seemed to cause some of our citizens to demonstrate their worst possible behavior traits.
In his History of Dakota Territory (Volume III), written in 1915, George Kingsbury wrote:
“Perhaps no single feature of South Dakota history sheds so much light on all conditions of growth and advancement in the state at the time as do the several prolonged and elaborate capital contests. The rivalry was so vigorous, intense, audacious and remorseless that every item of information was laid bare for the historian by the capital committees, the local boards of trade, the newspapers, and generally by the elaborate studies and acrimonious campaigns. In details, research, artifice, abuse, personality and misrepresentation they far discount and surpass any political campaign ever conducted in the state.”
“These contests were proper and legal,” Kingsbury continued, “because it was the privilege of any town or city to aspire to this great distinction and honor; but when they resorted to the tactics that are not even allowable in politics for power and position and in business for commercial advantage, they were striving far beyond the domain of their acknowledged rights.”
According to Kingsbury, “When they went beyond what may be considered strictly honorable measures to achieve success, their course, while no more reprehensible than is that of many active business men, professional men and politicians of today, reached within the boundaries of criminality, dishonored the contestants by unbecoming and disgraceful conduct, and cast a shadow upon the fair name and fame of the young state.”
The first attempt to establish permanent settlements in what was later to become “Dakota Territory” grew out of the admission of Minnesota into the Union on May 11, 1858. It was expected that a new territory would be created to the west of Minnesota. Several schemers in St. Paul saw an opportunity to exploit the new country.
They created the Dakota Land Company and moved into the Big Sioux River Valley in the spring of 1857 and obtained the most valuable town sites along the river. Sioux Falls was founded with the thought that it would become the capital of the new territory. During the next four years it was called the capital without any legal process to make it so.
They created a board, which to them constituted a provisional territorial government. In 1858, they elected legislative and territorial officers. Their delegate to Congress was sent to Washington in an unsuccessful attempt to gain recognition. At the time there were never more than a handful of men in the entire river valley so the government which they organized exercised only nominal authority. When the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1861, the flimsy and sleazy government in the valley collapsed in a heap.
At the same time that the men from St. Paul were attempting to establish Sioux Falls and maneuvering around for territorial recognition, permanent and larger settlements were being established in the Missouri River Valley between Sioux City and Fort Randall. The fort was established in 1856 and John Todd managed the civilian store on the post.
The Organic Act which created the Dakota Territory was signed by President Buchanan on March 2, 1861. President Lincoln was inaugurated two days later on March 4th. John Todd had labored tirelessly for the creation of the Dakota Territory during the Buchanan administration. He had secured the consent of Buchanan to place the capital at Yankton; however, the act was passed too late for him to name the governor.
In early April, President Lincoln appointed his friend and family physician, Dr. William Jayne from Springfield, Illinois, as Governor of the Dakota Territory. Yankton was made the capital of Dakota Territory by the Governor at the request of President Lincoln himself. John Todd who had worked at Fort Randall and now the first delegate to Congress was a cousin of Mrs. Lincoln.
The governor established his office in a log structure on the east side of Broadway, opposite the Ash Hotel, between Third and Fourth Streets. The House of Representatives met in the residence of Captain William Tripp, at the corner of Fourth and Broadway. The Council met in the little Episcopal Chapel at the corner of Fourth and Linn Street. In 1862, a wooden building at the corner of Capital and Fourth Street was built to accommodate the legislature and the executive offices.
The log cabin in which Governor Jayne performed his official duties was in effect, the first capitol building. One person commented that the “only accommodation for the officials were roofs and an abundance of Missouri River catfish.”
William Gleason, the attorney general of the territory, was the next to arrive after the governor. The governor, aware of the limited accommodations in town, invited him to share his quarters. Mr. Gleason’s first concern was to find water and a suitable vessel for a wash basin. Someone told him that there was an abundance of water in the river which was free to all.
On June 6 of 1861, the Weekly Dakotian was issued at Yankton by the Dakotian Printing Company. The Dakotian was the first newspaper published in the Dakota Territory. It is still published today and is the oldest newspaper in South Dakota.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on December 29, 2021