A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Dakota Territory law makers met for the first time in Yankton on March 17, 1862.  This was the first legislature in the territory.  The two legislative bodies were referred to as the “house” and the “council” and neither trusted the other.  The entire legislative session was stormy and many of the relationships were frayed.

On April 8, 1862, the legislature passed the act which located the Dakota Territory seat of government in Yankton.  After several amendments and some rather hostile political battles, the house declared the council “out of order.”  The council retorts by sending a copy of the joint rules to the house.  The house then retracts their charge and sends an apology and vote of thanks to the council.

There was considerable skirmishing and in 1910 George Kingsbury, commenting on the first legislative session in Yankton wrote:  “As we view it today (1910), the leaders didn’t know exactly what to do.  Parliamentarians were few . . . . It would seem that Pinney’s (George Pinney was Speaker of the House) purpose was to ‘muddle the matter and get it in an inextricable position.’”

President Lincoln appointed Dr. William Jayne to be the governor of the Dakota Territory in early April of 1861 and suggested that he go to Yankton which was his choice as the location of the capital.  John Todd, a cousin of Mrs. Lincoln, had worked at Fort Randall and had been to Washington earlier to lobby for statehood.

The chief problem facing the first territorial legislators was the location of the capital.  That question was the topic of daily discussion and led to much back-and-forth negotiation.  No business could be transacted until this question was settled.

Vermillion and Yankton were the chief contenders for the honor of becoming the capital; however, the hamlet of Bon Homme also indicated an interest.  Moreover, Sioux Falls had hopes that it might profit from the fight between the towns along the Missouri River.

Through the influence of Yankton interests, George Pinney of Bon Homme was elected Speaker of the House of Representatives and John Shober, also from Bon Homme, was chosen as President of the Council.  It was thought that any political aspirations that Bon Homme might have would be satisfied by this move.  Yankton had swung her support in favor of the Bon Homme candidates with the understanding that they would support Yankton for the capital.  The legislators from Sioux Falls and Pembina (northeast corner of the Dakota Territory) did not favor Yankton or Bon Homme, but they would support Vermillion.

It became apparent to the Yankton supporters that Pinney was not friendly to their ambitions.  They realized that the Speaker of the House, with his one vote held the balance of power.  On the eleventh day of the session, Enos Stutsman of Yankton County introduced a bill in the Council to locate the capital in Yankton.  During the next several days, amendments were proposed to insert Vermillion, then to reinsert Yankton, and at one time Bon Homme was suggested.

The excitement was at a fever pitch and the lobby was crowded with interested spectators who became defiant.  So intense was the excitement and so sharp the debate in the House of Representatives that Speaker Pinney thought it would be advisable to ask the Governor for military protection.

Pinney had asked the governor to furnish a military guard in the House because he feared personal violence.  His fears were not without foundation.  Later, he was thrown out of a Yankton hotel window.  The man who threw him through the window had been designated to toss the speaker from the House.

Jayne complied with the request and furnished a unit of United States soldiers who with muskets marched to the speaker’s stand where they remained during the remainder of the session.  This demonstration of force created enormous resentment and later resulted in an investigation by both the Council and House.

Final action on the capital bill was taken in the House on April 5, 1862.  Yankton had been made the capital of the new territory by a vote of 12 to 1.  Governor Jayne signed the bill on April 8, 1862.

Only a few days after the capital bill was passed, the legislature approved measures that assigned the University of Dakota to Vermillion and located the territorial penitentiary at Bon Homme.  This legislation came about as the result of a compromise that had been agreed to by the representatives from the three towns.

After a considerable amount of close confrontation, yelling, and just plain inappropriate behavior by the legislators and those in the lobby, Yankton had become the capital of the Dakota Territory.  However, within a few years, an effort was made to move the seat of government.  On January 7, 1867, Captain John Todd, who for some unknown reason became disgruntled with Yankton, introduced a bill to move the capital to Bon Homme.

The leader of the Yankton delegation filibustered against the measure.  Many motions were made to prevent passage of the removal bill.  Two days later the House gave its approval by a vote of 17 to 7 to move the capital.  In the Council, the bill found more difficult sledding.  It was referred to a committee which gave it a recommendation of “do not pass.”  The recommendation was sustained and the capital stayed in Yankton.

Since the location of the first capital was settled amidst strong opposition, future disturbances over the location of the capital were sure to follow.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on January 12, 2022