With the growth of the territory in the mid-1800s, the opening of new lands for homesteading, and the influx of new settlers came wide agitation to move the capitol which had been established by the legislature in 1862 from Yankton. Because of the massive influx of new residents in the area, a more central location was preferred.
From 1878 to 1886 the territory experienced unprecedented growth in population. Those eight years were referred to as the “Great Dakota Boom.’’ Probably at no time in the history of the United States have so many people moved into a new land in so short a time. The opening of new territory allowed many settlers to establish their new homes.
An examination of the census records shows the magnitude of the population movement into the new Dakota Territory. The census taken at the order of Governor Jayne in 1861 found 2,376 living in the Territory. In 1870 the census results showed 14,161. By 1880 the real influx of settlers had begun; the census total was 135,177 (a 95% increase in ten years). Between 1880 and 1885 the population increased to 415,610. It is doubtful if any area of the country saw such a growth in population in that length of time.
This unusual and sudden expansion into the territory created a desire to place the seat of government in a more central location. As the counties and new towns were created, the location of the new towns intensified the need for a more centrally located capitol.
The railroads were a major factor in stimulating this migration into Dakota. By 1880 many towns had been established on the Chicago and Northwestern line which extended to the Missouri River at Pierre. There were also many promising communities along the Milwaukee Road route which had reached Chamberlain.
It was during those days of unusual expansion that Nehemiah Ordway was appointed territorial governor. His administration (1880 – 1884) was characterized by considerable political conspiracy and hanky-panky. He was accused of locating towns and county lines which would be most beneficial to his family and friends.
One of his first attempts at committing corruption involved the organization of Hughes County. During the summer of 1880, the town of Central (now Pierre) acquired enough inhabitants to petition for incorporation. The boundaries of the county were finally established and the town was incorporated. One of the three commissioners appointed by Ordway to administer the county was his son, George. Because George was employed by the Northwestern Railroad as their land agent, he was able to acquire a large number of town lots in the city.
Immediately, there was major criticism and an outburst of tremendous resentment. The charge was made that the Governor was planning to move the capitol from Yankton to Pierre. It was only through skillful tactics behind the scene that the plot was unfulfilled.
From the very beginning of the legislative session in 1883, there was talk of removing the capital. A bill was introduced in February to make Huron the site of the new capitol. It was considered by various committees without any action being taken. Finally a resolution calling for the appointment of a committee of five to decide: (1) is it expedient to move the capital; (2) where might it be located; and (3) what inducement to the territory could be offered by the proposed sites? Flandreau proposed $10. Nothing definite came from any of the proposals.
It was then that Ordway proposed the appointment of a commission to locate a new site for the capitol in the town offering the greatest inducements in cash and land. On March 22 the capitol commission bill was passed and named the nine members of the commission which was to meet in Yankton. On the surface this seemed a fair procedure since all interested communities were given an equal opportunity to submit their offers.
The citizens of Yankton were convinced themselves that they had been “wronged” and called the capitol commission a “corrupt syndicate.” They took steps to obtain an injunction to prevent the commission from functioning and built a case to prove that the legislature had gone beyond its legal rights in the creation of the nine-member group.
The commission was aware of the Yankton plan so they met informally in Sioux City for a few days, out of range of the law at Yankton. Later they made a quick train run to Yankton at 5:15 a.m. where a brisk stop was made to organize the committee. They adjourned and the train rushed through Yankton at thirty miles an hour to Canton. Because of the unusual circumstances, it was referred to as “The Capitol on Wheels.”
After much legal maneuvering and them visiting each town which made an offer, it came down to a meeting on June 1st when the nine members cast their votes for the new location. Many votes were taken and finally Bismarck won with five votes. Redfield received two votes and Huron and Mitchell each received one vote.
Finally, the agony was over and Bismarck had captured the prize. However, the feeling against the removal of the capitol from Yankton was so strong among some of the territorial officials that they refused to move to Bismarck. The Governor and Auditor (his son) moved immediately. The Treasurer, the Secretary, and the Territorial Judges did not move until forced to relocate by the Territorial Supreme Court.
Many expressed dissatisfaction with the method used in arriving at the final decision. Nine individuals were entrusted in making the final decision on an enormously controversial question for which more than 100,000 citizens had no recourse.
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on January 19, 2022