As the southern portion of the Dakota Territory which was created on March 2, 1861 began to be populated, the citizens of the southern half of Dakota became interested in the division of the territory and admission to the Union. At every session of the territorial legislature from 1870 to 1882, Congress was petitioned to divide the territory.
At least forty-two memorial and resolutions concerning territorial division and statehood were sent to Congress between 1882 and 1888. The goal was the admission of that part of the territory south of the 46th parallel (just a little north of the present North Dakota – South Dakota border). It was suggested that “Dakota” be the name of the new state and the area north of the 46th parallel was to remain a territory.
The very first active movement in the direction of statehood was initiated at the home of Rev. Stewart Sheldon in Yankton on the evening of Thanksgiving Day, 1879. Those present were Dr. Joseph Ward, General William H. Beadle, and Governor Howard. These four men dedicated themselves to a campaign for division of the territory and statehood.
A meeting at Canton on June 21, 1882 was organized to select delegates from ten counties to promote the passage of a bill for a constitutional convention. The convention was to be held in Yankton in October. It passed both houses of the legislature; however, it met with an unexpected veto by Governor Ordway in March of 1883.
His veto created a great deal of indignation and resentment. After all, he was already “as popular as a skunk in the middle of the dining room.” As the result of the intense feeling against the governor, a meeting was called at Huron in June, 1883. One hundred eighty-eight delegates representing thirty-four counties were in attendance.
They decided to disregard the governor’s veto and called for a constitutional convention in Sioux Falls in September of that year. The plan which came from that meeting was submitted to the voters in the counties south of the 46th parallel. It was favored by a vote of 12,336 for and 6,816 against. They submitted the document to the U.S. Congress which refused to approve the action of the unauthorized convention.
The removal of the capital to Bismarck in 1883 served to strengthen and speed up the efforts of the southern counties for division and statehood. The methods employed in the removal of the capital upset those in the southern part of the territory and they were unwilling to accept the work of the capital commission. It was no surprise that one of the first measures presented to the legislature in January of 1885 called for the removal of the capitol to Pierre. There were a number of communities which wished to become the site of the new capital and they all had their representatives in Bismarck.
One of the bills presented to the legislature meeting in Bismarck was to locate the capitol in the small town of Ordway about six miles northeast of Aberdeen on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. To revoke this possibility, a measure was introduced to change the name of the town to “Independence.” Family and a considerable number of friends of former governor Ordway had property in the community.
The bill to move the capital to Pierre passed both houses but was vetoed by Governor Pierce, who had succeeded Ordway. In spite of the many suspicions of corruption and fraud on the part of the location committee in 1883, he felt that the capitol question should not be a perennial political issue.
When he vetoed the bill, Pierce felt that what he did was the best for the territory. However, the failure of the bill just added fuel to the fire in escalating and intensifying the desire for statehood.
At the same time the 1885 territorial legislature made provision for a constitutional convention of the southern counties to meet in Sioux Falls in September. In the election which followed the convention, not only did the citizens accept the constitution by a vote of 25,138 to 6,527, but they also elected a complete set of officials. Huron was given the capitol site by a vote of 12,695. Other candidates were: Pierre, 10,574; Sioux Falls, 3,338; Chamberlain, 3,170; and Alexandria, 1,374.
By this election, a “squatter government” began operating without legal authority from the United States Congress. The legislature met in Huron on December 14, 1885, and was addressed by Arthur C. Mellette, the “squatter governor.” Two United States Senators were elected and the legislature adjourned.
This government had no legal status and was never recognized by Congress. All the proceedings in Huron were conditioned by a “staying clause” in the newly approved constitution. It meant that no act of the provisional state government would become operative until the constitution of 1885 had been approved by Congress.
An Enabling Act was pushed through Congress during the short session which convened in December of 1888. This legislation, which was signed by President Cleveland on February 22, 1889, provided for the admission of the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington. It provided for the boundary between the Dakotas and authorized constitutional conventions to meet in Bismarck and Sioux Falls.
The citizens of South Dakota would soon witness and become engaged in a spirited and vehement brawl to determine the site of the new capitol building
Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on January 19, 2022