A Note from Cottonwood Corners

The Enabling Act which created the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington in 1889 accepted the Sioux Falls constitution of 1885 which had been approved by the Dakota voters.  Congress required some minor changes and that the revised document be submitted to the vote of the people.

On July 4, 1889, the constitutional convention met in Sioux Falls and the suggested changes required by Congress were approved.  Article XX of this revised constitution stated that the temporary seat of government should be given to the town receiving a plurality of the votes.  It also required that the first state legislature enact a resolution to locate the permanent capital in the city receiving a majority of the votes cast.  Inasmuch as the approval of the 1889 constitution was virtually assured, it was decided that the South Dakota voters would vote on the site of the temporary capitol that fall.

Because of the decision made on July 4th, citizens across the state anticipated a lively and highly-spirited contest to select the location of the capital.  Any town of any size suddenly became a candidate.  Among those were Aberdeen, Alexandria, Chamberlain, Highmore, Huron, Madison, Pierre, Sioux Falls, Watertown, Woonsocket, and Yankton.

One town after another soon started to withdraw from the race. This gradual withdrawal eventually left Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Redfield, Sioux Falls, and Watertown as the candidates to become of capitol of South Dakota. The real fight was between Pierre, Huron, and Watertown. In this battle which quickly became a war, they were out for blood and they spent money with reckless abandon.

Each community organized and authorized a committee to conduct an effective campaign to become the capitol. Both Pierre and Huron gave much attention to minute details. All three communities were very active and used many methods to advance the advantages of their respective location.

Pierre developed the argument that it was the center of a growing state. They pointed to population figures which listed 268 citizens in Pierre in 1880 and nearly 3,000 in 1889. They also embellished and overstated the undeveloped territory to the west and the possibility for that area. Huron insisted that it was nearer the center of the population and that it was the center of much of the activity in the state.  Watertown pointed out that it was the railroad and financial center of the state.

Each community spent a considerable sum of money in promoting its interests. Through the newspapers, individual contact, and personal letters, they endeavored to contact every voter in the state.

Watertown, in an effort to divide the support that Huron and Pierre were expected to receive promoted a scheme for a new entry in the campaign. Miller and St. Lawrence, located only about three miles apart, were encouraged to believe that a site between the two towns would be a fine location for the capital.  This idea was given a lot of publicity and thus the town of “Harrison” was suddenly created in Hand County.

It is believed that only a few people in Hand County, or even in Watertown, were aware of the source of this plan. Miller and St. Lawrence probably never realized that it was being used as a tool in a plot designed to defeat Huron and Pierre.

  1. L. Sage, editor of the newspaper at St. Lawrence was very disgruntled because neither Huron or Pierre had seen fit to advertise in his newspaper. “Huron and Pierre,” he said, “have taken too much for granted.” He quickly produced a flamboyant editorial (bold print, double-column) announcing the candidacy of Harrison, located midway between Miller and St. Lawrence to become the capital of South Dakota.

Sage continued to promote the candidacy of Harrison until the election. It is not known how much money the Watertown committee spent on this scheme; however, Harrison only received seven of the 75,710 votes cast in the election on October 1.

Each community used every possible scheme to promote its own interests. As the campaign progressed, it increased in intensity. By the end of the summer, Aberdeen dropped out, realizing that its geographic location was a handicap. Redfield, which never had an enthusiastic following, decided to throw its support to Huron.

When the votes were cast on Tuesday, October 1, 1889 the results were:  “Pierre, 27,096; Huron, 14,944; Watertown, 11,970; Sioux Falls, 11,763; Mitchell, 7,516; Chamberlain, 2,414; and Harrison, 7.”

The decisive victory of Pierre in the contest for the location of the temporary capitol aroused a great deal of resentment and indignation on the part of the defeated candidates. There were many charges of unfair and dishonest procedures, of bribery of voters, and of subsidizing newspapers. Every community did everything in its power to win the temporary location of the capitol.

One observer of the activities of the 1889 campaign wrote:  “To say that it was a campaign of wholesale corruption of voters is to put the matter in its mildest form.  Practically every newspaper in the state was subsidized in the interest of some candidate, and many voters were subsidized by all of them . . . .  From the standpoint of public morals it was a most unhappy time.”

On the 15th of October, 1889, the first real state Legislature convened at Pierre for the election of United States senators.


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on February 2, 2022

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