During the mid-1880s the most influential obstacle to the admission of North and South Dakota resided in the United States House of Representatives. William Springer was a long-time Democratic leader from Illinois. He was born in Sullivan County, Indiana on May 30, 1836, but moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, with his parents in 1848. He was first elected to Congress in 1870 and served nine consecutive terms in the House. There he gained significant power as one of the leading Democrats and beginning in 1887, chaired the Committee on Territories for the Democratic controlled, 50th Congress.
With the election of Benjamin Harrison in November, Springer was even more adamant in keeping the two states of Dakota out of the Union. In politics they would be aligned with the Republicans, swaying the power significantly in their favor. Springer began an attempt to minimize the losses to the Democrats. Once such strategy was seeking the quick admission of a single state of Dakota.
Also, the admission of New Mexico, aligned with the Democrats, had been blocked by the Republicans, so this week in 1888, a proposed statehood bill was modified and introduced by Springer. With this he issued a statement that landed like a bombshell in Dakota Territory. He stated, “No bill shall go through without the admission of New Mexico.” But, in referring to the large Mexican population of New Mexico Territory, who were often pictured in the press as border raiders, nomadic, and uneducated, he added, “Some objection has been raised to the character of her people. It is no worse than the Swedes and the Norwegians who have flooded Dakota and who are voting there at every election on less than six months residence.” At the same time, A. J. Sparks, a Democratic-appointed land commissioner, stated that ninety percent of the settlers on government lands in Dakota were frauds.
These two comments raised the ire of Dakota’s huge Scandinavian population as noted in the Pembina Pioneer Express, which stated, “The slur on Norwegians and Swedes is alike an insult to them and every foreign born citizen of the northwest, and the comparison of the intelligence of the voting population of Dakota, where less than three percent are unable to read or write, to New Mexico, where sixty out of every one hundred persons are unable to read the ballots they cast, is worthy of Springer … so ignorant and insolent … who claims to hold the destinies of a million freemen between his thumb and finger,” which referred to his chairmanship of the Committee on Territories. Ironically, it would be this bill introduced by Springer that would ultimately be modified to obtain statehood for the Dakotas.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
The Pioneer Press January 4, 1889
Who Was Who in America, Marquis-Who’s Who, Chicago, 1963