Dakota Datebook

Willis R. Bierly


A meeting on December 3, 1888 in Jamestown, sought to lay the groundwork for statehood. The meeting went well, laying out a conservative, yet aggressive path. But in a recent development, a bill had already been introduced in Congress that admitted the State of South Dakota. It had passed the US Senate, and the Senators-elect had been seated. They were now waiting only for a similar response in the House.


One very impatient northern Dakotan was stalking through the halls of Congress. Willis R. Bierly of Grand Forks was on a mission to establish his supposedly rightful seat in the US Senate. In the November Election, Bierly, an Independent Democrat, failed miserably in his bid against the Republican and Democratic candidates, but he managed to beat the Prohibitionist candidate. Bierly was from the northern part of the Territory and the others were from the south. As the only candidate from north of the 46th parallel, he believed he was the only person who could properly be seated in the Senate for the Territory of Dakota, which was now minus South Dakota.


Willis Bierly was a large, hulking figure of a man, but according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, “(he) slid through the corridors like a giddy girl on a toboggan slide. In his hand he carried an old-fashioned carpet-bag with the stripes running up and down, like a Confederate flag. The carpet-bag was large enough to hold two bushels of corn.” Bierly fought his way to the House “knocking down a few sickly pages” on his way. In his carpet-bag he carried a petition requesting the immediate admission of South Dakota. Judge McDonald, a Congressman from Minnesota known as the “Sage of Shakopee,” agreed to carry his petition to the floor of the House. William Springer of Illinois, who chaired the Committee on Territories, stated that Bierly had as much right to a seat in Congress as he did to a membership in the Korean Embassy.


But Bierly did have a valid point, and while they were considering the legal aspect of his case, he visited the Chief Engineer of the War Department in his official capacity as Senator-elect from Dakota Territory. He submitted plans for a bridge over the Red River in Grand Forks. The plans were approved, but that was as far as Bierly would ever get in his official capacity. The passage of an Omnibus Bill ended the chance of South Dakota obtaining statehood, thereby ending Bierly’s legal argument.


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis




The Bismarck Daily Tribune December 8, 1888

History of Dakota Territory by George W. Kingsbury, SJ Clarke Publishing Co. Chicago 1915


» View the post.