In 1889, spring promised another wave of homesteaders, but it had been a dry winter, and a lack of spring rain brought the threat of prairie fires. The fires began in the southern part of the territory – huge conflagrations that burned everything in their paths including hay fields, farms and entire communities. Devastated counties of southern Dakota Territory reached out to St. Paul and points east to help the unfortunate homesteaders and businessmen who lost everything, but to many unaffected by the fires, the act of going out-of-state for aid was likened to treason. The prairie fires, their portrayal in the Eastern newspapers, and the affect of that publicity on immigration, were major concerns. To sustain the economy and the tax base in the fledgling states, the region needed the additional farmers, ranchers and businessmen.
Some counties in Dakota Territory were larger than some eastern states, but the needs to develop infrastructure and maintain it were the same – roads, bridges, schools and public buildings, all required funding through taxes. The current population would be hard-pressed to develop the new states of North and South Dakota, and the lack of farm-to-railroad transportation routes, or the lack of communities to supply goods and services, would limit growth and development.
Only a few years previous, heavy winter snows played havoc with the cattle industry and many Eastern investors cut their losses and left the territory, including people like the Marquis De Mores and Theodore Roosevelt. An outflow of settlers from the territory, or a perceived inability to sustain a viable government structure, could even affect the presidential decision to grant statehood, and this worried territorial leaders.
Dakota Territory was also seeing some stiff competition for homesteaders as thousands of land-seekers were lining up on the Oklahoma border awaiting the signal to make a mad dash across the line to claim free land. So intense was the competition to attract immigration that the Dakota Territorial Immigration Commissioner loaded up a huge wagon full of pamphlets, land maps and other materials and headed for Oklahoma to entice those who failed to get a homestead there, to come north to Dakota.
The growing pains of the territory were evident, and only the continuation of large-scale immigration could bring stability. Even with the Omnibus Bill in effect, the concern existed that statehood could be delayed if a viable government could not be supported.
Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis
The Bismarck Weekly Tribune April 26, 1889
Jamestown Weekly Alert April 18, 1889
Grand Forks Weekly Herald April 26, 1889
Jamestown Capital May 3, 1889