Dakota Datebook

Winds of Division

Friday, November 2, 2012


Within a decade after Dakota Territory was created in 1861, the winds of division were already blowing through the prairie. The main population was sequestered in the southeastern part of the territory and they believed the northern part, mainly centered around the town of Pembina, was of little value and would only delay statehood. In 1871 the Dakota Territorial Legislature, firmly under the control of the southern faction, began submitting a series of petitions to Congress to divide the Territory.


When the railroad crossed the Red River into Dakota Territory in 1872 and thousands of settlers rushed in for the free land, there began to occur a powerful economic and political shift. And while both the northern and southern economies were booming, they had little connection with each other. Goods and commodities traveled east and west, with traffic going north and south limited to the Missouri River. The southern interests still held much of the power, and in January of 1880, Granville Bennett, the Territorial Delegate to Congress, introduced the Bennett Bill requesting statehood for the part of the territory south of the forty-sixth parallel. North of the forty-sixth parallel would become the Territory of Pembina. Other bills were introduced, all of which failed for a hearing or for Congressional approval, including one that would have admitted the entire territory as the State of Dakota.


The decisive blow came in 1883 when the northern politicians were able to remove the Capitol from Yankton to Bismarck. This had been influenced by business interests from St. Paul who, with their huge investments in land, railroads, and agricultural products, added fuel to the fire in an attempt to cement their control of products flowing to the Eastern grain mills and slaughter houses. The desire for division was so strong that as early as 1882, the Bismarck Tribune was carrying the words “Bismarck, North Dakota” on its masthead.


Division was inevitable, so the only question was when. Dakota Territory leaned heavily Republican, and in the early 1880s, the US Senate was controlled by the Democrats who were reluctant to add four more Republican senators to their ranks. Near the end of the decade, the political scene changed, and on this date in 1889, at 3:40 in the afternoon, President Benjamin Harrison signed the documents granting admission of the states of North and South Dakota. The documents were covered during the signing and then shuffled to mask which was signed first. Did South Dakota actually become a state before North Dakota, like they had attempted to do for almost twenty years? …One will never know.


Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis




History of North Dakota by W. B. Hennessy 1910

Compendium of History and Biography of North Dakota, Geo. A. Ogle & Company, 1900

North Dakota Centennial Blue Book, 1989


This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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