Dakota Datebook

Statehood

Sunday, November 2, 2003

On this date in 1889, North Dakota became the 39th state in the Union. Prior to this, the state was part of Dakota Territory, but there had been a growing rift between the south and north sections.

The primary population of northern Dakota was made up of frontiersmen operating around Pembina – trappers, hunters, traders and mixed-bloods. They depended on the Red River for transporting goods; the river ran north, and Winnipeg was much more important than the capital. Yankton was not only too far away, but it was also being run by big-city types.

Another factor dividing the territory was the gold rush in the Black Hills, something that had little or nothing to do with the north. The one thing that the gold rush provided, however, was bodies. A region had to have a population of 60,000 to apply for statehood, and the rush for nuggets easily supplied that number.

During the time leading up to statehood, the most influential man in northern Dakota was Alexander McKenzie, also known as Alexander the Great. McKenzie came on a wagon train to Dakota in 1867, when he was 17. His interests came to include the Northern Pacific Railroad and being a political boss. Although he never held an office higher than Burleigh County sheriff, he was so skilled at maneuvering behind the scenes that he dominated state politics for years.

Because Yankton was so far removed from the rest of the territory, citizens continually lobbied for a more central location. McKenzie was a friend and political ally of Territorial Governor Nehemiah Ordway, who was about to be evicted from his post because of wrongdoing. Ordway owned land in Bismarck, so to move the capital to Bismarck would profit him. McKenzie and Ordway made it happen.

This act crystalized the rift between the north and the south, and by 1889, the U.S. Congress passed an act that allowed both Dakotas, Montana, and Washington to become states. On November 2, 1889, on his last day in office, President Benjamin Harrison signed the documents that made North and South Dakota the 39th and 40th states. But there’s a twist.

Harrison feared repercussions if he showed favoritism by assigning one state ahead of the other. So, as he was about to sign the proclamations, he asked for two identical newspapers, then had his secretary place one statehood proclamation in each. He then shuffled them around until nobody was sure which paper held which state’s document, and having left the bottom portion exposed, signed them. The papers were shuffled again, and the documents were then removed. Because of this “shell game”, no one really knows which of the Dakotas was the 39th state, but North Dakota won the rank, because N comes before S in the alphabet.

And what about McKenzie? As head of the state Republican Party, he had a lot of clout and managed to get the office posts filled with men sympathetic to his causes – especially when it came to passing legislation that favored the railroads. His shady dealings finally caught with him, though, and he eventually ended up in Federal Prison. He died in 1922, but here’s another twist: after his death, two families came forth to claim his estate. So crafty was Alexander the Great, that he had also managed to marry two wives without anybody ever finding him out.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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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