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Arthur Mellette helped to write South Dakota’s constitution

Arthur C. Mellette

A native of Indiana, Arthur Calvin Mellette was born in Henry County on June 23, 1842 and received his education at the Marion Academy. He entered Indiana University in 1862 at the sophomore level and graduated the following year.

Following graduation, he was conscripted into Company H of the 9th Indiana Volunteers where he served until he was mustered out on September 28, 1865. Mellette’s service replaced that of his older brother, who was an invalid.

Completing his military service, Mellette enrolled in Indiana University’s School of Law, and began his law practice with Thomas J. Brady in Muncie, Indiana following graduation. Wedding bells rang on May 26, 1866 when he married Margaret Wylie. Four sons would later be born to the couple.

Mellette experienced his first taste of public office when he was elected District Attorney of Delaware County, Indiana. He purchased a local newspaper, the Muncie Times, in 1870. Under his tutelage, the publication became prosperous and influential. This same year, he was elected to be the county’s Superintendent of Schools.

Over time, the local climate began to take a toll on Margaret’s health when she contracted tuberculosis. Mellette ventured out in the western states in an effort to locate a climate better suited to Margaret. Eventually settling in the drier climate of Springfield, Dakota, Mellette filled the position of register of the United States Land Office. The land office later moved in 1880 to Watertown and so did the Mellette family.

Becoming a prosperous attorney and leading citizen of Watertown brought politics knocking in 1885 when his friend, President Benjamin Harrison, nominated Mellette to become governor of the Dakota Territory. He ran unopposed for the office in November 1885, then served for seven months as the last Territorial Governor for the Dakotas prior to statehood.

In 1885, Arthur and his wife built Mellette House on Prospect Hill. Constructed of bricks which were made at the local brick yard Mellette and his friend, William McIntyre owned, the home’s most impressive feature is the massive circular staircase which connects the first and second floor, along with the small tower room located on the third. The staircase was built in Minnesota, then sent by train to Watertown for installation.

When the territorial capitol was moved to Bismarck, residents in the southern half of the territory were outraged and sought to form their own government. Mellette was instrumental in helping to write the state’s constitution. On November 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation which made South Dakota the 40th state. Well liked by the citizens of South Dakota, Mellette was elected to be the state’s first governor. He was inaugurated on March 22, 1889 at the age of 45.

The role of Governor of South Dakota was not an easy one. Drought plagued his administration and Governor Mellette sent out a request for help to the cities in the east. Added to that were the battles between the Native American tribes and the US Army, including the Wounded Knee Massacre and the capture/killing of Sitting Bull.

In 1893, Governor Mellette left office. Shortly thereafter, it was discovered the state’s treasurer had absconded with most of South Dakota’s treasury and moved to Mexico. Though Mellette himself bore no responsibility to the theft, he offered up his entire fortune and all of his property, with the exception of his law library, to the state in an effort to replace the stolen funds.

Now impoverished and humiliated, he moved to Pittsburg, Kansas and opened a law practice. When made, the move was intended to be only temporary. Instead, Mellette died there on May 25, 1896, crediting him with the shortest lifespan of any governor whose death was attributed to natural causes. His body was then returned to Watertown for burial in Mount Hope Cemetery.

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