When President Thomas Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Purchase from France, the size of the United States literally doubled. The northernmost portion of the acquisition became the Dakota Territory. The name “Dakota” was used in reference to the branch of the Sioux tribes which lived in the territory at the time the acreage became part of the United States.
Originally a portion of the Minnesota and Nebraska Territories, the land area between Minnesota’s western boundary and the Missouri River remained unorganized after Minnesota became a state in 1858. Later that same year, the Yankton Treaty was signed on April 19th, which ceded much of this territory to the US government.
The territory’s early settlers then formed a provisional, though unofficial, government and made the attempt to lobby the United States for territorial status. Three years later, with the help of J.B.S. Todd, cousin to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, territorial status was granted. The Dakota Territory was formed and became official on March 2, 1861. The land area encompassed the present-day states of North and South Dakota, Montana and a portion of Wyoming.
Though not officially involved in the American Civil War, the Dakota Territory was engaged in its own conflicts. Hostilities continued to flare with the Sioux until 1868 when the Treaty of Fort Laramie was written. By then, other treaties changed the boundaries of the Dakota Territory, reducing the area to that which comprises today’s states of North and South Dakota.
Inhabitants of the territory were slow to arrive until the “Dakota Boom”, which began in 1870 and continued for 10 years. At first, the white population was leery due to the hostility of the Sioux and the threat they posed to the early settlers. In time, the railroads, specifically the Northern Pacific Railroad, played a significant role in the population growth of the territory as large numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, Canadians and Germans began to make their homes there.
Fur trade was the original commerce for the Dakota Territory, with hides carried by steamboat along the rivers to various settlements. In 1874, the cry went out, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” when the discovery was made in the Black Hills. This attracted a larger number of settlers and ignited the last of the wars with the Sioux due to the fact the Sioux considered the Black Hills to be sacred. An armed resistance began in 1877 and by 1881, Sitting Bull and other powerful chiefs of the Sioux Nation surrendered.
The larger populations increased the need for meat, creating in the expansion of cattle ranching on the vast open ranges. The territory also proved to be excellent for the production of grain, and with the help of the railroad, wheat quickly became the Dakotas’ main cash crop.
Beginning in 1861, the Dakota territorial capital was established in Yankton, located in the southern half of the territory, where it remained until 1883. Between the years of 1879 and 1886, the railroads carried an additional 100,000 settlers to the area. In 1883, the capital was moved to Bismarck, which has a north central location. Alexander McKenzie, political agent for Northern Pacific Railroad in the northern part of the territory, conspired with Nehemiah Ordway, the corrupt territorial governor, about the move because Bismarck was located on the railroad’s main line.
Moving the capital created a large amount of controversy from those in the southern half of the territory and they began the push to divide the area into two states since the two population centers in the territory were situated in the northeastern and southeastern corners, several hundred miles from each other.
Soon, several trains of thought were expressed as to how the situation should be resolved. One was to split the territory down the middle, creating the states of Eastern Dakota and Western Dakota. A second was to name the southern half of the territory “Dakota” and the northern half would become Pembina Territory. The third idea was to create three states instead of two – North Dakota, South Dakota and the Black Hills. All of these ideas were later scrapped.
Before long, residents in the southern half of the territory took matters into their own hands. Meeting in Sioux Falls, they created their own constitution and selecting Pierre as the capital. Delegates to the meeting then approached Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison to submit a bill to Congress, creating the state of South Dakota. He did, but the bill did not pass, either then or two years later when it was submitted again. The reason for the failure is attributed to the fact Congress was controlled by Democrats. They knew the Dakota residents were Republicans and did not want more Republicans in Congress.
The presidential election of 1888 changed things as Senator Benjamin Harrison became President Benjamin Harrison. Thought of as “Little Ben” by the Democrats because he only stood 5’6”, Republicans told him he was big enough to wear the hat of “Old Tippecanoe”, his grandfather. On November 2, 1889, President Harrison signed the Omnibus Statehood Bill which admitted two states, North Dakota and South Dakota, into the Union. When he signed the bills, he shuffled the papers on his desk and covered the state names, so it is unknown which state was the first to receive his signature. Due to alphabetical order, North Dakota is listed first, thus it is classified as the 39th state, with South Dakota the 40th. Other than that, the states share the same birthday and are considered twins and equals.