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Splitting Dakota


As what would become North and South Dakota moved towards statehood, regional differences became more apparent. The south had a population of over 98,000 in 1880 when the northern population was only 37,000. The two regions also had different commercial transportation routes. The north was tied to Minneapolis-St. Paul; the south to Omaha and Chicago. There was also something of a personality difference. The south tended to view itself as more civilized and cosmopolitan, while the north was seen as populated by cowboys and fur traders.

When Nehemiah Ordway orchestrated moving the capital from Yankton in the south to Bismarck in the north, many southerners felt angry and frustrated. The incident became known as the Capital Grab.


On this date in 1887, the Press and Daily Dakotan of Yankton reported that voters decided in favor of dividing into North and South Dakota with immediate statehood for the south. Not everyone was so enthusiastic about a split. The territorial governor was in Washington to curry favor with President Cleveland. Governor Church wanted to block the division. The newspaper noted that “there is nothing homogenous between the northern and southern sections.” Dakota Territory Supreme Court Judge J.A. Barnes said, “The people of Northern Dakota want a division of the territory because they are so far remote from Southern Dakota that they do not feel any identity of interest.”

The voters had spoken, but Church was determined to maintain one Dakota. His cause was helped by the federal response. Congress suggested either doing it as one state or waiting until both sections met the population requirement.


Another source of contention was naming the new states. The southern portion wanted to be Dakota. Southerners said the north could become either the state of Pembina or the state of Lincoln, but the name “Dakota” had already become something of a trademark for agricultural products. Neither side wanted to give it up.


President Harrison signed the paperwork for North and South Dakota statehood on November second, 1889. Aware of the rivalry between the new states. Harrison shuffled the papers and signed them blindly. No one would ever know which gained statehood first.


Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher



Press and Daily Dakotain. “The Washington Correspondent of the Omaha Bee.” Yankton, Dakota Territory. 11/12/1887. Page 1.

Time. “Why Are There Two Dakotas?” https://time.com/4377423/dakota-north-south-history-two/  Accessed 10/10/20.

Antique Prints Blog. “Splitting Dakota Territory.” https://antiqueprintsblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/splitting-dakota-territory.html  Accessed 10/10/20.

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