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Dividing a Territory

Dividing a territory is no easy matter as Dakotans discovered in the 1880s. Residents of the southern portion of Dakota Territory were eager to become a state. At a convention in 1883, representatives drafted a proposed state constitution. Voters of the forty-two counties approved it and the constitution was submitted to Congress. The Senate approved statehood for the portion of Dakota Territory south of latitude forty-six, but the measure didn’t pass in the House. Those determined to achieve statehood for South Dakota were undeterred. They held another convention in 1885. A new constitution was drafted and submitted to the voters. It passed overwhelmingly.

Not to be outdone, the northern portion of the territory also held conventions. In 1887 one was held in Fargo. Another was held in Jamestown the following year. Both conventions adopted provisions requesting Congress to divide the territory and admit North and South Dakota as states. But Congress had difficulty resolving the matter. An 1885 bill proposed admitting South Dakota as a state and designating the northern half as the Lincoln Territory. An 1886 bill would admit just one state that took in the entire territory. Both of these failed, as did others in 1887 and 1888. A proposal submitted to voters in 1887 showed that a majority favored division of the territory.

On this date in 1885 the Hope Pioneer announced that a new plan had surfaced. A group of businessmen were on their way to present the plan in Washington. It called for the portion of the territory east of the Missouri River to be one state. The portion west of the Missouri would join the western part of Montana to become another state. The businessmen thought that new west-river state would be a cattleman’s paradise, while western Montana focused on mining. The new state east of the Missouri would be primarily concerned with crops.

The businessmen reportedly had a nearly unlimited amount of money. They were determined to push their scheme through. The newspaper noted that there were others who would push back against the plan, and the businessmen “may have overestimated their power.”

That did, indeed, turn out to be the case. North and South Dakota were admitted together on November second, 1889. President Harrison shuffled the papers so no one knew which one he signed first.

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Hope Pioneer. “A Scheme to Divide Dakota.” Hope ND. 7 August 1885. Page 1.

North Dakota Studies. “Moving Towards Statehood.” https://www.ndstudies.gov/content/moving-toward-statehood  Accessed 24 June 2018.

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