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Dividing Dakota

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Dakota Territory existed for 28 years – from 1861, just days before Abraham Lincoln took office, until 1889, when the territory was divided along the 46th parallel, with North and South Dakota admitted as states.

During the final decade of the 1880s, the division of the Territory and the possibility of statehood was a favorite topic. The essential ingredient for statehood – a large enough population – was rapidly becoming a reality. There was no talk radio or online chat back then. The dialogue was face-to-face in recently built train depots, parlors, saloons and smoke-filled rooms across the territory.

During this week of 1880, Fargo’s Weekly Argus put forth a variety of viewpoints. One school of thought, found mainly in the north, advocated for keeping Dakota Territory whole, becoming the State of Dakota. Although many “one-staters” organized to put forth their argument, they remained a minority.

There seemed to be near consensus on the idea of dividing the territory in two – a northern and southern section. Interestingly, an east-west division was seldom mentioned. But the editor of the Black Hills Pioneer suggested a north half, with the southern half divided east and west, with Deadwood and Yankton as separate seats of government. He argued the interests of the east (farming and stock raising) and of the west (mining) could “never be harmonized.”

The Fargo paper proposed a marriage of the Black Hills and Northern Dakota. Another idea from the editor of the Argus was to name northern Dakota “Grant Territory” after the hugely popular Civil War General. He noted that some had suggested the name of “the noble martyr Lincoln,” but he felt people would not view that name as positively as “the most glorious in our country’s annals, the name of Grant.” He also said an Indian name had been considered, but he argued it would be hypocritical and insulting considering how the Indians had been treated.

Some southern Dakotans proposed a state of “Dakota” for the south half, and a territory of “Lincoln” for the north. Also suggested were “Pembina,” after the early settlement on the Red River in northeastern Dakota, and “Jefferson,” after the former President, but none of these gained much traction.

A few months later, the Argus editor was no longer advocating for “Grant.” He settled on “Northern Dakota” – pretty close to how it would end up after another 9 years of debate.

Weekly Argus. Dec. 31, 1879; Jan. 7, 1880.
Fargo Forum. Oct. 4, 1921.
Rolfsrud, Erling N. The Story of North Dakota. Alexandria, MN: Lantern Books, 1963.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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