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September 12: Killing of Dakota Territorial Secretary

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Perhaps the most violent moment in Dakota territorial politics was the killing of the territorial secretary in 1873. General Edwin Stanton McCook was a distinguished Civil War veteran and one of the “Fighting McCooks,” a prominent Union military family. In February of 1872, President Grant appointed McCook as secretary of Dakota Territory, a position which also served as acting governor. McCook soon afterward arrived in the capital city of Yankton with his family.

McCook was an ally of Dakota Territory’s governor, John Burbank, who many residents resented for his long absences and financial self-interests. McCook’s assailant was a banker named Peter Wintermute, who clashed with McCook at a public meeting related to railroad conflicts, held in Yankton.

Wintermute repeatedly insulted and threatened to shoot McCook, reportedly due to a personal grievance. McCook then beat Wintermute, and even thrust his face into a spittoon. The two men separated, but later during a speech at the meeting, Wintermute shot a pistol several times at McCook. McCook was struck in the chest but he still had strength to grab Wintermute and nearly put him out a window. A justice of the peace arrested Wintermute. McCook was carried to his room in a nearby hotel. Physician Walter Burleigh, the namesake of Burleigh County, North Dakota, examined his wound, for which little could be done. McCook bled to death overnight. He was pronounced dead at 7 o’clock in the morning on this date in 1873. He was 36. He was able to see his wife and son before he died.

Wintermute was ultimately acquitted in connection with McCook’s death, after two years of court proceedings that included three indictments and two trials. Wintermute left Yankton two days after his acquittal. His finances and his health had suffered during his prosecution. He died from tuberculosis at age 45 in 1877 at his father’s home in New York.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura, referencing “Territorial Justice Under Fire: The Trials of Peter Wintermute, 1873-1875,” by Thomas E. Simmons


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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