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September 27: U.S. Marshal Laban H. Litchfield

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Dakota Territory was very much the wild West in the days of U.S. Marshal Laban H. Litchfield. He was born in 1839 in Pennsylvania. At age 20, he settled in Bon Homme County in what would become South Dakota. He was involved in Republican politics, and rose from appointed county offices to a seat in the Territorial House of Representatives and then to deputy US marshal. He was also a volunteer courier between Yankton and Fort Randall during the Dakota Conflict of 1862.

In 1865, President Lincoln appointed Litchfield as the third marshal for Dakota Territory. In 1869, he was reappointed by President Grant. Litchfield gathered prisoners and witnesses for court, mostly around the Missouri River counties near Yankton, but also as far away as Pembina in the far northeast of the territory. He also was a delegate to the 1872 Republican National Convention, where Grant was nominated for reelection.

Litchfield had his detractors. Judge James H. Burdick wrote to President Grant in 1872 asking that he himself replace Litchfield as U-S marshal. He wrote that many Dakota residents wanted Litchfield removed, calling him him “grossly intemperate in habits, reaching public indecency.” He accused Litchfield of a gambling addiction and corruption, and cited criticism of Litchfield’s supposed delays in business, unnecessary use of money, and issuing unnecessary subpoenas for “women of disreputable reputation.” Burdick wrote that Litchfield “has by these and other means tended to labor and divide and bring odium upon the party, while he is opposed by all the soldiers and best men of the Territory.”

Burdick would end up getting the appointment, but in unexpected circumstances. Months after the letter to Grant, on this date in 1872, Litchfield died at age 33. He was sick upon returning to Yankton from Pembina, and a doctor “gave him an overdose of a strong medication from which he died.” The doctor subsequently disappeared upriver.

Litchfield was “never a well man,” according to a biography by a descendant. He suffered at times from tuberculosis and fever. Litchfield’s funeral was held under the rites of Masonry and his funeral procession was half a mile long.

Burdick succeeded Litchfield and served until 1877. As a footnote, Burdick duties included placing the noose on Jack McCall, the man hanged for killing Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 in Deadwood. Said McCall: “Draw it tighter, Marshal.”

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


  • Yankton County Historical Society. (1987). Yankton county history, Vol. 1. Curtis Media Corporation. P. 547-548
  • The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Vol. 23: Feb. 1-Dec. 31, 1872. Edited by John Y. Simon, Southern Illinois University press, p. 178
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer. 1868, February 27. Page 4: “Miscellaneous”
  • Chicago Evening Post. 1872, September 28. Page 2: “At Large”
  • Alma News. 1872, October 9. Page 1: “General news summary: Personal and political”
  • State of North Daktoa. (1989). North Dakota centennial blue book 1889-1989.

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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