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March 31: Dakota Delegate’s Impeachment Testimony

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Walter Burleigh was one of Dakota Territory’s early politicians. He was an Indian agent accused of shady dealings who went on to become a delegate to Congress, wielding influence over who got territorial jobs. He was also a witness at President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial.

Burleigh was born in Maine in 1820. He was a physician, lawyer and railroad speculator. He campaigned in 1860 in Pennsylvania on behalf of Abraham Lincoln for president. Lincoln appointed him as the Yankton Indian agent in 1861. Burleigh’s four years as Indian agent were marked by accusations of fraud and corruption, with complaints about using his position to enrich himself and mistreat the Native people.

Burleigh went on to be elected twice to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served as a non-voting delegate for Dakota Territory from 1865 to 1869. He became close with President Johnson, and he influenced who received presidential appointments to major jobs in Dakota – even getting Johnson to oust the territorial governor and appoint Burleigh’s father-in-law to the job in 1866.

In 1868, the House impeached Johnson for trying to remove the secretary of war, which was against a new law passed by Congress to protect presidential appointees from being removed without Senate approval.

On this date in 1868, Burleigh testified as a witness for the prosecution in Johnson’s impeachment trial. He was one of 41 witnesses. Burleigh was asked about his relationship and communications with Lorenzo Thomas, whom President Johnson had tried to appoint as secretary of war to replace Edwin Stanton. The Senate ultimately acquitted Johnson.

Burleigh lost reelection in 1868, but he went on to hold legislative seats in Dakota Territory, Montana and South Dakota. He died in Yankton in 1896. Burleigh County in North Dakota is named for him.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


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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