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The Dakotas

Certainly there are others who, like me, wince at usage of the lumping term, “the Dakotas,” in news reports and popular parlance — especially, I think, those emanating from Minnesota, where “the Dakotas” is shorthand for “beyond the horizon,” “way out there.” (Similarly, I grind my teeth when I hear disparaging, or perhaps just thoughtless, references to prairie populations as “the locals” — as in, those quaint folks living their little prairie lives and clueless about the wider world.)

Here in North Dakota we have a burdensome chip on our stately shoulder about people who misplace Mount Rushmore. I suspect it would be embarrassing, however, if we were to present a random sample of North Dakotans with a map of New England and require them to situate all the states therein. As a grandson of mine, exasperated with his school geography lessons, remarked one day, “They should all just be Maine.”

Lurking behind the popular usage of “the Dakotas” is a historical misconception about how the two states came to be. This hinges on the circumstances of statehood in 1889, when the vast Dakota Territory was split north and south to form two states. There are a couple of misconceptions about this.

First, there is the idea that the only reason for splitting the territory into two states was political advantage — that the Republicans wanted two states in order to bring in four United States senators. Having researched this pretty thoroughly for a forthcoming book chapter, I can tell you, this is a misconception.

The truth is, southern Dakota Territory and northern never were destined to come in as a single state. That was not how state-making on the northwestern frontier worked. It proceeded by creating big territories, then carving them into smaller states. From the beginning there was enmity, north versus south, as the first territorial governor tried to deprive the Métis in the north of their right to vote. Later the building of east-west railways connected the two sectors of the territory to the world along, literally, different lines. Then in the drive toward statehood, the two sectors double-dealt one another so many times they were incompatible.

Second, there also is the idea that if the territory were to be divided, then it would have been better to have made the Missouri River the border and created states of West Dakota and East Dakota. The South Dakota historian James D. McLaird, in the centennial year of 1989, published an article detailing the differences between West River and East River and declared the border dividing south and north “was an artificial separation.”

Historically, these are silly propositions. Northeastern Dakota and southeastern Dakota both wanted access to western resources. They wanted to separate from one another but remain connected to the west.

Still, buy some guy from the West River a drink and he’s likely to affirm to you that he is irrevocably different from East River folk, and they should have created a state of West Dakota in the first place. To which, as a historian, I am inclined to reply, nobody wanted that, and it’s a bad idea.

The rhetoric of the question, you see, is driven by the tribal assumption that people of like culture and values should be grouped and bounded together. Just think about that for a minute, and you will realize this is the stuff of two world wars and also the current one. That’s not the American way, for sure.

And besides, I challenge anyone to show me a documented usage of the terms “East River” and “West River” predating 1889. To have made that division would have been, indeed, artificial.

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