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Dividing Dakota


Dakota Territory was organized for a period of 28 years – from 1861, just days before Abraham Lincoln took office, until 1889, when the territory was divided in half along the 46th parallel, and North and South Dakota were admitted as states.

During the territorial years, and especially in the final decade – the 1880s – division of the Territory and the possibility of statehood was a favorite topic for discussion. The essential ingredient for statehood – a large enough population – was rapidly becoming a reality.

There was no talk radio or online chat then. The dialogue was face to face in recently built train depots, parlors, saloons and smoke-filled rooms in places like Sioux Falls, Deadwood, Bismarck, and Grand Forks.

Glimpses of the discussion can be found in the newspapers of the time. During this week of 1880, Fargo's Weekly Argus put forth a variety of viewpoints on the future of Dakota, including clips from other newspapers in the region. The brainstorming, discussion, political maneuvering, and legal preparation for statehood would continue throughout the decade.

One school of thought, found mainly in the north, advocated for keeping Dakota Territory whole – it would simply become the State of Dakota. Although many "one-staters" organized to put forth their arguments, they remained a minority.

There seemed to be near consensus on the idea of dividing the territory into two parts – a northern and southern section. Interestingly, an east-west division was seldom mentioned.

The editor of the Black Hills Pioneer suggested a third option, which would create a north half, and then the southern half would be 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."

Sensing an opportunity, the Fargo paper proposed a marriage of the Black Hills and Northern Dakota, but the Deadwood Times rejected the offer, saying figuratively, "The Argus parts its hair in the middle, and writes poetry, and these are no attractions for the golden girl of the west." The Black Hills viewpoint could have developed into an east half-west half scenario, but it didn't.

The editor of the Argus, who was of course situated in northern Dakota, floated the idea of calling 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 that "scheme" would be rather hypocritical considering how the Indians had been treated. He felt it would be an insult to the Indians.

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 these didn't seem to gain 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.