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Newton Edmunds


Newton Edmunds was a significant and stabilizing figure in the turbulent years of Dakota Territory. He lived through eighteen years of Dakota Territory and the first nineteen years of the state of South Dakota, and died on this day, in 1908.

Edmunds rode the wave of westward expansion, and became intimately involved in the challenges and opportunities of life on the leading edge of the advancing tide of white settlers flooding into Indian lands.

Newton Edmunds was born near Niagara Falls, in Hartland, New York, in 1819. When he was twelve, his family moved west to southern Michigan Territory. Young Newton experienced the transition from territory to state at age eighteen. The Edmunds family was active in business and Republican politics in the new state of Michigan.

He married Margaret Heartt in 1848, and they had eight children, of whom four grew to maturity. The family moved to Yankton, Dakota Territory in 1861, where Edmunds became chief clerk in the surveyor general's office.

He immediately formed a close association with the first Territorial Governor, Dr. William Jayne. Jayne, a medical doctor from Springfield, Illinois, and a Republican, had been appointed to his position by his friend and patient, Abraham Lincoln, and served for two years.

After Jayne resigned in 1863, he asked Lincoln to appoint Edmunds as the next Governor. He wrote the President, “He is just the man for Governor in a territory filled…with a turbulent and disloyal population.”

The appointment came in the fall of 1863. Lincoln had recently issued a proclamation setting aside a national day of Thanksgiving. Newton Edmunds’ first official act was the issuance of a similar proclamation.

As Territorial Governor, Edmunds actually held two positions. He was the Chief Executive and he was the Superintendent of Indian Affairs. His accomplishments in three years reflect this dual role.

As Chief Executive, Edmunds “expressed deep concern over the fiscal situation” arguing the necessity “to perfect and put in running order our internal machinery, even though to do so we have to submit to be lightly taxed…” He got it done, and began collecting the first taxes in Dakota Territory. He was an advocate for a “complete system of common schools” and for promotion of immigration and revision of election laws.

However, “most of his time was preoccupied with Indian policy and related problems.” This was a time of serious clashes between Indians and the U.S. military, settlers, and gold seekers. Edmunds was an advocate for peaceful negotiation and providing aid to the Indians. He made a trip to Washington in 1865, taking his case directly to the President. Lincoln persuaded Congress to make a special appropriation of $20,000 “for the purpose of negotiating a treaty.”

On returning to Dakota, the Governor’s plans were blocked by the military, who were convinced “that only through a display of force and punishment for atrocities would the Indians become peaceful.” Eventually though, Governor Edmunds prevailed, and chaired a commission which did go out and meet face to face with many tribal leaders. He reportedly “went among the Sioux personally without arms and practically without military escort, and made treaties that restored peace for many years.”

His signature can be found on numerous treaties between the U.S. government and the Indian nations of Dakota Territory. The problems weren’t over, and the treaties weren’t necessarily fair or lived up to, but Edmunds’ work probably saved lives and helped both sides to at least envision the possibility of ending violence and learning to coexist.

Newton Edmunds was 88 years old when he died after a series of strokes at Yankton, South Dakota, on this day in 1908.



Schell, Herbert S. “Newton Edmunds: Second Territorial Governor” The Wi-Iyohi: Monthly Bulletin of the South Dakota Historical Society Vol XI, No. 11, 1 Feb 1958, p.1.

South Dakota Historical Collections Vol 1. 1902, p.123.

Bismarck Daily Tribune, 16 Feb 1908, p.4.