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Yankton Loses Capital


Saturday marked the anniversary of when a Dakota town was tricked out of its status as a capitol. By the 1880s, Dakota Territory’s population was concentrated in very separate regions. In the far north, Pembina was made up of fur traders, trappers, hunters and mixed bloods.

In south-central Dakota, Pierre was outfitting thousands of miners who were illegally flooding into the Indian-held Black Hills and populating around Deadwood. Farther north, Bismarck was the main supply point for military posts, Indian Agencies, and the lucrative Montana trade.

Yankton, the capitol, was in the far southeast corner; with its lawyers and legislators, it was the most aristocratic. The town’s commerce was suffering from a number of floods, and trans-shipment trade was shifting away from Yankton to Sioux Falls and Bismarck.

Meanwhile, the Northern Pacific railroad wanted the capitol moved onto their line at Bismarck, where it would benefit from land-grant sales. The general population also thought the capitol should be more centrally located, but Yankton had no intentions of letting that happen.

In 1883, a capitol removal bill was finally pushed through under the corrupt governorship of Nehemiah Ordway. Nine men had to organize in Yankton within 30 days to select a new site. They would each be paid $10 a day for their services, and they had absolute authority in choosing the new location. The appointed commissioners came from all over the territory, including Deadwood, Fargo, Brookings, Bismarck, Redfield, and Vermillion. One was the infamous Alexander McKenzie, Burleigh County Sheriff and cohort of Governor Ordway. McKenzie had a tight network, called the McKenzie gang, who were firmly in the pockets of railroad interests.

The people of Yankton were furious when they learned of the bill. They had been able to stop previous attempts to move the capitol, and they were ready to do it again – by force if necessary.

They organized to keep the nine men from convening in Yankton, including posting guards around the edges of town and locking any buildings where a meeting could take place.

It became rumored that the nine men were going to meet in Yankton on March 30th, and the editor of the Dakota Herald urged citizens to “place your hen roosts under lock and key, and clear your clothes lines before dark” to rid the town of any potential meeting places. But March 30th came and went, and the nine-man commission didn’t materialize.

On April 3rd, all was quiet through the night. Then, as the sun was coming up, a locomotive pulling a coach eased slowly into Yankton. Inside, the nine commissioners quickly chose its officers. Then, having legally organized for business, the train rolled back out of town. As it passed the pickets on the edge of town, the engineer blew his whistle, and the town’s guards knew they’d been outsmarted.

Over the next three months, commissioners visited the towns that had submitted formal bids. In southern Dakota, they considered Aberdeen, Huron, Mitchell, Ordway, Pierre and Redfield. In northern Dakota, they considered Bismarck, Odessa and Steele. On June 1st, the commission cast their ballots in Fargo. After 13 ballots, Bismarck was finally chosen. Yankton put up a fight, but Governor Ordway and his son promptly relocated to Bismarck... and that was that.

(Source: The Story of North Dakota by Erling Rolfsrud; 1963)

Written by Merry Helm