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Dakota's Missing Governor


History books chronicling the names of the Governors of Dakota Territory list ten governors from 1861, when Dakota Territory was created, up to 1889, when North and South Dakota went their separate ways as states, but on this date in 1887, none of those ten individuals on the list were sitting in the Governor's chair. Did Dakota Territory have an eleventh governor?

Territorial Governor Gilbert Pierce, who was appointed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1884, was allowed to remain in office under the Cleveland Administration until he resigned in December of 1886; however, it was not until February 1, 1887 that his resignation was accepted by President Cleveland. Louis K. Church, a New York lawyer, was then appointed governor of Dakota Territory and his term began on February 2, 1887—well, almost.

Church was a Democrat, and with the support of his close friend, Theodore Roosevelt, he had helped New York Governor Grover Cleveland overcome the forces of New York's notorious Tammany Hall. When Cleveland became President, he appointed Church as a Third District Judge for Dakota Territory and, upon the resignation of Pierce, Church was appointed to fill the office of Governor of Dakota Territory. The United States Senate, which needed to confirm the position, was led by John Ingalls, a Republican from Kansas and, although no formal charges were ever made against Church, verbal accusations of intemperance had been bantered about in the Halls of Congress and thus the Republicans were able to delay his confirmation.

The Seventeenth Session of the Dakota Territorial Legislature had begun on January 11, but on the 2nd of February word was received that the Territory was without a Governor and the Territorial Secretary, M. L. McCormack assumed the reins. Capt Michael McCormack of Grand Forks was a popular political figure of the day. Born in 1847, he had come to Grand Forks in 1871 as a representative for the Hudson Bay Trading Company and along with Alexander Griggs and David Holmes, he was instrumental in launching the townsite of Grand Forks. For a number of years he was a steamboat captain on the Red River but he also owned a farm, operated a store and owned the Grand Forks Roller Mill Company, an extensive flour mill employing steam to operate the rollers, one of the first in the Red River Valley. He had served three terms as Mayor of Grand Forks before being appointed Territorial Secretary.

Acting as Governor, M. L. McCormack signed a number of bills, vetoed a bill and even pardoned a man by the name of Thomas Magill of Fargo who had been convicted of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to three years in the penitentiary. There were numerous petitions for the release of Magill but when even the district attorney, the judge, the sheriff and the warden favored his release, Governor McCormack granted the request for a pardon.

On February 10, the appointment of Governor Church was confirmed which led The Bismarck Tribune to state, "On Tuesday it was Governor Pierce, on Wednesday Governor McCormack, last night it was Governor Church..." On February 11, Secretary McCormack re-assumed his duties, having served as governor for nine days. He later served three terms in the North Dakota Senate from 1889 to 1894. In 1897, Michael L. McCormack and family moved to St. Paul where he had business interests. He retained his affection for North Dakota, visiting often, recounting those experiences of the early days. On November 15, 1922 at 12:45 in the morning he passed away at age 75. His place in North Dakota history is significant—a riverboat captain, businessman, politician, pioneer and, until now, Dakota Territory's forgotten Governor.

By Jim Davis

The Record Volume 2, #7, January, 1897 page 7

The Bismarck Weekly Tribune February 11, 1887 Page 2.

Andreas Historical Atlas of Dakota, 1884, page 254

Grand Forks Herald November 15, 1922, Page 1.

The Bismarck Weekly Tribune, February 11, 1887 page 11.