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Territorial Capitol moved to Bismarck


The cities of Yankton and Bismarck get along well enough these days. Haven’t read of any fracas between the two towns lately have you? Truth be told…they probably don’t pay much attention to each other. But that wasn’t always the case. Back in 1858, Captain John Todd, a cousin of Mrs. Abraham (Mary Todd) Lincoln, resigned his commission and formed a trading and land company at Fort Randall, South Dakota. Todd put through the cession of about 15 million acres of land from the Indians to the US Government for twelve cents an acre and had a large part in the creation of Dakota Territory by congress in 1861. John Todd became the first territorial delegate to Congress of Dakota and his town, Yankton became the territorial capitol.

Indian troubles and an economic slowdown would delay settlement in the northern half of Dakota territory, and the railroad was slow to expand, but during the winter of 1871 and ’72, squatters, anticipating the coming of the Northern Pacific Railroad, began to settle in and around the area that would eventually become Bismarck. In fact, in June of 1873, the printing press for the Bismarck Tribune, the first newspaper in North Dakota, would arrive by train. Also with the train came the people, and with the people came the rise of political ambition.. Once the Northern Pacific’s main line was laid across North Dakota, railroad leaders wanted the territorial capitol moved to Bismarck…a town on that line; and even though Yankton was indeed inconveniently located in the southeastern corner of the huge territory, the real reason behind the movement to move the territorial capitol was political.

Alexander McKenzie, a young railroad worker who would become sheriff of Burleigh County and eventually become known as “The Boss of North Dakota”, became a political agent for the Northern Pacific, leading the movement to have the territorial capitol relocated to Bismarck. A removal commission was established and through a series of shrewdly formed political alliances, hard work and good old fashioned bribery and political payoffs, primarily involving the current territorial governor, Nehemiah Ordway, Bismarck became the new territorial capitol. The commission visited several towns vying for the title, but after being extravagantly entertained in Bismarck, and after several votes, the commission decided on this date in 1883 that Bismarck would become the new territorial capitol. And Alexander McKenzie, a man who could scarcely write his own name, had pulled off his first political coup.

By Merrill Piepkorn

Source: “History of North Dakota” by Elwyn B. Robinson