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Dakota Territory and Slavery


The issue of slavery and its expansion into new territories erupted as the great political debate of the mid-19th century; eventually leading to secession and civil war. Slaveholders insisted any ban on slavery in the western territories was a discrimination against their peculiar form of property; it would undercut their economic and social stability as well as their national political dominance. Free state residents generally sought to halt the advance of slavery; some for moral reasons, others as a threat to free labor. Thus any region seeking territorial status and eventually statehood during these turbulent years became embroiled in this bitter debate.

Although a large slave population in the present-day region of North Dakota was unlikely to develop, the area nonetheless found itself at the very center of this controversy. Despite growing pressure from settlers and land companies, Congress moved slowly, still reeling from the violence that erupted after the creation of Kansas Territory. Thus a number of efforts to establish Dakota Territory were derailed as Southern Democrats objected to the entry of a territory explicitly excluding slavery. But in January of 1861, opposition receded as one Southern state after another left the Union. Congress immediately took advantage of the South's absence and established the territories of Dakota, Nevada and Colorado. Congress assumed Dakota would remain a free territory, and with good reason, but it was ultimately left up to territorial citizens to define their free status.

The battle-cry was taken up by Dakota's first territorial governor, Dr. William Jayne. A close friend of Abraham Lincoln and a staunch abolitionist, he was inaugurated on this date in 1861. In his first annual address to the Dakota Territorial Legislature, Governor Jayne insisted the legislators pass a law forever forbidding slavery within its borders. "I hope," he said, "that the free air of Dakota may never be polluted or the fair, virgin soil pressed by the footprints of a slave." He called for the legislators to take a stand against slavery by unanimously passing a territorial law banning the practice.

Unfortunately, the territorial legislators were too wrapped up in the controversy surrounding the location of the first territorial capitol to give much attention to the issue of slavery. Governor Jayne's plea went unheeded, but by 1865 it no longer mattered as the 13th amendment to the US Constitution formally abolished slavery within the United States.

Dakota Datebook written Christina Sunwall


Kingsbury, George W. History of Dakota Territory Vol. 1. Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Pub. Co., 1915.

Shearer, Benjamin F. The Uniting States: Oklahoma to Wyoming: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.