The Dakota Territory was signed into existence by President James Buchanan in 1861. “Dakota,” means “allies” or “friends” in the language of the Dakota or Sioux Indians. This land area would later be divided into North Dakota and South Dakota, with portions also going to Montana and Wyoming. By 1863, the Montana and Wyoming portions split off, and by the late 1870s, Dakotans began to push for statehood for better representation in Congress.
By 1889, statehood was imminent. In February of that year, the Omnibus Bill passed by Congress allowed for constitutions to be written out in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Washington. In November, North and South Dakota were admitted to the United States. President Benjamin Harrison, not wishing to show favoritism, mixed up the Act of Admissions papers for North and South Dakota. It is not actually known which state became so first, but the order of admissions is listed alphabetically, so North Dakota is listed as the 39th state, and South Dakota as the 40th.
It is obvious how North and South Dakota received their names—but it wasn’t a clear cut choice at the time, and in fact multiple suggestions for the states’ name existed on this date in 1889. It was a hot topic, and not just for North Dakotans, as published by the Dunseith Herald in Rolette County, which wrote:
“Thus far we have heard the following names suggested for North Dakota … Lincoln, Garfield, Wheatland, Promisland (sic), Pembina, Minnewaukan, Aztec, and the world-known famous one—North Dakota. The people outside of our territory have troubled themselves greatly, and unnecessarily in suggesting a name for our new state. They have never been asked to show us so much courtesy, and we will request them to pay more attention to their own affairs in the future. Dakota is large enough and has brains enough to transact all of her business affairs, and if we must be robbed of our prided name North Dakota, why, let our people have the honor to select the name. ”
Had some of these names, like Wheatland, succeeded, we could have been listed alphabetically as the 40th state. But North Dakota it was, retaining the “North” even through attempts in later years to drop it—notably, in 1947 and 1989.
And so we remain, as The Dunseith Herald wrote over one hundred years ago: “The Herald says North Dakota, now, hereafter and for ever more, for it is with pride we speak the name of North Dakota.”
Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker
Thursday, January 10, 1889, Dunseith Herald
North Dakota Blue Book, 2009-11 p. 65