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Splitting Dakota


This date in 1885 was one piece of the timeline moving Dakota Territory to statehood as John Sherman, president pro tempore of the 49th U.S. Congress, was presented with a constitution and memorial assembled by Dakota Territory's legislature. These intensely worded documents gave reasons for splitting the territory, with the half south of the 46th parallel to be given statehood as South Dakota.

Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison was part of the effort from the start. He introduced a bill on this date in 1885 to admit South Dakota as a state and to organize the northern division as a Territory. An amendment in the bill gave that new territory the name of Lincoln. The Senate passed the bill in February 1886, but the House Committee on Territories was opposed.

Other bills followed in January 1886 on how to divide Dakota Territory, including possible statehood options. Admitting the entire territory as a state was one such option. Another suggested splitting Dakota Territory along the Missouri River, letting the eastern residents submit for statehood.

More bills were introduced in 1887 and '88. One admitting Dakota as a state passed the Senate in 1888, but no bill dividing Dakota as north and south succeeded. Eventually, Dakota Territory's 1887 legislature put the matter of the north-south division to a vote. That November, over 67,000 people cast their ballot. Northern residents opposed the division with only four counties in favor: Burleigh, Ramsey, Grand Forks and Ward. But overall, 55 percent of the voters favored the division.

Bitterness followed in the years afterward. Southern Dakota Territory officials still felt sore over the capital moving from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883, and Democrats in general opposed the division. However, the election of Republican Benjamin Harrison as president in 1888 set the stage for statehood.

At 3:40 p.m. on November 2, 1889, Harrison signed North and South Dakota into statehood using an eagle feather. Before doing so, Secretary of State James Blaine shuffled and covered the statehood proclamations to avoid bickering over which state came first.

“They were born together – they are one and I will make them twins," Harrison said as he signed the Dakotas into statehood.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Iseminger, G. L. (2007). The quartzite border: Surveying and marking the North Dakota-South Dakota boundary 1891-1892 (2nd ed.). Sioux Falls, SD: The Center for Western Studies.

Lounsberry, C.A. (1919). An early history of North Dakota. Liberty Press: Washington, D.C. Retrieved from:


Soyer, J. (2014, Sept. 25). Presidents Cleveland and Harrison contribute to North and South Dakota statehood. South Dakota State News. Retrieved from: http://news.sd.gov/newsitem.aspx?id=16766