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Surveyor General’s Office Opened


When Congress created Dakota Territory in 1861, its borders reached across the modern Dakotas into today’s Montana and Wyoming. The first person responsible for surveying these lands was George D. Hill. Hill was a large, jovial man who “loved alcohol” and served as surveyor general for the territory starting on this date in 1861 when his office was established at Yankton. Yankton was the territorial capitol before Bismarck yanked it away.

President Abraham Lincoln appointed Hill to the job. He had considered two other men, but decided against Francis M. Case and Lysander Cutler. Cutler was a Union general in the Civil War and Case later became mayor of Denver, Colorado in the 1870s. Hill had tangled ties and influence with a senator and a land office commissioner that helped his appointment. Hill was a Michigan man who (quote) “fit the frontier.”

He liked exploiting the territories’ resources, especially its farming potential. He lived under the belief that “rain follows the plow,” a theory that proved disastrous for many settlers. Hill believed that late and early frost and droughts would disappear as farmers took the land until till. He took his climatology views to the nation’s newspapers, even bringing in a colony from New York to Dakota. He saved some of the best surveying contracts for his fellow Michiganites.

Hill left the surveyor general’s position after eight years. His climatology theory was accepted into the 1870s, until grasshoppers descended in the summer of 1874. Grasshoppers darkened the sky, covering the land, trees and buildings. One diary likened the scourge to the plagues of Egypt.

Hill was wrong that rain would follow with settlement, but that promotion of the territory helped attract people even before the Dakota Boom and the Laramie Treaty. By the time of the grasshopper plague, Hill had already left Dakota and opened an opera house in Ann Arbor.

Dakota Datebook by Jack Dura


Brackbill, E.P. (2016). The queen of heartbreak trail: The life and times of Harriet Smith Pullen, pioneering woman. Rowman & Littlefield.

Fodness, R.S. (1994). A brief history of land surveys in South Dakota. South Dakota State Board of Technical Professions: Rapid City, SD.

McGinnis, R.Y. & Smith, C.N. (1993). Abraham Lincoln and the western territories. Nelson-Hall Publishers, Chicago, IL.

Wineberg, S.C. (2004). Lost Ann Arbor. Arcadia Publishing: Charleston, SC.