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Unit 8


South Dakota Government

Lesson 2
South Dakota Becomes a State




United States Constitution ratified


Dakota Territory created


Capital moved to Bismarck


South Dakota becomes a state


Pierre wins permanent state capital


State capitol finished


Tribal governments set up


Intertribal court of appeals started

     At first, there were only thirteen states. A new part of the country was called a territory. When enough people lived there, they could ask Congress to make it a state. There were good reasons for wanting statehood. People who lived in territories could not vote for their leaders. Their governors were not elected. They were appointed, or put in power, by the president of the United States. The people could not check the power of a governor by voting. Also, they could not elect members of Congress to vote for laws in Washington, D. C.

     This was a problem in Dakota Territory when Nehemiah Ordway was governor. Ordway and his political friends moved the capital out of Yankton. The year was 1883. Yankton was in the southern half of the territory. Most of the people lived in this area. Bismarck became the new capital. It was in the north and central part of the territory. The people could not vote the governor out of office to show that they were not happy. Leaders in the south thought it was time for a change. They asked Congress to make southern Dakota a state all by itself.

     People had talked about splitting up the territory for a long time. One plan called for a split down the middle. This would make the states of Eastern Dakota and Western Dakota. Another plan made the southern half into a state named Dakota. The northern half would become Pembina Territory. Yet another plan carved out three states. They were North Dakota, South Dakota, and the Black Hills. All of these plans failed.

Dakota Territory, 1883

Delegates in Sioux Falls, 1883
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     Now leaders in the southern half of Dakota Territory got down to work. Delegates from around the area met in Sioux Falls. They worked on a plan for one state called South Dakota. The men wrote a state constitution. They asked Senator Benjamin Harrison from Indiana to put a bill into the United States Congress. The bill asked that South Dakota be made a state. The bill did not pass. The same thing happened two years later. The reason was simple. Most people in Congress were Democrats. They knew that most people in Dakota were Republicans. They did not want more Republicans in Congress.


     Things changed when Benjamin Harrison became president. He was a Republican and a friend of Dakota. Soon the bill for statehood passed in Congress. It was called the Omnibus Statehood Bill. It said that the states of North Dakota and South Dakota could be created. The year was 1889.

Once again, delegates met in Sioux Falls. They wrote a final state constitution. Voters in southern Dakota gave it their okay that fall. They chose Pierre as the state capital. They elected Arthur Mellette as governor. He was the last territorial governor, and he was a good one. The people wanted him to stay.

South Dakota Banner
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


Winter Count
Winter Count

     In November 1889, President Harrison signed the law that made both North and South Dakota into states. Before he did so, he shuffled the papers on his desk. He covered up the names on the papers. No one knows which state he signed into law first. The Dakotas are twinsóborn at the same time. They are listed in alphabetical order, though. North Dakota comes first. It is said to be the thirty-ninth state. South Dakota is said to be the fortieth, but nobody knows for sure. They are equals.


     Pierre was to be the capital for just one year. During that time, voters could think about it. Where did they want to put the permanent seat of government? Some people thought Pierre was the perfect spot. It was in almost the exact center of the state. Other people pointed out that Pierre might be in the center of the state but it was not in the center of population. Most people lived in the eastern one-third of South Dakota.

State Capitol, 1900
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society


Crazy Quilt of Capital Fight Ribbons
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society

     It would take two more elections to decide what town would be the permanent capital. Many towns wanted to be the  capital. Government brought jobs to town. It gave a place prestige. The first election was held in 1890. Huron challenged Pierre for the honor. Pierre won again. In 1904, Mitchell tried to win the capital. Again, Pierre won.



     People were getting tired of these challenges. They cost a great deal of money. They kept people on edge. The state legislature put a stop to them. It voted to build a permanent capitol. Up until this time, the state capitol had been a wooden building. Now it would be a stone building worthy of the seat of government. Today the South Dakota capitol is a treasure that all citizens can visit.

State Capitol, 1910
Photo courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society
delegates (n.), representatives; people who speak for the people who elected them

permanent (adj.), long-lasting or constant

political (adj.), having to do with government work

prestige (n.), honor or esteem