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How N.D. became a state

How N.D. became a state

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Was North Dakota the 39th or 40th state to enter the Union? Since President Benjamin Harrison purposely shuffled and then blindly signed the admission papers of North Dakota and South Dakota, no one knows for sure the order that these two states became a part of the United States.

Last week, in the article about Sen. Lyman Casey, I wrote that on Dec. 3, 1889, in Washington, D.C., Casey and Sen. Gideon Moody drew slips of paper to determine which state would be considered the 39th state and which state would be number 40.  According to this account, Moody, from South Dakota, drew a lower number giving that state preference over North Dakota.

 Since this story came from History of Dakota Territory by George Washington Kingsbury, the long-time respected editor of the Dakotian in Yankton, I believed this to be a true story. 

Because of the overwhelming challenge by knowledgeable readers to last week’s article and the fact that most accountings show North Dakota as the 39th state, I endorse the sentiment that North Dakota be officially acknowledged as the 39th state. 

To my knowledge, nothing has ever been done formally to declare that North Dakota has a legal claim on that ranking.  Most sources state that North Dakota is listed as the 39th state because it comes before South Dakota alphabetically.

It is interesting to see how North Dakota became a state.  On March 2, 1861, Congress created Dakota Territory.  This territory was comprised of all of present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, and much of Montana and Wyoming, and in 1863, the areas of Montana and Wyoming were removed from Dakota Territory.  In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln appointed William Jayne, his Springfield, Ill., physician, as the first governor of Dakota Territory.

On May 20, 1862, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act, and settlers began to come into Dakota Territory looking for land. In 1863, Jayne resigned to spend full-time as Dakota’s delegate to Congress.  He supported Lincoln’s appointment of Newton Edmunds as his successor.

Meanwhile, Walter A. Burleigh was appointed as the Indian agent at the Yankton Reservation in south-central Dakota Territory.  Burleigh saw this position as a way to make money and hired his father-in-law, Andrew J. Faulk, as the Indian trader on the reservation.

Edmunds assisted in an investigation by Congress of “Burleigh’s corrupt behavior on the reservation.” After  Lincoln was assassinated, Burleigh persuaded President Andrew Johnson, his good friend, to remove Edmunds as governor and replace him with Faulk.

Faulk served as governor from 1866 to 1869, and with Burleigh as his cohort, corruption was rampant.  On May 10, 1869, President Ulysses Grant removed Faulk and replaced him with John A. Burbank from Indiana. 

Burbank neglected his duties as governor, and after a scandal involving a railroad, public pressure forced him to resign on Jan. 1, 1874.

By this time, Dakota political leaders were growing tired of the graft and corruption demonstrated by federal officials foisted on them.  These men wished to throw off outside control. The way to do this was through statehood, and most of the proponents for statehood wanted all of Dakota to become one state.

By 1884, Dakota had gone through a number of corrupt governors. This increased the demand for statehood.

There was now a strong movement to have the territory divided with North Dakota and South Dakota coming into the union as separate states.  There also was an effort in southern Dakota Territory to get South Dakota admitted as a state and northern Dakota declared a territory.

Gov. Gilbert A. Pierce signed a bill into law to authorize a state constitutional convention for southern Dakota Territory. In 1887, a boundary line at the 7th meridian, near the 46th degree of latitude, was found acceptable as the dividing line between the two proposed states. 

On Feb. 22, 1889, Congress approved statehood for both North Dakota and South Dakota if they would adopt state constitutions, divide property and liabilities, and form state governments.

On May 14, North Dakota elected 75 delegates to a Constitutional Convention.  The delegates met in Bismarck from July 4 to Aug. 17 and drew up a constitution.  On Oct.1, citizens approved adoption of the constitution by a vote of 27,441 to 8,107.

On Nov.2, President Benjamin Harrison signed the proclamation making North  Dakota and South Dakota as the two newest states.  Since Harrison blindly signed the documents, we have no idea which one he signed first. 

(Written by Curt Eriksmoen. Reach Eriksmoen at


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