North Dakota and South Dakota are celebrating their 125th birthdays on Sunday, and there’s still a question over which one actually joined the Union first.
It’s one of many lingering issues between the twin states, which have been locked in a geographic sibling rivalry since the Territorial Days.
North Dakota and South Dakota were both granted statehood on Nov. 2, 1889, by President Benjamin Harrison. Newspaper accounts from the time and historians say that, faced with the dilemma of which Dakota statehood paper he’d sign first, Harrison had them shuffled and all but the signature lines in the documents covered.
“It’s my understanding that not even he knew which one he signed first,” said Mark Halvorson, a historian with the North Dakota State Historical Society.
Some scholars believe the alphabet may have decided the issue, with “n” preceding “s.” North Dakota was admitted as the 39th state and South Dakota as the 40th.
While North Dakota relishes in beating its southern neighbor, South Dakota State Historical Society Director Jay Vogt joked that “they really shouldn’t be 39th because we’re far more important.”
It may be good-natured ribbing now, but the race to statehood was more than just bragging rights at the time, Halvorson said. Westward expansion meant unprecedented political power plays to draw population, he said.
Being first was something both states wanted to use as a form of “boosterism,” Halvorson said, with state leaders marketing theirs over the other, often touting whose land was more fertile and which area got the most beneficial rainfall.
“But they never talked of drought or cold weather,” he said. “Let’s just say that both states gilded the lily to put a better shine on things.”
True bad blood existed between the two states after the Territorial Capital was relocated from Yankton, S.D., to Bismarck “through a variety of political machinations,” Vogt said.
“We always kind of feel like Bismarck should never have been picked as Territorial Capital,” he said.
North Dakota, meanwhile, is still irked over a banner.
In 1888, officials in the Dakota Territory held a pro-statehood convention in Huron, S.D.
It was there attendees saw for the first time two silk, hand-painted banners with a woman holding a bushel of wheat to represent each future state.
Those banners now hang at South Dakota Historical Society in Pierre.
North Dakotans insisted 25 years ago at the centennial celebration their banner be returned.
“Of course, we didn’t want to do that,” Vogt said. “So, replicas of those banners were made and given to North Dakota as kind of a peace offering.”
Halvorson said North Dakota has largely accepted that it will never get its banner back.
“I guess at this point, it’s not worth fighting over,” he said.