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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 27 2011

Eriksmoen: North Dakota should be listed officially as 39th state

Was North Dakota the 39th or 40th state to enter the Union? Because President Benjamin Harrison purposely shuffled and then blindly signed the admission papers of North 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 U.S. Sen. Lyman Casey, I wrote that on Dec. 3, 1889, in Washington, D.C., Casey and Sen. Gideon Moody of South Dakota drew slips of paper to determine which state would be considered the 39th state and which would be the 40th. According to this account, Moody drew a lower number, giving that state preference over North Dakota. Because this story came from “History of Dakota Territory” by George Washington Kingsbury, the longtime respected editor of the Dakotian in Yankton, I believed the story was true.

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 was officially 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. Congress created Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861. This territory was comprised of present-day North Dakota, South Dakota, and much of Montana and Wyoming. 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 the Homestead Act into law, and settlers began to come into Dakota Territory looking for land. Jayne resigned in 1863 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 hired his father-in-law, Andrew J. Faulk, as the Indian trader on the reservation. One historian wrote that Burleigh “outdid the average agent in fleecing the Indian Bureau and the Indians for all they were worth.” Edmunds assisted a congressional investigation of “Burleigh’s corrupt behavior on the reservation.” After Lincoln was assassinated, Burleigh persuaded President Andrew Johnson to replace Edmunds with Faulk.

Faulk was 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. After a scandal involving a railroad, public pressure forced him to resign on Jan. 1, 1874.

About this time, Dakota political leaders started pushing for statehood, with most wanting all of Dakota to become one state.

On Jan. 1, 1874, Grant appointed John Pennington of Alabama as governor. After “negative reports on his character,” Pennington resigned and was replaced by William A. Howard, who was appointed by President Rutherford B. Hayes on April 12, 1878. Howard died on April 10, 1880. Hayes appointed Nehemiah G. Ordway as his replacement.

There was a great outcry from southern Dakota Territory when Ordway collaborated with Alexander McKenzie to get the capitol moved from Yankton to Bismarck. He was indicted for corruption. President Chester Arthur replaced him with Gilbert A. Pierce in 1884. The Legislature voted to have the capital moved from Bismarck to Pierre, but Pierce vetoed that bill.

There was a movement to have the territory divided, with North and South Dakota coming into the union as separate states. 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 accepted as the dividing line between the two proposed states.

Pierce was replaced on Feb. 5, 1887, by Louis K. Church. On Feb. 22, 1889, Congress approved statehood for both North and South Dakota if they adopted state constitutions, divided property and liabilities, and formed state governments.

On May 14, North Dakota elected 75 delegates to a Constitutional Convention. They 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 Harrison signed the proclamation making North and South Dakota the two newest states.

Kingsbury’s account is the only one I have read that told of an effort to establish a state ranking. Even if Kingsbury’s story is true, the statute of limitations has obviously passed. If there is a strong feeling that we want to be officially declared as the 39th state, we should take the appropriate action.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.