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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 08 2012

Eriksmoen: Dakota Territory legislator involved in many events

Few people have been involved in important historical events in more locations than Hugh S. Donaldson.

While a resident of Minnesota in 1857, he was reportedly involved in the conspiracy to prevent the capital from being moved from St. Paul to St. Peter.

In 1861, he became the first person from what is now North Dakota to serve in the Dakota Territorial Legislature in Yankton, S.D.

In 1863, he was the only private resident in present-day North Dakota to be commissioned to lead a military company of soldiers in response to the Sioux Uprising.

In 1870, he was arrested in Canada for trying to convince the leader of the newly created province of Manitoba to secede from Canada and join the U.S.

In 1874, he was one of the founders of a newly incorporated town in Canada that grew to become the seventh-largest city in that country – Winnipeg.

Hugh Stephen Donaldson was born Jan. 12, 1832, to William and Elizabeth (Stewart) Donaldson in New Carlisle, Quebec. In the 1840s, the Donaldsons relocated to Whitby, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, 20 miles east of Toronto.

In 1850, Hugh journeyed to St. Paul, where he worked as “a land dealer and agent.” He must have impressed some people of political influence because, in 1857, he was awarded the job of enrolling clerk for the Minnesota territorial senate.

In February 1857, the legislature narrowly passed a bill moving the capital from St. Paul to St. Peter. As enrolling clerk, Donaldson checked the bill for accuracy and then gave it to Joseph Rolette, chairman of the committee on enrolled bills, who promptly disappeared.

A search began to find Rolette, but he could not be located until the session was about to adjourn.

I could find no evidence that Donaldson was directly involved, however, after he died in 1904, his good friend James J. Hill told a reporter for the St. Paul Globe, “I knew Donaldson very well. He was a very good citizen. I have always suspected that Donaldson knew a good deal of the whereabouts of that capital removal bill.”

Later in 1857, Rolette was stripped of his position as postmaster of Pembina because “he failed to file his quarterly returns.” Someone of influence, perhaps Norman Kittson, recommended Donaldson to be Rolette’s successor, and Democratic President James Buchanan appointed him. He was replaced in 1860.

On March 2, 1861, the U.S. Congress passed the Organic Act creating Dakota Territory. It also stipulated that an election be held selecting 13 members to the house and nine to the council.

It was determined that the third representative district, an area referred to as the “Red River region,” which included the precincts of Pembina and St. Joseph (now Walhalla), would elect one person to the house, and that the first council district, represented by precincts in Pembina, St. Joseph, Sioux Falls and Big Sioux, would elect two people for the council.

In that election, Donaldson, running for the house, received 173 of the 174 ballots cast.

During the first legislative session, much of the legislature’s time was spent establishing criminal and civil laws and creating 18 counties.

Four of those counties were along the Red River in what is now North Dakota. They were Cheyenne, Stevens, Chippewa and Kittson counties. Kittson County was named by Donaldson and covered what is now Pembina and Walsh counties.

Donaldson also worked tirelessly to get the capital moved out of Yankton to a place that was more centrally located. His other major concern was the survey and establishment of an international boundary line between Canada and the U.S.

In the 1862 election, voters of Kittson County elected Donaldson to the house.

The major issues of the second legislative session were matters involving the Civil War, surveys of Dakota Territory and the establishment of military forts.

The major sticking point for the Red River delegation was how drastically they were underrepresented in the legislature. Based on population, they believed they deserved to send more legislators to Yankton.

Before the 1863 election was held, lawmakers out of Yankton decided to enforce the decision made by the 1862 Committee on Elections that stated that whites living in Kittson County could not vote because they lived on Indian land. This was codified by the 1863 legislative session, declaring that if the voting rights were taken away, this action would “hasten action on the part of the government to secure the extinguishment of the Indian title to the soil, and the opening of the country … to civilization.”

The legislature also eliminated the four counties in what is now North Dakota. However, Kittson County did reappear in 1879, but this time it was across the Red River in northwestern Minnesota.

(We will conclude our article on Donaldson next week as we look at his role in response to the Sioux Uprising, his involvement with Louis Riel and his work in Winnipeg.)


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“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.