Curtis Eriksmoen, Published March 09 2013
Eriksmoen: Journalist organized ND Constitutional Convention in 1889
According to sources outside of North Dakota, one man was most responsible for organizing the 1889 North Dakota Constitutional Convention and providing the state with “one of the shortest and most succinct constitutions in the nation.” These sources state that John Rea not only organized the convention, he also “drafted the constitution adopted by North Dakota when it became a state in 1889.”
According to his biography printed in the 12th volume of American Biography, Rea had “a bit more than anyone else to do with the organization in 1889 which framed the Constitution of North Dakota.” What is interesting is that Rea’s name rarely shows up in any North Dakota history books. If he was that influential in our state’s organizational formation, why was he ignored by journalists and historians? I will later explore one of the possible reasons for this.
Rea had friends in influential positions outside of North Dakota. In 1880, he was appointed Register of the U.S. Land Office in Bismarck by President Rutherford B. Hayes and reappointed in 1884 by President Chester A. Arthur. He “was a speaking acquaintance with all the U.S. presidents from President Grover cleveland to President Franklin Roosevelt.” However, in 1889, he may have alienated the person most important for recording and writing about the early history of the state – Clement Lounsberry.
Rea had been a successful newspaper reporter and editor for 20 years when he was appointed Register of the U.S. Land Office in Bismarck by President Hayes on May 10, 1880. The Bismarck Land Office was, by far, the largest district in what is now North Dakota and one of the largest in the nation. It contained 30 western counties in present-day North Dakota, covering 14,281,600 acres. The other three districts were Devils Lake (1,482,298 acres), Grand Forks (800,000 acres), and Fargo (281,960 acres).
The register oversaw the surveying, platting, and sale of public land. By 1880, “much of the public land in the Bismarck district had not been surveyed.” Public lands included all the land not granted to Indian tribes and not owned by the railroad. On July 4, 1884, Rea was reappointed by President Arthur. When it came time for the next appointment during the summer of 1888, Cleveland, a Democrat, was president, and Rea was replaced.
Rea became involved in real estate in Bismarck, and with the inevitability of North Dakota becoming a new state in 1889, he was frequently called upon for advice. On Dec. 8, 1888, there was a meeting about statehood in Bismarck, and Rea and former Dakota Territory Gov. Gilbert Pierce were the featured speakers. Later that month, Rea was named to a committee preparing for statehood.
On Feb. 22, 1889, Congress passed the “Enabling Act” providing for the division of Dakota Territory into two new governmental entities and for statehood for North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Washington. On May 14, a statewide election was held in North Dakota in which delegates were elected to attend a constitutional convention and draw up a constitution for the new state.
On July 4, the delegates met in Bismarck, and the very first action taken by the commission was to elect a temporary secretary. Rea was nominated, seconded, and elected without opposition.
Later, a draft copy of the constitution, written by a Harvard law professor, was presented to the delegates by Erastus Williams. Testimonies by a number of experts on important issues were given and the officers for the convention were elected.
The Enabling Act provided that two U.S. senators would be elected from each new state by the legislators elected in November. Gilbert Pierce, who had served as governor of Dakota Territory from 1884 to 1887, made it known that he would become a candidate and selected Rea as his campaign manager. Rea’s old boss at the Bismarck Tribune, Lounsberry, also wanted to become senator.
Lounsberry may have been harboring some bitterness from 1884. He was so convinced that he would be appointed governor of Dakota Territory, he sold his interest in the Tribune to make himself available. When President Arthur named Pierce as governor on June 25, the distraught Lounsberry moved to Duluth.
In the late 1880s, he returned to Dakota hoping to achieve a high political office once North Dakota became a state. To have his former associate editor campaigning against him may have been a bitter pill to swallow. I have not discovered anything negative that Lounsberry wrote about Rea, but he may have believed that if he had nothing positive to write about somebody, he wouldn’t write anything.
Late in December of 1889, Rea made a trip to the West Coast to check other possible sites to relocate. In 1890, he moved to Olympia, the capitol of Washington, and began selling real estate. On March 7, 1891, Rea sold his home in Bismarck and, one week later, published the first edition of a new newspaper, The Olympian. One of his newspaper business partners was James P. Ferry, son of Elisha P. Ferry, governor of Washington. Later that year, Rea sold his holdings in The Olympian and became an adviser to Gov. Ferry.
In 1906, Rea transferred his booming real estate business to Tacoma. The luxurious home he had built in 1907 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places 80 years later. From 1910 to 1916 he served on the board of trustees for the University of Washington.
On Nov. 5, 1918, the citizens of Tacoma and the surrounding county voted to create the Port of Tacoma, the largest independent seaport in the American Northwest. Rea was elected as executive director of the port, a position he held until 1921. He then became actively involved in developing the timber industry. Rea retired from a leadership role in his timber and real estate businesses in 1926, but maintained oversight of his enterprises for most of the rest of his life.
John Rea died Feb. 10, 1941.
More than 120 years after statehood and 70 years after Rea’s death, we remain uncertain about the significance, if any, of his contributions towards the North Dakota Constitution and the convention that drafted it.
“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 email@example.com.