South Dakota’s Path to Statehood

North and South Dakota were both admitted to the Unites States on November 2, 1899. Which came first? North Dakota is usually listed first, since it comes ahead of South Dakota alphabetically, but nobody really knows which came first.

President Benjamin Harrison had both the acts on his desk that day, and he shuffled them without looking, saying, “They were born together — they are one and I will make them twins.” He chose one blindly to sign, and then immediately signed the other. At that point, he shuffled the papers again so that he himself wouldn’t know which paper was signed first. His goal was to make the states equal.

Statehood brings equality

Up to that point, both North and South Dakota were part of the Dakota Territory. As a territory, both were powerless compared with states. They had sent five petitions to Congress asking for statehood, but all five had been ignored. They had sent delegations to Washington, and the delegations had also largely been ignored. When the territory was divided into two states and both were admitted into the Union, they became equal with all the other states.

The previous president, Grover Cleveland, had signed an act creating four new states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Washington. People in the Dakota Territory had been working for statehood for more than a decade at that point, and the bill settled the question of how the territory should be divided into states.

But none of the states could be admitted, under the terms of the bill, without a state constitution that would not contradict the U.S. Constitution.

South Dakota had quite a few big issues to settle with their constitution. Prohibition — making alcohol illegal — was one of them. Women’s suffrage — allowing women to vote — was another. A proposal allowing settlers to come from the states into the Sioux lands was highly controversial. There was controversy over the location of the capital for the new state. What’s more, the farmers of South Dakota were beginning to be affected by a drought that would lead to an economic depression. All these topics led to hot debate when it came time to write and ratify the constitution.

Local quarrels are distractions

These local issues were important in their day, but achieving statehood was more important than any of them for the future of South Dakota.

As Howard Hills, author of Citizens Without A State wrote about the Dakota Territory, “Every minute spent talking about internal politics under the territorial regime is a minute wasted.”

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