Dakota Territory: Overview

The objective of the territorial system was to elevate western territories into states that would have legal parity with the original states. The system called for presidential appointment of a governor, a secretary, and three judges. These five organized the government and administered the laws. When the population of a territory reached 5,000 white-male adults, they elected the lower house of a territorial legislature and a non-voting delegate to Congress; the president appointed the upper house. When the total population reached 60,000, the territory could apply for admission as a state.
Dakota’s territorial status lasted for a very long time, just short of thirty years. That status remained until the population became sufficient to support a state government with no federal financial help. The Republican party dominated territorial politics since the major officials were presidential appointees and Republicans controlled the presidency during most of the territorial years.
Presidents used the gubernatorial appointment to reward loyal party workers or close friends. William Jayne (1861-63) was Lincoln’s personal physician and Illinois campaign manager. Andrew J. Faulk (1866-69) was the brother-in-law of Indiana’s Senator Oliver Perry Morton. William A. Howard (1878-80) had helped Rutherford B. Hayes win the Republican presidential nomination in 1876. John L. Pennington (1874-79), Nehemiah Ordway (1880-84), and Louis K. Church (1887-89) had worked diligently for the Republican party in the East. The last governor, Arthur C. Mellette (1889), a lawyer in Watertown, was the only one appointed directly from the territory.
The governors brought a variety of experience to Dakota:  physician, attorney, newspapermen; only Burbank, Howard, and Ordway were professional politicians. They also brought different capabilities and motives to their offices. Most worked hard for the betterment of the territory; some were concerned with only their own interests. For examples, Governor Newton Edmunds (1863-66) paid a great deal of attention to Indian affairs. He initiated a peace movement among Indian tribes of the Missouri Valley, believing that military intervention should come only as a last resort. On the other hand, Governor John Burbank (1869-72) was more interested in railroad promotion and land speculation than in governing. He spent most of 1871 in Washington lobbying for railroad interests. He was made a railroad company director as a reward for his efforts. In 1872 he was asked to resign.
Citizens increasingly grew weary of the length of the territorial era and the corruption of the system. These feelings stimulated the statehood movement which finally was successful in 1889. The many years of territorial status under Republican control ensured that both North and South Dakota would enter the Union as strongholds of the Republican party.

By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change