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Bismarck Becomes the Territorial Capital

The Commission met at Fargo in June, 1883, and after a number of ballots, Bismarck was selected by a vote of 5 to 4 as the territorial “seat of government.”

As might be expected, the choice was hailed with glee by the Bismarck residents. It became a “boom town” almost overnight. People rushed into Bismarck in the belief that, the town would soon become a metropolis. While the boom lasted, $20,000 for a 50 foot lot was reported to have been offered for downtown property. A man owning a section of land adjoining the town is said to have been offered $200 per acre; he refused to sell, kept the land until 1918, and then sold it for $35 an acre!

In Yankton, on the other hand, there was bitter reaction. Residents there first attempted to overthrow the action of the Commission on the grounds that it was all illegal. Under the provisions of the “Organic Act,” they argued, the capital was to be selected by the Territorial Governor; the Legislature had no authority to appoint the Commission to make the selection. The case was tried in District Court at Yankton, and the Judge, himself a citizen of Yankton, ruled in favor of the Yankton partisans.

Laying the Territorial Capitol Cornerstone, September 5, 1883. This view from the back of the construction site at the Territorial Capitol in Bismarck captures the people gathered for the building's cornerstone laying ceremony. (SHSND C0865)

McKenzie and the Commission appealed this decision to the Territorial Supreme Court, which reversed the decision of the District Court.

Failing in this attempt, the Yankton partisans vented their fury on Governor Ordway, charging him with corruption in office and of accepting a bribe of $30,000 for his part in the capital removal. Goaded into action, President Chester Arthur removed Ordway from office, but Bismarck remained the capital of Dakota Territory.

The cornerstone of the new Territorial Capitol was triumphantly laid September 5, 1883, by Henry Villard, president of Northern Pacific Railroad. Among other honored guests present at the ceremony were General Ulysses S. Grant; Henry M. Teller, Secretary of the Interior; the Honorable Sackville-West, British Minister; the Imperial German Minister; members of the Austro-Hungarian, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish delegations; Governor Ordway; and numerous United States Senators, governors, and mayors.