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The Organic Act of Dakota

Dakota Territorial Seal. Dakota Territory officials used an official seal to mark
territorial documents. After statehood, North Dakota kept this basic image as its new state seal.

The Organic Act of Dakota, “To provide a temporary government for the Territory of Dakota, and to create the office of Surveyor-General therein” signed by President Buchanan in 1861 included the following provisions:

  • A Governor, appointed by the President, with executive power and authority to hold office for four years, unless sooner removed by the President.  His salary was set at $1,500 and $1,000 as Superintendent of Indian Affairs. 
  • A Secretary, appointed by the President, whose term of office was to be four years, to record all acts and proceedings of the Legislative Assembly and the Governor.  His salary was to be $1,800.
  • A Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, appointed by the President, each to receive $1,800 annually, to be the Supreme Court, and to set up a system of district and probate courts and justices of the peace.
  • An Attorney General, United States Marshall, and Surveyor General.  All of these were to be appointed by the President, with the consent of the United States Senate.

It also provided for a territorial legislative assembly composed of a Council (Senate) and House of Representatives, to be elected by residents.  The Council was to be composed of nine members, which could be increased to 13, having the qualifications of voters, and whose term was two years.  The House of Representatives was to consist of 13 members which could be increased to 26, each to serve a one-year term of office.  A census was to be taken, the territory to be divided into districts, each of which was to have representation in proportion to its population (not including American Indians).

Every free white male United States citizen, who was a resident of the territory at the time of the passage of the Act and above the age of 21, could vote at the first election, and was eligible to hold office.

Provision was also made for a territorial delegate to the United States House of Representatives, to be elected by the voters.

An important provision for schools was the provision of setting aside of Sections 16 and 36 as school lands in each township. This was outlined in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and incorporated into the Homestead Act of 1862.

In May, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed his friend and family physician, Dr. William Jayne, of Springfield, Illinois to be the first Governor of Dakota Territory.  When Governor Jayne arrived in Yankton, South Dakota, which was the temporary capital, he found a community of less than 300 persons living in sod huts or rude log cabins.  The Ash Hotel, where he took up lodging, was so crowded that two or three people had to share each bed.  Governor Jayne shared his own room with his Attorney General for the first six months.

Colin Kloster

William Jayne, first governor of Dakota Territory, was an eastern politician. He had been Abraham Lincoln’s doctor and campaign manager. (SHSND A1782)

The Governor began his work of organizing the territory by appointing census takers who found the population to be 2,376, not counting the American Indians.  The number of whites in the Red River District of northern Dakota was shown to be 51 males, 28 females, 264 mixed-blood males, and 260 mixed-blood females, a total of 603.  This figure was disputed by some who claimed that most of the persons in the Pembina area were away on their annual bison hunt; thus were not counted.  (The U.S. Census of 1860 reported a population of 1,606 for this region.)

On July 29, 1861, Governor Jayne divided the territory into six Council and eight Representative districts.  The Pembina and St. Joseph settlements were in the First Council District which had two Council members.  The Pembina country was in the Third Representative District, which had one Representative.

Elections were held September 16, 1861 and the first Legislative Assembly convened March 17, 1862.  The session passed civil, criminal, judicial, and probate codes and “other wholesome laws,” and defined the boundaries of 15 counties, four of which were in northern Dakota.  These were Kittson, Chippewa, Stevens, and Sheyenne.  Sheyenne was the southernmost of the four, and extended into southern Dakota also.  The four counties were laid out from the Canadian border southward, between the Red River and the western line of Range 62 on the west.  However, the next Territorial Legislature repealed the act creating these four counties for the reason that they were located in Indian territory and were not under the jurisdiction of the Territorial laws and courts.

Of the 13 Representatives in the first Legislative Assembly, only six were over 30 years-of-age, and of these, only two were over 35 years old.  Eight were farmers, two were surveyors, one a lawyer, one a trader, and one was a land company employee.

The average age of the nine Council members was 32; in this body there were five lawyers, two merchants, one engineer, and one farmer.

These young legislators were loyal to their own districts, diligent, sincere, and often impatient.  On various occasions they brandished and discharged pistols to get the Speaker’s attention and recognition.

Most of Dakota Territory’s citizens showed and intense interest in politics, especially those who were not farmers and who hoped to profit in various ways from the acts of the legislature. 

Election time was a period of great excitement; usually every seat in both the House and Council (Senate) was contested.  Parades of ardent supporters followed the candidates, with cheering, shouting, boasting, and fighting by supporters and office-seekers alike.  When Moses Armstrong ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket, his friend General T.C. Campbell, invited him into his own district to speak.  During the General’s speech introducing Armstrong, his hat was shot off, but he continued speaking.  When Armstrong hesitated to address such an unruly audience, the General calmly informed him that the time to do his praying was before he crossed the county line; not after.

Not long after the first Territorial Legislature had adjourned, news came of the Dakota Uprising in Minnesota.  Governor Jayne and other high officials left the territory in a hurry.  Territorial governors and other appointed officials were not well-liked by the people, as a rule.  Usually they were from the East and had no particular interest in the country, except as a place where they could earn a good salary and perhaps win political advancement.

In 1863, Newton Edwards of Yankton was appointed Territorial Governor; he was the only resident of the Territory ever to hold the office.  He was followed by Andrew J. Faulk of Pennsylvania, John A. Burbank of Indiana, John L. Pennington of Alabama, William A. Howard of Michigan, Nehemiah Ordway of Vermont, Gilbert A. Pierce of New York and Illinois, Louis K. Church of New York and Indiana, and Arthur C. Mellette of Indiana.

William Jayne 1826-1916 1861-1863
Newton Edmunds 1819-1908 1863-1866
Andrew J. Faulk 1814-1898 1866-1869
John A. Burbank 1827-1905 1869-1874
John L. Pennington 1821-1900 1874-1878
William A. Howard 1812-1880 1878-1880
Nehemiah G. Ordway 1828-1907 1880-1884
Gilbert A. Pierce 1839-1901 1884-1887
Louis K. Church 1850-1898 1887-1889
Arthur C. Mellette 1842-1896 1889