Journalistic coverage of the 1883, 1885 and 1889 constitutional conventions.

Author:Spurlin, Candice
Position:South Dakota constitutional conventions - I. Introduction through III. The 1885 Constitutional Convention A. General Statehood and Constitutional Concerns, p. 201-229

    Newspapers played a significant role in the passage of South Dakota's Constitution and its striving for statehood. (2) Before becoming a state in 1889, the Territory had more newspapers "than South Carolina, Delaware, Vermont, and Nevada combined." (3) While still a territory, "[t]he total number of [newspaper] titles issued ... was five hundred and fifty-eight." (4)

    Newspapers were so prevalent that more than two-hundred and twenty towns in the southern part of the Dakota Territory had their own newspaper. (5) Many towns had multiple newspapers, with Sioux Falls having the most, followed by Yankton. (6)

    There was a "marked increase in the number of new papers from 1878 to 1883, when a peak of eighty-seven new publications was reached." (7) Part of the reason for the "big boom in the newspaper industry" was due to the mid-region of the Territory opening for settlement. (8) Society needed newspapers to print land notices, however, many of these papers went out of existence following the land rush. (9)

    This time period was a particularly contentious time in the history of the Dakota Territory, as calls for territorial division, statehood, and constitutional conventions intensified. It was also a time of tremendous growth in towns, counties, and railroads, with population in the Territory more than doubling from 1879 to 1884. (10) Newspapers were in every settlement, printing the news of the day, as statehood became of greater concern to the people who settled the land and desired to sell their commodities.

    An August 7, 1885 article in the Aberdeen Weekly News attested to the role of the press in Dakota:

    The people of Dakota are justly proud of their newspaper, and appreciate the great work done by them. This is an age of newspapers. In 1878 there were only thirteen newspapers in the entire territory. Now there are 213. The world is challenged to show a record equal to the vast change in the population, business and condition of this territory during this time which is largely due to the influence of the press. (11) Not only did newspapers proliferate, but they became intimately involved in territorial and statehood politics. During this "Dakota boom," President Rutherford B. Hays appointed Nehemiah G. Ordway from New Hampshire as the Governor of Dakota Territory. Ordway served as governor until 1884, when he was removed amid allegations of favoritism and corrupt practices and a grand jury indictment for corrupt practices in office. (12)

    After being appointed governor, Ordway set about moving the capitol of the Territory from Yankton to Bismarck. He used "his control over large segments of the territorial press to have his way with the Legislature" and "coerce[d] many editors into supporting the relocation measure." (13) According to Richard Pettigrew, Ordway targeted newspapers in various localities "to aid [his] plans." (14) Ordway apparently succeeded in gaining the support of some papers, but he never could totally control the Sioux Falls papers. (15) However, in courting the press outside the territory as well, he was able to recruit the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Sioux City Journal as part of "Ordway's press." (16)

    Another locality that never supported Governor Ordway was the town of Yankton. Ordway had obviously created much enmity by moving the territorial capitol from Yankton to Bismarck. (17) The Press and Dakotaian, a Yankton newspaper, became "the natural champion of the people against the organized interests--the Ordway ring." (18) Governor Ordway, in turn, blamed the Yankton paper "for creating a distrust in many circles against Dakota lands' by publishing accounts of the extravagance of the legislature of 1883." (19)

    Because of the great number of newspapers that existed during the period leading up to South Dakota's constitutional conventions, the journalistic coverage of the proceedings of those conventions was wide-ranging, capturing the optimism and excitement that marked the statehood movement. The 1883 Constitutional Convention began attracting attention well before it commenced. Newspapers began covering the pre-convention meeting in Huron, where the propriety of a constitutional convention was to be discussed, as early as three months prior to the June 19, 1883, meeting. (20) Numerous meetings were held throughout the territory to support the Huron pre-convention. The Black Hills Daily Times, for instance, reported that "[a]n interesting and enthusiastic meeting was held [in Lawrence County] last evening for the purpose of placing in motion the movement looking towards the convention to be held in Huron on June 19 next, to consider the propriety of holding a constitutional convention." (21)

    The newspaper also reported that although there was "no legal authority to call a constitutional convention, it is proposed to call a mass convention at Huron to be held June 19, to consider this important subject and take such steps as may be necessary to prepare at least for the framing of such an instrument." (22) According to the article, Southern Dakotans were "heartily in favor of such a movement, and will say in conclusion that it cannot be done too soon, even though we have to wait for statehood." (23) As to why statehood would be preferable to remaining a territory, the Black Hills Times reported:

    A state is a free independent sovereign political power. Its legislature has full authority to regulate its own domestic concerns. It can make or abolish laws, and provided its acts are not in conflict with those of the United States no power can annul them. Certain states have abolished capital punishment, others the liquor traffic, others have changed their modes of legal procedure. What may be lawful in this state may be unlawful in the state next to it. States retain all powers inherent in absolute governments except those delegated to the general government. Now what is territory? What political rights have its citizens? Are they within the American meaning of the word citizens at all, or is a territorial form of government according to the representative and republican ideas a government in any sense? Government[s] derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. We have no choice in the selection of our chief executive the governor, we have no voice in the election of a president; our delegate to congress is a mere shadow without the substance of power, as he represents to power. A territorial legislature, as the representatives of men without the frill rights of suffrage, who are not wards of the nation, neither are they citizens, who in short are a species of political tadpole, which may become frogs, is scarcely more than a municipal common county. Congress delegates to territorial legislatures certain powers. Congress cannot delegate to a state authority, on the contrary, states delegate to congress certain powers. Every act of a territorial legislature can be annulled by congress, objectionable acts have frequently been declared inoperative. By what right then can this legislature, the creation the creature of congress, with powers delegated to it not by the people of the territory, but by congress, but what right we say can it re-delegate its power to a handful of citizens in Lawrence county to decide whether they will become citizens of Butte or remain as they are in Lawrence county. (24) At a gathering to decide what delegates would attend the proposed Huron Convention, Judge G. C. Moody:

    [S]poke earnestly and eloquently, making it appear that to not send a delegation [to the Huron Convention] would be evidence that we of the Hills country had no interest in the future of our territory, and might, by not striking when the iron was hot, sleep upon their rights, and find themselves cut off from the eastern portion of the territory, and become a dependency of Wyoming. (25) The diverse and pervasive journalistic coverage of the statehood and constitutional movements reflect and illuminate the concerns and issues that were being debated by the convention delegates and that would later become a part of the South Dakota Constitution. This Article provides a selective array of newspaper articles published during this period, and that gives some indication of popular opinions feeding the constitutional process. The articles will be organized according to convention--and because of the need for brevity here, very little commentary will accompany the selected articles.


    The 1883 Constitutional Convention began attracting attention well before it even commenced. Articles covering the meeting in Huron, where the propriety of a constitutional convention was going to be discussed, appeared as early as three months prior to the June 19, 1883, meeting. (26) Newspaper articles expressed anticipation and support for the Huron meeting as it was a step towards statehood. (27) Overall, newspaper coverage appeared to be supportive of the gathering in Huron; however, once the 1883 Constitutional Convention was confirmed and began, newspaper coverage conveyed that not everyone was in favor of a drive to statehood that was not sanctioned by the United States Congress. (28) Newspapers covered the 1883 Constitutional Convention extensively. From articles focusing on procedural matters such as the election of convention officers and lists of committee members, to articles on substantive matters such as adopted articles and committee reports, newspapers kept the public informed and expressed opinions about the day-to-day occurrences of the convention. When the 1883 Constitutional Convention was ready to be voted on by the people, newspapers disseminated the proposed Constitution, commented on its popularity, and reported on its ratification in the polls. (29)

    In the summer of 1883, the Black Hills Daily Times (Deadwood) stated it hoped that political parties could unite in the effort to select good men to attend the constitutional...

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