‘Sure Nuff,’ North Dakota claimed to be South Dakota’s elder on statehood day

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At 3:40 p.m. on Nov. 2, 1889, President Benjamin Harrison signed North Dakota and South Dakota into statehood, splitting the former territory into two and beginning a rivalry that continues to this day.

What, you thought the Dakota Marker football game between North Dakota State University and South Dakota State University was the genesis of a family feud?

No, the beginnings came 130 years ago today when the states became the first and only to be admitted to the Union on the same day. A telegram from Secretary of State James Blaine told the news, saying that North Dakota and South Dakota “entered the Union at the same moment.”

(Here is the Fargo Sunday Argus from Nov. 3, 1889.)

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That’s impossible, of course. The president had to sign the documents making statehood official, and he had to sign one before the other. Unless Harrison was ambidextrous and signed the papers at the same time.

He was not. But in a fit of either friskiness (possible) or political moxie (more likely), Harrison shuffled the papers and signed them blindly so as not to show favoritism to either state. Then as now, politicians would do whatever necessary to avoid exhibiting backbone or offending voters.

Most consider North Dakota the 39th state admitted and South Dakota is the 40th, only because “n” comes before “s” in the alphabet.

But Fargo’s largest daily newspaper at the time, the Argus declared North Dakota the 39th state immediately. State pride is a heckuva drug.

Below the main headline that read “Sure Nuff” were a couple of smaller headlines driving home that point.

“North Dakota Gets There as the 39th State in the Union and We’re Citizens!”

“South Dakota Follows Close in the Wake of Her Elder Sister and is Numbered 40!”

And a few lines down:

“Governor Ordway is Probably the Happiest Man in North Dakota This Morning.”

“For it is Due to His Efforts That North Dakota Leads Off as the Senior.”


Since technology in the 1800s didn’t allow for much immediate reporting or analysis, the story printed under the headline doesn’t reference why the Argus believed North Dakota was admitted before South Dakota, nor does it explain what efforts former territorial Gov. Nehemiah Ordway undertook to push North ahead of South in the battle of Dakota statehood. The article is simply a reprint of the proclamation admitting North Dakota to the United States.

(Here is the Fargo Argus from Nov. 2, 1889.)

Ordway was a person of dubious distinction in North Dakota and South Dakota history. Although there is a rural township in Brown County, S.D., named after him, he was reviled in that state because he was corrupt and moved the territorial capital from Yankton to Bismarck in 1883. He served as territorial governor from 1880-1884, a term marked by what Prairie Public Radio called “corruption and controversy.”

“Friends and family benefited from Ordway in the governor’s seat,” Prairie Public said in a Dakota Datebook story last year. “He appointed his son to territorial auditor; county seats went to places where Ordway had friends or dealings; and he reportedly bribed legislators or threatened to veto their bills.”

Ordway was indicted on corruption charges in June 1884. Although the indictment was thrown out over a jurisdictional issue, President Chester Arthur removed Ordway when his term ended.

News of the president’s proclamation reached Bismarck at 5:45 p.m. on Nov. 2, according to the Argus.

“Immediately whistles commenced blowing and preparations for fireworks started,” the paper said. “The state officers will be sworn in Monday and all of them are expected to be on hand. Governor Miller will issue his proclamation Monday calling the Legislature together the nineteenth or twentieth.”

Gov. John Miller was the straight-laced bonanza farmer from Richland County who had no political aspirations or interests until he was persuaded to run for the office in 1889. He was the state’s first governor, serving one term until 1891 when he returned to farming and his growing grain-shipping company after leaving office.

One South Dakota newspaper gamely tried to make the case that South Dakota should be considered the 39th state. According to the South Dakota Historical Society, the Faulk County Times on Nov. 7, 1889, wrote in an editorial:

“South Dakota is and should be the 39th state. Though North Dakota was also proclaimed to be a state on Saturday, her state government was not inaugurated till Monday Nov. 4th. And her people justly claim her to be the 40th state. South Dakota made the fight that prepared the way for North Dakota, Montana and Washington to become states and she well merits the leadership indicated by being the first of the four entitled to the Star of Statehood — the 39th Star, which will, in time, become one of the first magnitude.”

(Here is the Fargo Argus from Nov. 5, 1889.)

The Argus, among other newspapers, ran multi-column headlines in the days following statehood.

“Uncle Sam’s New Twins.”

“By Official Proclamation, North Dakota and South Dakota are At Last Provided with Snug Quarters in the Household of the United States.”

“Thus They Attain What for Many Years They Have Talked For, Worked For, Fought For, And All But Bled and Died For, And Their Joy is Unbounded.”

“In All National Affairs the New States Will Be Found Taking Important and Prominent Parts, With Their Country’s Welfare and Their Own Constantly in Mind.”

The question remains: Who is the older of Uncle Sam’s twins? North Dakota staked claim 130 years ago, sure nuff.

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