Dakota Datebook: First Legislative Assembly for newly formed Dakota Territory gets heated, thanks to George M. Pinney

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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It was a warm, sunny morning on this date in 1862; not a cloud in sight. But inside the legislative buildings, a storm was brewing.

The recently elected First Legislative Assembly for the Territory of Dakota convened at Yankton, the temporary territorial capital. Among the thirteen members of the House of Representatives sat George M. Pinney. A lightning rod for trouble, a contemporary once described Pinney as the "sort of man...others would watch with apprehension of mischief."

Born in Pennsylvania in 1832, George Pinney struck out for the gold fields of California at the age of 17. When mining failed to pan out, he studied law, practicing first in Wisconsin and Nebraska before settling in Bon Homme, Dakota Territory. He wasted little time making a name for himself, serving as census agent, election board official and chairman of the first territorial convention in Dakota. Well-recognized on the first day of the legislative assembly in 1862, Pinney was unanimously elected speaker of the territorial House. But the position came at a price.

The most contentious issue the new territorial government had to deal with was the permanent location of the seat of government. Yankton, Vermillion and Sioux Falls all vied for the prize, but Yankton would stop at nothing to secure victory. Anxious to hold onto this prominent territorial position, Yankton supporters had cut a deal with George Pinney; his support for Yankton as the territorial capital in exchange for the speakership position.

So, when a bill naming Yankton as the permanent capital came before the House a few weeks later, Yankton supporters were more than a little surprised when Pinney proposed an amendment naming his home town, Bon Homme, as the capital. Pinney's amended bill lost in a vote, but undeterred he proposed another amendment, this time naming Vermillion as the new capital. This amended bill passed in the House, but failed to garner support in the Council.


As the debates continued, tension in the legislative hall reached a fevered pitch. Spectators who packed the lobby were treated to arguably the most entertaining show in town. Claiming fear of riots, Pinney demanded US troops from the Dakota Cavalry guard the hall. Armed, they marched to the speaker's stand and remained behind Pinney throughout the session. But Pinney's thinly-veiled strong arm tactics failed to help his cause and failed to protect him outside of the legislative hall. One evening a few Yankton supporters physically threw Pinney out the window of a popular saloon and then chased him down the street. It only ended when Pinney drew a pistol on his pursuers.

By April 8, the contest was over. Yankton had secured the territorial capital, at least for the time being. Recognizing defeat, Pinney resigned his position as Speaker of the House, but trouble continued to follow him. That, however, is a story for another day.

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