I just finished reading the new book on South Dakota’s early modern history by Jon Lauck called Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889. I found the book both engaging and useful to better understand how South Dakota came to be, if tending a bit more toward the academic than would be my preference.
As Jon notes throughout the book, the period about which he has chosen to write is a period not well covered by historians. In some regards this is unsurprising: most history books are written about times and topics which broader audiences consider exciting. The events of Dakota Territory covered by the book are not the stuff of valorous physical defenses against mighty antagonists. Rather, the story of this book is the context of the relatively peaceful transition from a group of people being governed as a territory to the same people having a much greater say in governing themselves as states. There were battles which led up to this time in history, but they were largely fought elsewhere: at Bunker Hill and Antietam, for example, rather than Belle Fourche or Arlington. As the author notes, however, without these precedents the events surrounding the transition from territory to statehood might have been far more exciting.
Mr. Lauck brings the focus to the republican (small “r”) underpinnings of South Dakota time and again throughout the book. There is little question that the evidence shows both substantial republican as well as populist sentiments–which may be seen in the state’s politics and policy down to the present day.
Of particular interest to me, seeing that I find myself a transplanted Southerner, is the fact that South Dakota was settled/governed by Yankees–many of them veterans of what is commonly called the Civil War. Nonetheless, these Yankees brought with them the political context of the Party of Lincoln. They also brought a remarkable respect for the US Constitution and the constitutions of the states which had joined the United States before them. In fact, the South Dakota constitutions were unabashedly borrowed in large chunks from the constitutions of several existing states. This is not to say that the resulting South Dakota constitution of 1889 was not original, but rather that it was closely based on what was deemed to be good law and policy. One might say that those at the convention were interested in reducing, reusing and recycling.
Religion gets in-depth treatment in the book as the author describes both the variety of sects which were represented in Dakota Territory as well as the friction which existed between some of the sects–particularly between Catholics and Protestants. This friction may seem unnecessary by today’s cultural standards, yet theological and sectarian differences were beneficial in helping to foster any number of church and community organizations which were bent on doing everything from outlawing whiskey to providing medical care for children.
The underlying differences between South Dakota and North Dakota are also thrown into sharp relief on the topic of the railroads. I knew that there was a reason we have South and North Dakota rather than East and West Dakota, but I did not know (or had forgotten) that the decision was made to divide the portion of the territory which included a land-grant railway from the portion which did not. Back in the 1880s, Dakotans were concerned about the influence of a single company which had been given so much land, much as they were concerned about the influence of the territorial governors who were appointed rather than elected. It was this distrust of the powerful, given their propensity for abusing their power, which not only drove the division of the territory, but also provided the impetus for the several constitutional conventions themselves.
(I see that this grows long and I hear the silverware as it is distributed across the supper table, so I’ll wrap this up.) As is the case with good history books, this volume has plenty of end-notes and more than enough teasers to keep any number of graduate students busy for years to come. By that I mean this: not only does Jon come right out and say that there is plenty more material for historians where he dug out his, but he delves just deeply enough into several topics to pique my interest before moving on. One simple example of this is his reference to more than five hundred newspapers being published in the territory in 1889. That’s quite a bit of local and regional news. How many of those newspapers might have documents which have survived to this day? I’m sure that one could dig up more than enough data from those papers to write several more books on the day-to-day activities of period Dakotans. Sounds like a good task for someone else, no?
If you like to understand history and politics and where we came from and why we are where we are today and what our grandparents and their grandparents believed to be important, then pick up a copy of this book and get started on your own research project.