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Civil War Era in North Dakota


When Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, people in southern states feared that Lincoln would free the slaves. Many Southerners believed that ending slavery would destroy the economy of the South. Though Lincoln had no intention of freeing the slaves, South Carolina seceded (removed itself) from the United States on December 20, 1860 about six weeks after the election. Ten other southern states soon followed South Carolina. These states established a nation, independent of the United States, called the Confederate States of America, or the Confederacy.

The break-up of the Union was not acceptable to the president, to Congress, or to the residents of northern and middle states (also called border states). War broke out between the Union and the Confederacy in April, 1861. Though most of the battles took place in the states east of or bordering the Mississippi River, the West also experienced conflicts.

Dakota TerritoryIn 1861, the United States had few residents west of the Mississippi. Less than 500,000 Anglo-Americans (also called “whites,” “Anglos,” or simply “Americans”) lived in the West. There were also American Indians of many different tribes, Mexican Americans (who had become Americans by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848), and a few Chinese immigrants (who were prevented by law from becoming citizens). There were few cities in the West, especially in the central part of the continent–the region called the Great Plains. In 1860, there were no railroads and few wagon roads. Travel from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California might take six months by wagon. Telegraph lines did not cross the country until late October, 1861. From April 3, 1860 until the end of October, 1861, the Pony Express carried mail (at the cost of $5 per letter) over the 1,966 miles from St. Joseph to San Francisco in about 10 days. The Pony Express ended when telegraph wires finally crossed the continent. Telegraph communication connected residents of every state and territory.

During the Civil War, the growth and settlement of western territories continued. President James Buchanan (a Democrat) created Dakota Territory on March 2, 1861, just two days before his term of office ended. Dakota was a huge territory of more than 147,000 square miles (later divided into North Dakota and South Dakota).

Most of the white population was concentrated near Yankton in the southeast corner of the territory (today part of South Dakota). A few hundred people lived near Pembina in the northeast corner (today part of North Dakota). Most of the territory was occupied by Chippewas (also called Ojibwe), Mandans, Hidatsas, Arikaras, and several different bands of Dakotas. By the early 1860s the tribes were beginning to feel the pressure of white settlement in the lands where they lived and farmed or hunted.

In addition to the formation of Dakota Territory, the Civil War Congress (in which there were no representatives or senators from the Confederate states) passed three important pieces of legislation that contributed to the development of the territory. The first of these was the Homestead Act, a law which allowed Americans to claim 160 acres of land. The second law, equal in importance to the Homestead law, was the Pacific Railroad Act. This law provided loans and gifts of land to railroad companies to build tracks across the continent. The third law was designed to support homesteading families with educational resources. It was called the Morrill Land Grant Act. It made gifts of land to a territory or state for the building and support of a college which would teach courses in agriculture, domestic science, and mechanics.

The first four years of Dakota Territory’s existence coincided with the Civil War.  These years were a time of conflict as well as a time of growth.  The Dakotas fought battles across the northern portion of the territory to preserve their traditional culture and independence.  At the same time, the white population began to grow slowly along with farms, towns, transportation, and government.  This was a time of important events for the nation and for the future state of North Dakota.