Beginning to work at the Archives and Special Collections department at USD’s I.D. Weeks Library seemed to be a little mysterious at first. What would I find in that special back room? Will I be putting books back on shelves all day? Will I be able to listen to music?! These concerns were alive and very real for me as I walked into room 308 for the first time in December of 2015. Within the first day, my concerns were answered and I realized how lucky I was to be an employee of such a place. I found that the special room was perhaps the greatest collection of history I had ever seen. In one place, the documents of many prominent South Dakota politicians and 6 Latin manuscripts were brought together. Books on how to build violins by hand to the personal account of a Sioux woman in the 19th century and everything in between could be found. Even a vinyl record of 25 Native American songs and prayers was among the collections! Indeed, this job overwhelmingly offered not just the chance to make money, but learn something as well.
Work and learning collided right away. My first major project was to write and compile a list of summaries on major South Dakota political figures, from the territorial days to Governor Janklow (most recent collection housed by USD, soon to be that of Senator Tim Johnson). Each office had to be included: governor, US representative and US senator, demanding a summary for 40 political figures! I would most definitely learn something if i was even paying half-attention! Luckily, I was and then some; the rest of this blog entails an objective look at the political history of South Dakota while examining the contemporary politicians along side such policies.
My research at the Archives (in sources to be listed at the end) most definitely aided this text. In addition, my work will pay off. Heavily edited (I suspect) versions of my summaries will appear in an appendix of the new volume of The Plains Political Tradition: Essays on South Dakota Political Culture, coming out later in 2016 (hopefully). From someone who supports, handles, and studies archival material, I want to say thank you for the read and strongly encourage you to find your nearest archival center and spend a day there to see what you can find. Below is but a taste of what the I.D. Weeks Archives and Special Collections at The University of South Dakota can uncover.
The history of a state is no doubt coupled with the pathway of politics piloting the entity through history. Politics, in a large way, govern how a state develops economically, socially, and culturally. For example, the institutions that determine the identity of a state cannot be more easily identified than they can at the current time as a result of the 2016 Presidential Election looming in November. An informed being can connected a certain state’s morals and values to a certain candidate’s. In those terms, a state can be identified as Republican or Democrat (red/blue, elephant/donkey). With that being said, studying not only the current political status of a state, but their political history as well can lead to a more complete understanding of the true nature of the state. Once such state, South Dakota, has risen through a territorial, a populist/agrarian, and a modern era. To no surprise, the politics of the state have matched the line of its history.
To those not familiar with the history of South Dakota, they would learn that the modern area of the state was once part of a much bigger mass (including parts of North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana).
(Photo couresty of the State Historical Society of North Dakota)
This U.S. territory received its first governor in 1861. The man, Dr. William Jayne, was born in Springfield, Illinois on October 8, 1826. Before politics, Jayne was a medical doctor and served as Abraham Lincoln’s personal physician in Springfield, Illinois. He became a member of the Illinois State Senate in 1860, and resigned in 1861 to accept the appointment of governor of Dakota Territory from President Lincoln. In a sense, as the country fought to preserve the Union, the land of Dakota merely began thinking about admittance into that same Union; a strange predicament to be in.
Through out this time much of the politics of Dakota Territory included Native American relations and the opening up of land for agricultural use. Policies such as the Homestead Act of 1862 took Native-ceded land and offered it freely to Americans willing to transform the land for the country’s benefit over a period of 5 years. The Dawes Act of 1887 created Native reservations, altogether ushering in the domination of the Native culture and agricultural economy of the West. These acts led to a population burst in not only Dakota Territory, but Colorado, Kansas, and even California. In under 25 years, Dakota Territory was ready for statehood.
In the process for statehood, Dakota territory was carved into two new states, North and South Dakota. Each was home to a territorial capital at one time, Yankton (South Dakota) then Bismark (North Dakota). Throughout the first two decades of South Dakota, farmers began to feel the constraints placed by East Coast capital interests that were governing the price and labor of their product. As a result, a national third-party emerged, the Populist Party. Their platform was built of the economic mastery of the agricultural sector of America.
Populists aimed to reform the mono-crop export, a stipulation in place that required farmers only sell one crop to the open market at a low rate. In addition, the wanted to end the cycle of importing manufactured goods. Most farmers had to pay large sums to have tractors and other machinery sent to their farm from factories in the East. As well, farmers wanted their debt level lowered (they were feeding the country, was that not enough?) and their commercial transportation fees waived (why did they have to pay for their product to be moved? should not people who need the food take that on?). As one can see, the Populist Movement was based heavily on the fairness to farmers, the backbone and true economists of South Dakota.
Nationally, this coincided with a larger trend, progressivism. This political movement of the early 20th century rested on the belief in science, efficiency, and economic regulation. Wide-spread economic reform was called for in regulating the national railroads and the breaking up of emerging monopolies. The use of silver as well as gold became part of the platform. Most importantly, the direct election of senators, the process of initiative and recall, (in western states) and women’s suffrage were added as the first decade of the 1900s came to a close.
In South Dakota, the Populist movement was managed by many hard-working individuals, however, it was brought to the governor’s office by Peter Norbeck. Peter Norbeck was South Dakota’s first native-born governor (b. 1870 Vermillion) and attended the University of South Dakota, and then successfully ran a well-digging business, where he saw first hand the over-reaching hand big business was trying to play in American economics. He moved to Redfield in 1909, when he entered into the state senate, advocating the state to call for national reforms. He was elected governor from 1917-1921 and served as a US Senator from 1921-1936, where he carried the Populist banner for not only the state but every farmer in American who felt they were being oppressed by the industrializing economy.
Below are some pictures to help illustrate just what the Populist Party was all about! Thank you for reading and I hope you learned something! If you want to view primary sources (that being letters, documents, department files, etc. of individual South Dakota politicians from 1860-1980) come into the Archives at I.D. Weeks library and see what kind of speech and language brought the Populist Party into being!
(photo courtesy of Digital Library of Congress)
(a modern rendition, with Soviet inspired art…courtesy of the JG APUSH American History Timeline and User Blog)