A legal legacy for statehood: the development of the territorial judicial system in Dakota Territory, 1861-1889



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Texas Tech University


It is the purpose of this dissertation to provide an in depth analysis of Dakota Territory's judiciary, court structure, and ease law from its formation in 1861 until statehood was achieved in 1889. It is an attempt to reveal the true nature of the federally-appointed judges, judicial system, and judge-made law of the Territory. The method used is a thorough research and analysis of available historical materials. The basic historical data used are: (1) federal and territorial court records, (2) federal and territorial statutes, (3) federal and territorial court opinions, (4) newspapers, (5) letters, (6) published books and articles, and (7) unpublished materials. Historical narration, supplemented with charts and maps, is used to present the results of the research and analysis.

The important finding seems to be that the legal experience in Dakota Territory appears to fall generally within the neo-Turnerian view. Neo Turnerianism is found in Dakota specifically in four basic themes elitism, judicial intervention, legal reform movement, and federalism. Regional elites interjected themselves into the economy, politics, and society of the Territory. They were able to manipulate its legal and judicial systems by influencing the judicial appointment process and by taking advantage of the codified jurisprudence informally offered by the national legal reform movement. Complex laws and codes were brought into Dakota which replaced existing systems of informal pre-Territory law. The initial territorial organic act provided by Congress was later augmented by congressional statutes, eastern codes, Dakota Assembly law, and federal-territorial court decisions. Dakota's judge-made law was usually based upon United States Supreme Court, eastern, and Midwestern precedents which were revised to make them harmonize with the Territory environment, economy, politics, and society. Territory case law was generally construed to encourage railroad, land, and mining developments which favored corporations and the creditor class. The intrusion by regional elites operated within federalism's framework of congressionally mandated guidelines, while being monitored by the United States Supreme Court through its appeals process. The neo-Turnerian position generally falls within the pattern of intervention through these means.