Tag Archives: Dakota Territory

Canton Celebrates Its Long History

Canton Main Street, about 1907

Canton Main Street, about 1907

The city of Canton, South Dakota–which existed before South Dakota became a state in 1889–celebrates its 150th year (1866 – 2016) this July.

Canton was founded in a spot called Trapper Shanty. The shanty had been built by trappers Dutch Charley, Bill Tunis, Old Ross, and his two sons, between Beaver Creek and the Sioux River. This small dwelling was an ideal place to capture game, and for several years, this shanty was the only structure in Lincoln County.

Nobody liked the name Trapper Shanty and the townspeople eventually decided to name the settlement Canton for a couple of reasons. Some people thought the spot was directly opposite Canton, China. Others thought it meant gateway in Chinese.

Canton Asylum, Main Building P6

Canton Asylum, Main Building P6

Even so early in its history, Canton’s citizens wanted and expected their city to be important and prosperous. It quickly became a little boom town as pioneers moved through it, or settled and stayed, on their journey west. Canton residents were always ready to embrace bigger and better things, such as an insane asylum built exclusively for Indians. They were sure that this institution—the only one of its kind in the world—would make the city famous. Though worldwide fame eluded the city, its leaders fought to keep the asylum open despite its many critics.

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Pioneer Medicine

Doane Robinson, courtesy Rapid City Journal

Doane Robinson, courtesy Rapid City Journal

American medical doctors in the nineteenth century were not the respected professionals they are today, mainly because their training was so poor. The public had little confidence in their abilities; many people with experience and a few good reference books felt quite as capable as a doctor to assist their families during illness. These people weren’t far off, as many times doctors trained solely by following another physician around and reading a few books.

In his 1904 History of South Dakota, historian Doane Robinson described the difficulties doctors faced in earning a living in this western region: “Up to this time (1865) not a single Dakota doctor had been able to sustain himself solely by his profession,” Robinson wrote. He went on to describe the first law of Dakota which affected physicians. “[It] exempted him from jury duty, but it (at) the same time made him guilty of a misdemeanor if he poisoned a patient while intoxicated, if the life of the patient was endangered thereby, but if the poison killed the patient then the physician was to be deemed guilty of manslaughter in the second degree.”

Deadwood During the Dakota Territory Gold Rush

Deadwood During the Dakota Territory Gold Rush

The 1868-69 legislative session passed another law concerning physicians, which regulated their practice. It was unlawful to practice medicine or surgery for pay, unless the person had first taken “at least two full courses of lectures and instruction and graduated from a medical college.”

Railroad Being Built in Dakota Territory, circa 1871

Railroad Being Built in Dakota Territory, circa 1871

This depth of instruction was not beyond a studious layperson’s abilities, so it is not surprising that many families felt they could help themselves rather than pay for a doctor.

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Canton’s Early Roots

A Trapper’s Shack

Though the city of Canton was small compared to East Coast standards, it was an up and coming community for the far West. Almost as soon as Congress created Dakota Territory,  its new territorial legislature began establishing counties. The legislature established Lincoln County (where Canton is located) during its first session in 1862. Continue reading

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An Asylum in South Dakota

Scene From Yankton, SD, circa 1903

Scene From Yankton, SD, circa 1903

The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was not the state’s first asylum; the Yankton Insane Asylum was established in 1879 during South Dakota’s territorial days. Interestingly, Canton had been considered as a site for that asylum, as well. The Territory had been served by the St. Peter State Hospital in Minnesota before that time, and by 1878, the facility housed 22 patients from Dakota.

Yankton Insane Asylum

Yankton Insane Asylum

The hospital became overcrowded, and Governor William A. Howard was advised that Dakota patients would have to be removed by October of that year. By scrambling for other resources and extending Minnesota’s contract for a few more months, the governor managed to keep the status quo until early 1879.

Frugality and speed were drivers in the effort to relocate Dakota Territory’s mentally ill. Governor Howard wanted to house patients in preexisting buildings within the Territory, but had no luck finding suitable accommodations in Canton, Vermillion, or Elk Point.

Mead Building Lobby, courtesy Christopher Payne via NPR

Mead Building Lobby, courtesy Christopher Payne via NPR

Yankton had two large wooden buildings which the governor secured and had rebuilt north of the city for under $2,500. He used his personal funds for the enterprise, for which he was reimbursed in 1880. The territorial legislature was similarly frugal and only appropriated enough money for the patients’ basic needs; real treatment of any kind was not available. In 1899, a fire killed seventeen female patients, and funds were finally appropriated for a more suitable building. By 1909, the institution’s Mead Building followed the norm in insane asylum architecture, and stood out as a beautiful structure.

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Dakota Territory

Gold Rush Town of Deadwood, Dakota Territory, 1876

Though it wasn’t officially created until much later, Dakota Territory was carved from land inhabited by the Dakota Sioux and gained through the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Shortly after the purchase, the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 established the area’s first permanent American settlement at Fort Pierre. Congress created Dakota Territory in March, 1861. Though Congress quickly reduced its size to that of North and South Dakota, the territory was originally a huge tract of land that eventually became North Dakota, South Dakota, and most of Wyoming and Montana. President Lincoln established a territorial government and appointed his personal physician, William Jayne of Springfield, Illinois as governor in 1861; at that time, the white population stood at only a little over 2,000. Dakota Territory boomed in the 1870s with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the expansion of railroads, and by the late 1880s, the territory had almost half a million non-Native American residents. The territory’s population could now justify statehood.

On November 2, 1889, both North and South Dakota were admitted to the United States. There was controversy about which state should be admitted first, and President Benjamin Harrison did not want to show favoritism. He shuffled the Act of Admissions papers for North Dakota and South Dakota, and signed one at random without recording which one it was. Consequently, the two states’ order of admission is listed alphabetically, with North Dakota noted as the 39th state and South Dakota the 40th state.

Line of Oxen and Wagons in Sturgis, Dakota Territory, 1887

Post Office in Pembina, Dakota Territory, 1863

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South Dakota Is Still Brand New

Little Thunder, Yankton Dakota (1887) courtesy of http://www.firstpeople.us/

Little Thunder, Yankton Dakota (1887) courtesy of http://www.firstpeople.us/

South Dakota was still a relatively new state when Canton’s ex-mayor, Oscar S. Gifford, made good on his hope to have an Indian insane asylum built there. Dakota Territory had been created in 1861, and took its name from the Dakota Sioux word meaning “allies.” This huge tract of land included what became North and South Dakota, and most of Montana and Wyoming. Two years later, the territory was reduced to the area of North and South Dakota only.

By the late 1880s, the northern part of the territory had about 190,000 people in it, and the southern part about 340,000. These numbers justified statehood. North Dakota became the 39th state and South Dakota the 40th, on November 2, 1889.

Sod Home courtesy Library of Congress Fred Hulstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections

Sod Home courtesy Library of Congress Fred Hulstrand and F.A. Pazandak Photograph Collections

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How Unusual Was Canton Asylum?

Oscar S. Gifford

Though early asylum superintendents in the U.S. had to both establish their profession and learn how to run asylums, they generally had at least some experience working in large institutions. Superintendents were medical men who usually acted as the  asylum’s chief physician, and supervised assistant physicians and attendants. The Canton Asylum for Insane Indians was unusual in that its first superintendent had no medical background whatsoever, and had never managed anything more complex than his own small business.

Gifford was born in New York, and spent part of his childhood in Wisconsin, and later, Illinois. He served in an  Elgin, Illinois unit during the Civil War, then studied law. He became a merchant and surveyor, and eventually a lawyer and a territorial delegate (from Dakota Territory). After a distinguished career, during which he helped guide South Dakota to statehood, Gifford was elected South Dakota’s representative to Congress. After he had moved back to Canton, South Dakota (where he had once been mayor), Gifford became superintendent of Canton Asylum.

Elgin, Illinois Street Scenes, courtesy Elgin Area Historical Society

Dakota Territory, courtesy South Dakota State Historical Society

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Who Wants to Help?

Sioux Delegation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Sioux Delegation, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Herbert Welsh (1851 – 1941) is associated most closely with the Indian Rights Association (IRA). The first meeting of the organization was held in his home on December 15, 1882; he served as Executive Secretary for many years. 

Welsh was a prosperous Philadelphian who traveled to Dakota Territory to visit the Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge. He came home with a new understanding of the harsh life so many Native Americans faced as wards of the government. He and the other founding members of the IRA were committed to righting the wrongs done to Native Americans and publicizing their situation.

His intentions were good, but misguided. Welsh wrote in 1882, “When this work shall be completed the Indian will cease to exist as a man, apart from other men, a stumbling block in the pathway of civilization . . . the greater blessings which he or his friends could desire will be his, – an honorable absorption into the common life of the people of the United States.”

Council of Indians at Pine Ridge, January 17, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

Council of Indians at Pine Ridge, January 17, 1891, courtesy Library of Congress

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