February 14, 2020 — It was on this date in 1901 that Dakota Territory’s eighth governor died in Chicago. Gilbert Ashville Pierce was born in 1839 in Cattaraugus County, New York, where he attended public school. Later, he moved to Indiana to attend the University of Chicago Law School.
Pierce fought for the Union during the Civil War, rising to Lt. Col. and Chief Quartermaster. After the war, he practiced law in Valparaiso, served in the Indiana legislature and became an assistant financial clerk of the U.S. Senate. In 1871, he left politics to work for a newspaper, the Chicago Inter-Ocean, for the next twelve years.
Meanwhile, Nehemiah Ordway was governing Dakota Territory during an era of unprecedented growth. Ordway and his good friend, Alexander McKenzie, managed to get the capitol moved from Yankton to Bismarck during this time, but Ordway’s corrupt practices caught up with him, and he was indicted by a grand jury in 1884. President Chester Arthur removed Ordway from office and turned ‘Pierce the Editor’ into ‘Pierce the Governor.’
Pierce receives little mention in the history books when compared to other politicians of his time; in fact his story is a bit of a mystery. (Hopefully, someone out there knows the answer.) Pierce didn’t make the news all that much during his first year in office. In September 1885, he attended a grand banquet during a reunion of the Army of the Tennessee; a Bismarck Daily Tribune article said Pierce responded to a toast to the Nation by saying “The toast was too large for him. Away back in the forties a man might hope to deal with the subject, he said, but the time for small things has passed... Let the nation that aspires to greatness be sensible of wrong. It might be taken as a rule that the man who wanted to govern most was likely to govern worst.”
A month later, the Bismarck Tribune stated, “The (Minneapolis) Tribune’s dispatches today show that vigorous and not scrupulous efforts are being made to induce the president to remove Governor Pierce of Dakota. We have on more than one occasion already registered our sincere belief that the removal of her present Governor would be a serious loss to the territory...”
A nearly simultaneous story from Washington read, “There has been considerable talk within the last few days that serious charges of offensive partisanship and malfeasance in office had been filed in the Interior department against Governor Pierce of Dakota...”
On November 17, 1886 – more than a year later – the Bismarck Tribune ran this story: “Governor Pierce, of Dakota, is (in Washington) in the interests of the territory, and is directing his attention more especially to securing $3,000 due Dakota, from the federal government, toward paying the expenses of the census... He is sanguine as ever over the future of Dakota, and lives in strong hope of seeing the territory admitted to the sisterhood of states within a very short time...”
Immediately below that article was a short story titled The Governor Resigns: “Governor Pierce, of Dakota, had a long interview with the president today, and will leave for Bismarck tomorrow... It is understood that Col. Pierce has made arrangements to re-enter the profession of journalism.”
And that’s about it. We know women lobbied for Pierce’s dismissal after he vetoed the women’s suffrage bill. We also know he vetoed a bill to move the capitol away from Bismarck. And when North Dakota did attain statehood three years later, Pierce was elected to the U.S. Senate. But why he resigned as governor...? That may take some serious digging.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.