Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879-1889, by Jon Lauck (review by Joseph Stuart)
By Joseph Stuart, April 2, 2012 in Outside the Classroom

Prairie Republic: The Political Culture of Dakota Territory, 1879–1889,
by Jon K. Lauck
(Oklahoma, 256 pp., $32.95)

The four Northwestern “Omnibus States” admitted to the Union in 1889 were Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. As a new university instructor soon moving from Michigan to North Dakota, I was delighted to read Jon Lauck’s new book on Dakota Territory as an introduction to my new home. My own route of emigration parallels the great shift of half a million people from the Midwest to Dakota Territory during the 1880s that Jon Lauck describes so well in this fascinating book. His thesis is that the political culture of Dakota Territory was shaped primarily by republicanism and Christianity. He argues that these factors were more critical than class, race, gender, or environmental issues in buttressing the efforts of settlers to build a stable polity and seek the granting of statehood in 1889 (19, 22).

Lauck wrote this book in order to offer an alternative historical account to that of Howard Lamar’s Dakota Territory (1956). That book had stressed capitalist exploitation and class conflict, taking a dim view of its subject. Lauck gratefully acknowledges the work of Lamar and the New Western History of the 1980s, which viewed westward expansion as a story of greed and exploitation. However, Lauck’s book, drawing on the archives of the Center for Western Studies in Sioux Falls and of the South Dakota State Historical Society, takes a positive view of its subject. It focuses on the key motivating factors within the immigrants: their desires to build a republican social order and live Christian lives. Lauck describes “republicanism” as a political way of life based on the ideals of patriotism, agrarian sympathies, civic virtue, and civic participation in the rule of law (24). 

While Lauck focuses on intellectual and religious factors in his book, other elements of Dakota culture come to light as well. The historian of culture Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) described a “culture” as a community of belief and thought, a community of work, a community of social patterns, and a community of place—an adjustment of a people to its particular region. If a region is generally thought of as a geographical area distinguished by historical and cultural cohesiveness, Lauck argues that Dakota Territory, especially the southern half of Dakota Territory east of the Missouri River, possessed just such cohesiveness. The great river functioned as an economic and social/racial boundary. The railroads lay on the east side (not crossing the river until the early twentieth century), and the Great Sioux Reservation lay on the west. Also, enough rain fell to the east of the Missouri to sustain agriculture, an important economic foundation of republicanism. Farmers from the Midwest poured in by the thousands during the 1880s. Referring to David Allen Johnson’s Founding the Far West: California, Oregon, and Nevada, 1840-1890, Lauck compares the farmer-republican culture of Dakota Territory with that created by the emigration of farmers to Oregon during the 1840s. They, too, created a republican political culture. This contrasted with the more individualistic and cosmopolitan cast of gold-rush California, for example.

Lauck’s book focuses on the eastern region of South Dakota. It would have been helpful if he had explained more fully how far the conclusions of his book can be applied to the rest of Dakota Territory, since the title of the book suggests comprehensive coverage.

Nevertheless, Lauck includes a striking chapter on the constitutional conventions held in Dakota Territory during the 1880s. These conventions were steeped in the precedents and symbols of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, and the American Civil War (most Dakotans had fought for the Union) (88). Lauck’s final chapter enters into direct conversation with Lamar’s Dakota Territory and its interest in class conflict. Ultimately, reflecting on the constitutional conventions of the 1880s, Lauck concludes that, “The ubiquitous reliance on republican ideas, language, references and symbols in Dakota Territory during the 1880s indicates a broad-based consensus instead of a polity divided into economic classes” (134).


This review was first published in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 101 (Summer/Fall 2010)

Image credit: Prairie Pothole by designatednaphour, on Flickr

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1 Comment
Lee Trepanier on Apr 3, 2012 at 3:52 am

This is a great post that is informative of the region. Now that you live in Dakotas, do you find that the spirit of republicanism and Christianity still exist or has disappeared?

about the author

Joseph Stuart
Joseph Stuart

Joseph Stuart is Assistant Professor of History and Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.