Sesquicentennial Highlights

Sesquicentennial Highlights
First Homestead in Clay County

The first land office in Dakota Territory was opened in Vermillion, July 16, 1862, and remained in operation for 20 years. The free homestead law was to go into effect Jan. 1, 1863. A large number of people had gathered at Vermillion the day before to be among the first to secure entries.

On the last night of the old year, 1862, Mahlon Gore, then editor of the Dakota Republican worked in his printing office until after 11 p.m. On his way home, seeing a light in the land office, he stopped in, chatted with Major Wilkinson, the receiver, until the clock struck 12, filed application No. 1, and had the receipt in his pocket five minutes later. This, the first application filed in Clay County and in Dakota Territory, is also beyond doubt the first homestead application filed in the entire United States.


Early in the �60s, the citizens of Clay and surrounding counties became anxious for organized territorial government. After many petitions and appeals, the bill for organization was finally passed on March 1, 1861, and signed by President Buchanan on March 2. The news reached Vermillion on March 13. President Lincoln appointed his family physician, Dr. William Jane, of Springfield, IL, as governor of the new territory.

Yankton, Bon Homme, and Vermillion at once aspired to become the capital city of the new territory. Naming of the temporary capital rested in the new governor, and there was much rivalry among the little towns for this favor. One day came the report to Vermillion that Governor Jayne was driving up from Sioux City. The enterprising citizens hastened to prepare a great banquet in his honor. A committee of citizens went out to meet the carriage, welcome the new governor, and escort him to the banquet.

He, with his traveling companion, arrived in due time and all partook of a fine dinner. Several hours were spent in speech making. The guest of honor thanked the people for their courtesy, praised the country and declared he had come to settle in Dakota. This brought hearty cheers and applause, but at that moment three or four carriages drove through the village, stopping but for a moment, and driving on toward Yankton.

Someone brought the news to the banquet hall that Governor Jayne and his party had just passed through Vermillion on the way to Yankton. The chairman of the evening turned to the guest of honor and asked his name. He replied his name was G. B. Bigelow. He was much surprised to learn he had been mistaken for Governor Jayne. He supposed he was being given the customary hearty welcome with which all western towns greeted newcomers. Disappointment in missing a visit from the new governor was lessened by the humor of the laughable mistake that has become a merry note in early local history. Mr. Bigelow was thereafter known as �Governor� Bigelow. He lived in Vermillion for many years, a respected citizen, and died there at a ripe old age. Historians disagree as to whether Governor Jayne passed through Vermillion while the banquet was in actual progress or a few days later.

Copied from the Yankton Press & Dakotan, June 6, 1936 issue. Courtesy of the Clay County Historical Society.

2009 will mark the 150th birthday of Vermillion. Each week until the sesquicentennial celebration, this column will present notable historic information pertaining to the city and surrounding areas.

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