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First Lady of Territory Deserves Better
Jul 3, 2014
Amanda Kate Pennington left the two small graves of her children Willie and Kate in Alabama when she came to Yankton, Dakota Territory in 1874 with her husband, John, who was named Territorial Governor by President Ulysses S. Grant. They had three other children, however, and so she adjusted to life as an active and enthusiastic Dakotan.
But the Penningtons suffered anew when Amanda grew ill and died in 1884 at her home, an Italianate-style brick home at Third and Pearl in downtown Yankton. Since 1987, the Pennington House has been the headquarters for South Dakota Magazine.
John Pennington was a Southern newspaperman during the Civil War. He gained General Ulysses S. Grant's trust and attention by editorializing that the South was paying too great a price and should consider surrender. When Grant became president, he awarded Pennington the governorship of Dakota Territory.
Pennington survived as governor for four years (1874-1878), double the tenure of most territorial leaders. He was sympathetic to the concerns of farmers and Native Americans and considered a capable fellow, but he became identified with the infamous “Yankton Ring” that mastered the spoils system. For example, when Pennington County was created in 1875, the governor named Yanktonians to serve as county officers. His friends collected salaries without moving west to perform their duties.
After leaving office, Pennington remained in Yankton. He published a weekly newspaper and built a substantial commercial building downtown. He became a full-fledged South Dakotan after serving as territorial governor.
Sioux Falls historian Gary Conradi recently completed a search for all of our governors’ graves. He assumed that Mrs. Pennington was buried in Alabama, but when he found six Pennington grave lots in the Yankton Cemetery, he searched the Yankton Press and Dakotan archives for her obituary. It noted that she was indeed buried in the Yankton Cemetery, though the family intended to move the grave home to Alabama so she could rest alongside her deceased children. But it was not easy to move a loved one's remains in the 1880s, and it never happened. Eventually her husband and three surviving children, Lulu, Mary and John Jr., left without her. Of the six Pennington plots in the Yankton Cemetery, only one was ever used. Amanda rests there alone today, without a stone or any recognition.
In this 125th birthday year for South Dakota, a group of Yanktonians and state historians intend to right an old wrong by placing a headstone on Amanda's grave befitting a first lady of the territory. It will include the names of her five beloved children. A memorial service will be held at the grave on Sept. 10 with Episcopalian Bishop John Tarrant presiding.