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The Penningtons, First Family of Dakota in the 1870s.
The Penningtons, First Family of Dakota in the 1870s.

Our Forgotten First Lady

Sep 5, 2014

Here at South Dakota Magazine, we've always felt at affinity for Amanda Pennington. She helped her husband, John, built the big brick house that has been our publishing headquarters since 1987. She cooked here, raised children here. Gazed out the same windows that we do.

She was sad here, we know that. And she was sickly. But we hope she also had good times.

She and her husband John lost two of their five children in Alabama. They headed to Dakota Territory when he was named territorial governor in 1874. The Penningtons started a new life in Yankton, raising their three surviving children while John became immersed in controversial issues like gold in the Black Hills, development of the railroads and establishing counties and cities.

They built a big brick house and several smaller houses at 3rd and Pearl in downtown Yankton. When John left the governorship, he also constructed a commercial structure on Third Street and started a weekly newspaper.

But Amanda grew ill and died in the winter of 1884. She was just 47. “She conversed freely with her husband and children up to within a few hours of her death, expressing willingness to go and her unswerving confidence in blessed immortality,” according to the obituary in the Yankton Press & Dakotian. “The few intimate friends present were deeply moved by her perfect resignation and her expressions of hope for the life to come.”

A final wish was that she be buried beside the two little children who’d preceded her in death. The family had bought six plots in the Yankton Cemetery, and she was buried there. But no marker was put up, probably because her husband intended to respect his wife’s wishes and eventually return the body to Alabama.

John Pennington remained in Yankton for seven more years before returning to the South. He was buried in Oxford Memorial Gardens Cemetery at Oxford, Alabama upon his death in 1901.

Mrs. Pennington, first lady of the Dakota Territory, remains in the Yankton Cemetery in an unmarked grave. But that will change on Wednesday (Sept. 10) when local citizens plan to unveil a new gravestone designed and donated by Luken Memorials of Yankton.

Rt. Rev. John Tarrant, the Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota, will preside at a dedication service, assisted by Father Jim Pearson, pastor of the very same Episcopal Church in Yankton that was attended by the Penningtons and in which her funeral was held 130 years ago.

The public is invited to attend the brief service at the gravesite in Yankton Cemetery. It starts at 3 p.m. Immediately following the service, everyone is invited to the Pennington house for refreshments and a short discussion with local historians about the Pennington family.

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