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Discovered: A Missing Governor
Jun 26, 2012
Governors come and go. We don't pay a lot of attention to them when they're gone, and that's especially true of John Pennington, the fifth governor of Dakota Territory.
But he deserves better treatment.
Pennington wasn't perfect, but he should be judged and remembered in the perspective of his era.
He was an Alabama newspaperman during the Civil War. When he realized that it wasn't going to end well for his beloved South, he began to suggest editorially that perhaps peace wouldn't be a bad thing. That infuriated many of his readers. I've heard second-hand that even some of his own descendants are still embarrassed by his writings.
But Ulysses S. Grant liked the editorials, and he rewarded Pennington in 1874 by appointing him Governor of Dakota Territory. The 45-year-old journalist arrived in the young riverside capital city of Yankton, anxious to help create a new civilization on the prairie. Those were exciting times. Railroads were developing at break-neck speeds. Gold was waiting to be mined in the Black Hills. Homesteaders were flocking to the countryside and new towns were springing up everywhere.
Unfortunately, a "Yankton Gang" was already entrenched in the city and Pennington became part of their shenanigans. For example, Pennington County was created — named after the new governor — and Yankton officials were appointed to the county offices under the theory that the Black Hills crowd was still too raw to run a fair election. Some of the county officials didn't even travel West ot serve; they just named deputies to do the work.
But Pennington loved Dakota. In fact, he argued against dividing it into two states. He tried to create some fairness for the Native Americans, argued on behalf of farmers in fights against the railroads and initiated an aggressive anti-grasshopper program (if you think that sounds silly, think how popular it is to fight pine beetles today.)
And he loved Yankton. He built a modest mansion at 3rd & Pearl (now the home of South Dakota Magazine for the past 27 years) and several other houses and structures. He was reappointed governor in 1876 — a rare occurrence because most governors quickly grew unpopular — and after leaving the post in 1878 he continued to live in the city, even resuming his journalism career in 1885 with a weekly newspaper. His wife died in Yankton, and Pennington eventually returned to Alabama as an old man.
That was the end of the story as we knew it until this month when Gary Conradi, a retired Sioux Falls businessman and avid historian, stopped by our offices. Conradi is collecting information and photographs on all of Dakota's governors. All of the territorial governors (and many of the state's early governors) are buried out-of-state.
Conradi searched long and hard for Pennington's grave, and finally discovered it in Oxford, Alabama, a town very near to Anniston. He couldn't find anyone who would admit to being Pennington's relative but he did bring back pictures of the modest gravesite. There is no mention or marking of his service to Dakota Territory or South Dakota.
Pennington County old-timers are probably pleased about that.