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Every ten years, the Census is taken, populations tabulated, and congressional districts redrawn. As I'm sure you know, in many states, the politicians in power draw these districts, and oftentimes, they draw them in skewed ways beneficial to their party. This is, of course, known as gerrymandering.

But states' borders aren't drawn by political parties every ten years. They remain the same. So they're immune from gerrymandering!

But no. Of course, states just don't get gerrymandered regularly.

Dakota is two because of politics.


Ever wondered why North Dakota and South Dakota (which, if combined, would only rank #39 by population) are two separate states? They even have the same name, after all! North and South Carolina and have been separate since 1729 (and would rank #5 together); meanwhile, West Virginia split off from Virginia during the Civil War to join the Union (and would rank #11 together).

As usual, there are various reasons you can consider. But the real reason for the North-South split: more Senate seats for the party in power. Dakota is two because of politics.

Join me for the story of Dakota!

Quick Aside: "Dakota" vs. "The Dakotas"

Okay, first of all, no one refers to North and South Dakota collectively as just Dakota, but rather the Dakotas. I think this is a bit weird — isn't the idea behind the names North and South Dakota that there is a region called Dakota, which can be divided into North and South Dakota? However, "the Dakotas" seems to be the standard, as is "the Carolinas." Still, I want to use "Dakota" in this blog post, since it's more concise, sounds more cohesive, and I get to make the rules here on Chromatic Conflux.

Of course, it's not as if the territory that comprises it is really special in any way either. Dakota didn't come ready-made with a line spray-painted around its borders. It evolved out of a history of purchases and treaties, declarations and politics.

Dakota didn't come ready-made with a line spray-painted around its borders. It evolved out of a history of purchases and treaties, declarations and politics.

The Louisiana Purchase

The majority of the land came into America's possession during the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, which was technically from France. Of course, most of the territory wasn't actually controlled by France. It was controlled by the various Native American tribes. As this Slate article states:

"The trouble with the textbook version of the Louisiana Purchase lies with its easy reduction to a real estate transaction. Europeans had only colonized a tiny fraction of the territory by 1803. Over those areas where they had established control, France sold the United States the right to tax and govern. Over the rest, it sold the right to expand political authority into Indian country without the interference of other would-be colonizers (overlapping British and Spanish claims were settled in 1818 and 1819). In these sections of the purchase, the U.S. acquired the exclusive right to invade or negotiate with indigenous inhabitants for control of their land: to take it by force or buy it by contract."

So America didn't buy most of the land. They got the exclusive rights to force indigenous people to give it up.

(Dakota, by the way, is named after a subculture of the Sioux Native Americans, who originally lived in that region.)

But anyway, here's a map of the land bought in the Louisiana Purchase, with modern-day states superimposed:

Source: Wikipedia/Natural Earth/Portland State University.

As you can see, it covers about half of North Dakota and nearly all of South Dakota, as well as many other states.

The remaining land was obtained in 1818, in a treaty with Britain:

Source: Wikipedia/National Atlas of the United States.

In this treaty, the border between the US and then-British Canada was defined to be the 49th parallel. The US received the remainder of Minnesota and Dakota, and Britain received portions of what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Yet the borders between the future American states would still need to be ironed out.


Minnesota used to be different than it is now. In particular, about half of Dakota was Minnesota; and about a third of Minnesota was Wisconsin, as you can see on the map below. But before that, Minnesota was part of Iowa. (Before that it was Wisconsin and before that it was Michigan and before that it was unorganized and before that it was Missouri and before that it was disputed and before that it was Spain, but I'll try not to bore you to death.)

Source: Wikipedia.

And then Minnesota was admitted as a state. But the boundaries were changed from those you see in the map to the current ones, for...some reason. Like, I didn't do a ton of googling, but I'm not sure why they didn't just use the previous borders for the Minnesota Territory. Apparently, there was some idea, which originated with Thomas Jefferson, that admitted states should be roughly equal in area: two degrees of latitude and four degrees of longitude. This principle was inconsistently applied, but it may be one of the factors that influenced Minnesota?

The Dakota Territory

So the western part of former Minnesota was no longer Minnesota, and the American settlers there wanted statehood. The Yankton Treaty was signed, officially giving control of much of future Dakota from the Sioux to the US. (Which, again, most of the Sioux opposed.)

Anyway, Dakota became a territory in 1861. But in addition to modern-day North and South Dakota, the Dakota Territory also included most of Montana and about half of Wyoming.

Source: Wikipedia.

War with the Sioux

I don't want to spend too much time dwelling on the war and conflict with Native Americans, because it was bad and it was violent, but it was unfortunately what you'd expect.

Nevertheless, I should give a quick overview: the settler population was increasing, many Sioux people were starving due to crop failures and limited animals to hunt, and annuity payments promised by the US government were delayed: in fact, it was unclear whether the payments would ever come. Five white settlers were killed by Sioux men in August 1862, sparking a war with hundreds of deaths, which also led to the largest mass execution in US history. Hostilities continued for decades.

In 1874, gold was found in the Black Hills, which are of religious significance to the Great Sioux Nation. That's where Mount Rushmore was later built.

The Territory

In any case, some of the Dakota Territory was moved to the Idaho Territory in 1863, and some of it to the Wyoming Territory in 1868. This made the Dakota Territory synonymous with what we now think of as North and South Dakota.

On November 2, 1889, North and South Dakota would become states. President Benjamin Harrison is said to have shuffled the papers before he signed them so no one knew which one was admitted first, frustrating anyone who wants to list states chronologically. (The convention is to take them in alphabetical order.)

Source: Antique Prints Blog.

But why did they become distinct?

This Time article provides some good surface reasons. The two regions were connected by railroads to different hubs, tying North Dakota to Minnesota and South Dakota to Nebraska and Illinois. South Dakota had a population of about 98,000 in the 1880 Census, while North Dakota only had about 37,000. There were some attempts by South Dakotans to admit their region as Dakota and incorporate North Dakota as the Lincoln Territory, or maybe the Pembina Territory. A corrupt governor also moved the territorial capital from Yankton (in South Dakota) to Bismarck (in North Dakota).

Prior to the 1888 election ... the plan was to admit the likely Democratic states of New Mexico and Montana along with the likely Republican states of Washington and Dakota.

But this Atlantic article covers some more pernicious motives. Prior to the 1888 election, with a Democratic president and a narrowly divided House and Senate, the plan was to admit the likely Democratic states of New Mexico and Montana along with the likely Republican states of Washington and Dakota. However, the Republicans took the presidency (despite losing the popular vote) along with majorities in both houses of Congress. The Democrats, about to leave office, took what they could get — they removed New Mexico and split Dakota — but at least there was Montana... though apparently their first two senators were Republicans anyway.

It's not that there weren't real reasons to split Dakota into two. The real reasons just weren't the ones that mattered.


The Republican Party of the late 1800s is very different than the Republican Party today. (The first really was the party of Abraham Lincoln and freeing slaves.) But today's Republicans still get a sizable advantage from historical Republicans' admission of sparsely populated states in the West.

A FiveThirtyEight analysis in 2020 showed that the median Senate seat was 6.6 percentage points more Republican than the nation overall. If the entire Senate was up for election, and the national vote was 50-50, Republicans could expect to gain a filibuster-proof majority of 62 seats.

Due to some luck as to which third of the Senate is up for election this cycle — and some inexperienced Republican candidatesthe FiveThirtyEight model currently has Democrats "slightly favored" (63%) to win the Senate. This is worth noting!

If the entire Senate was up for election, and the national vote was 50-50, Republicans could expect to gain a filibuster-proof majority of 62 seats.

But 2024 is likely to be a bloodbath. "If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, [David] Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now." Unfortunately, this result makes a lot of sense. In 2024, Democratic-held seats in Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, West Virginia, and Wisconsin will be up for election, while there are really no competitive Republican-held seats aside from Florida. Split-ticket voting has been down, and holding on to Montana and West Virginia, which are truly red states, strikes me as difficult even setting the other states aside.


I didn't mean to end this blog post on such a sour note. But the thesis is true: state boundaries, like district boundaries, are often the result of politics. Even before Dakota was divided, the borders of the territory changed quite a bit, often as the result of war. And these seemingly minor events from centuries ago have impacts even today.

I'm not here to imply that states are entirely arbitrary. And it's not that there weren't other reasons for Dakota to become two states in 1889. But the one that tipped the scales: more Republican Senate seats. Gerrymandering has been an issue for a long time.



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