Masonry in Dakota Territory began with the Louisiana Purchase and was greatly perpetuated by the military. President Jefferson directed Brother James Monroe and Brother Robert Livingston to open negotiations with Napoleon for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, a tract of some 828,000 square miles lying between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. The question of the Purchase’s legality was settled when the US Supreme Court, speaking through Brother John Marshall, as Chief Justice of the United States, ruled the Purchase valid. Moreover, Freemasons not only conceived, negotiated, and approved the Louisiana Purchase, but Freemasons Merriwether Lewis and William Clark also explored this virgin land. Both men, first Lewis and then Clark, administered as Governors the Territory they had explored, and together they appointed a secretary, a clerk, a sheriff and four judges – all Freemasons!
Brother Zebulon Pike continued the exploration of this vast area and sought the true source of the Mississippi River in the upper regions of the Purchase. Masonry then became rather quite for a number of years, except for the occasional visit of someone like Brother Christopher “Kit” Carson.
In 1862 Masonry came to stay in Dakota Territory. A group of Masons was granted a dispensation to form Dakotah Lodge at Fort Randall by the Grand Lodge of Iowa on April 23, 1862. Whether or not this Lodge was ever formed is not known. On December 2, 1862 the Grand Lodge of Iowa granted dispensation for St. John’s Lodge in Yankton, the territorial capitol.
On July 31, 1863 the next important event in the Masonic History of Dakota Territory occurred. This event is the first Masonic Funeral. Lieutenant Fredrick John Holt Beaver, an Englishman, Oxford graduate, Episcopal Minister, and volunteer soldier attached to the staff of General Henry H. Sibley was killed in a skirmish with Sioux Indians on July 29th or 30th near the present day town of Bismarck. Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Minnesota, John Whipple, then called together in a Lodge of Emergency, the brethren who were on General Sibley’s Expedition to constitute the last rites Of Masonry for a brother in the far off wilderness of the upper Missouri River system.
On September 13, 1863 Masonry came to the northern part of Dakota Territory and then spread across the international border to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta Canada. This was as result of a request for dispensation to create the Northern Lights Lodge. The request from Captain C. W. Nash, J.L. Armington, Captain A.T. Chamblin 1st Lieutenant Charles H. Mix, and eight other Masons in Hatch’s Battalion at Fort Abercrombie asked the Minnesota Grand Lodge for permission to open and work a lodge. Dispensation was granted and delivered to Worshipful Brother Charles Nash at Fort Abercrombie D.T. while the troops were preparing to march North to Fort Pembina. It was January 1864 before the new lodge could convene because the officers and men were busy building their new quarters once they had arrived at Fort Pembina. That winter was a busy one for the lodge, thirty–six degrees were conferred with twelve Master Masons being raised. In May 1864, the troops were again transferred and the Northern Lights Lodge was transferred to Fort Garry (Winnipeg Manitoba).
As was the case at many frontier towns and military outposts following the Civil War, Masonic Lodges were soon organized. The next Lodge to receive dispensation was Incense Lodge at Vermillion. Incense Lodge received its dispensation on January 14, 1869 from the Grand Lodge of Iowa. On January 26, 1871 another Military Lodge was granted dispensation. This Lodge was Yellowstone Lodge № 88 at Fort Buford, D.T. On June 7, 1871 the Grand Lodge of Iowa issued a dispensation the Elk Point Lodge.
Yellowstone Lodge № 88 at Fort Buford, D.T. was granted a Charter by the Grand Lodge of Minnesota on January 10, 1872. The returns for 1872 indicate a membership of 35 and those of 1873 show 48. During this period, a good lodge hall, about 80 by 100 feet was built adjoining the fort and near the sutler’s store. It was two stories high, the second story being used as a lodge hall and the first story was the social and cultural center of the fort. It was here that many of the banquets, parties, and balls were held, from 1871 to 1874. In 1874, the transfer of a large part of the Fort Buford Garrison caused the Yellowstone Lodge to surrender its charter, sell off the Lodge and transfer its jewelry and regalia to the Bismarck Lodge which was under dispensation.
From 1872 through 1875 several Masonic Lodges received dispensations or Charters from either the Grand Lodge of Minnesota or the Grand Lodge of Iowa. Interest in forming a Grand Lodge for Dakota Territory was becoming very apparent, especially in the Southern part of the territory. On June 22 thru June 24, 1875 a convention to form a Grand Lodge was convened at Elk Point D.T. On June 24th Grand Lodge Officers were elected and installed. The Grand Lodge of Minnesota refused to recognize the new Grand Lodge on the basis that the lodges it had chartered were not notified of the convention to form a Grand Lodge.
Because the Grand Lodge of Dakota Territory was being ignored by Grand Lodge of Minnesota, the Grand Lodge of Dakota Territory adopted a resolution in June 1878, “That the Grand Lodge of Dakota possesses sole and exclusive Masonic Jurisdiction throughout the Territory of Dakota, and that no subordinate lodge can maintain a lawful existence in said Territory without acknowledging allegiance to the Grand Lodge of Dakota.” It worked, during the next year all lodges chartered by the Grand Lodge of Minnesota turned in their Minnesota charters and requested one from the Grand Lodge of Dakota.
Dakota Territory became North and South Dakota when they were admitted to the Union on November 2, 1889. It had been evident for some time that this would occur. So, on June 11, 1889 the Grand Lodge of Dakota considered the request from the Northern Lodges to permit them to form a Grand Lodge. The approval was unanimous. It was also agreed to distribute the funds and property equitably.
On June 12 representatives of the lodges from the North met in the “Masonic Hall, Mitchell, D.T.” It was resolved: “that this convention deem it expedient for the good of Masonry that a Grand Lodge be organized for North Dakota.” A constitution and bylaws were adopted, and Grand Lodge Officers elected. The following day the Grand Lodges of South and North Dakota installed their officers in a joint installation.
Thus ends the common history of Masonry in the Dakota Territory. Once Dakota Territory became North Dakota and South Dakota the history of Masonry in this geographic area divulged into two distinct and interesting, but separate paths.