Happy Birthday Aberdeen! Established 1881? 1880? 1882? 1883?
An online search about the founding of Aberdeen will leave you confused. Here’s what you need to know about our roots.

Happy Birthday Aberdeen! Established 1881? 1880? 1882? 1883?

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Most people haven’t noticed that 2021 is Aberdeen’s 140th birthyear. Previously we have celebrated the Golden Jubilee (1931, 50 years), the Diamond Jubilee (1956, 75 years), the Centennial (1981, 100 years), and the Quasquicentennial (2006, 125 years). It is pretty obvious these milestone Aberdeen anniversaries are based on the birthyear in 1881. 

Recently, I have had a couple people call and ask me what our founding year is. I thought it was obvious after all these celebrations. But then I realized the confusion. Google. Google search results are hitting dozens of mentions of our birthyear—on dozens of websites—and they are all inconsistent. The key words of the search also affect the answers appearing online—founded, established, settled, incorporated, ironed (when the railroad tracks were laid), or platted.

I don’t think I would care so much about this elusive date if it weren’t for the various confusing information out there. Most city organization websites are not quite right when it comes to terms and associating dates. The problem results from a simple question. When is a town officially a town?

Getting on the Map

I started my research with the go-to source for Aberdeen’s history–the late Don Artz. He wrote several books about our early years, all thoroughly researched from the archives of several Aberdeen newspapers, books, official documents, and stories from old-timers. I found all his dates to be accurate, and I believe Mr. Artz would agree that Aberdeen’s birthyear is 1881.

I, personally, am not so sure.

Here are the circumstances that created Aberdeen. Rail line superintendent Charles H. Prior was responsible for all land dealings and track location west of the Mississippi for the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railroad (Milwaukee Road). Prior was securing land for the Hastings and Dakota line from Minneapolis, heading west into Dakota Territory in early 1880.

Prior had originally planned to angle the west-bound track northwest from Andover, through Columbia, and connect with Bismarck. Unfortunately, the men who owned the land on which Columbia was built wanted Milwaukee Road to pay for depot land and rights-of-way through Columbia. Prior refused and walked away from Columbia. He instead planned to proceed west along a relatively straight line from Andover–targeting an intersection between the northbound route of his own Milwaukee Road line and that of the competing Chicago & Northwestern line heading northeast. Where the competitors crossed, people set up a townsite called Grand Junction (or Grand Crossing). Prior was not a fan of sharing that intersection of his two lines with Chicago & Northwestern. So, he changed course again.

Prior angled his west-bound track slightly upwards, dashing the hopes of the Grand Junction townsite. He picked a spot in a swampy area two miles north for a new townsite. Prior created his own intersection running east to west and south to north, free of competitors. Southeast of his intersection, Prior platted 16 blocks of lots and streets and called the grid Aberdeen, which was inspired by the birthplace of his boss, Alexander Mitchell, in Aberdeen, Scotland. The spot he selected was already owned, as was most of the land within Dakota Territory. Thus, he had to purchase the land from two property owners who each owned sections within his new 16-block town. The price paid was $380. Chicago & Northwestern’s trajectory (Rudolf to Ordway) would skirt past this plat several blocks to the east, intersecting with Milwaukee Road twice. This depot is still standing on Dakota Street.

Prior had a surveyor officially draw up a plat of his new townsite. That original plat is on file at the Register of Deeds in the Brown County Courthouse. This piece of history contains an abundance of interesting details and three distinct dates: October 30, 1880—the notarization of the Aberdeen plat by D.C. McKenzie, representing Dakota Territory and acknowledging that the surveyor did indeed draw up the plat of Aberdeen and presented it to him; December 21, 1880–the notarization that Charles and Delia Prior do indeed own the land Aberdeen is platted on and grants use of the alleys and streets to the public forever; and January 3, 1881–noted that the plat was registered with the Brown County Register of Deeds and recorded in the books at 9:00 AM.

In a newspaper article commemorating the 75th Anniversary of Aberdeen in 1956, the late Walter Butler–a former Aberdeen Engineer, a map maker, and the originator of the term “Hub of the Dakotas”–said Charles Prior hatched the plan for Aberdeen on June 3, 1880. On that day, the land for a townsite was procured by Prior. On June 4, 1880, Prior announced that this new land he was eyeing would be the location of a new town. It would not be until November 10, 1880, that Prior would officially take ownership of the land. Around the same time, others were securing land in the immediate area including Andrew Melgaard’s tree claim, and an area that became part of the Hagerty Lloyd Subdivision (Aberdeen Daily News, June 17, 1956, page C-11). Word must have traveled because people started coming to the area in 1880 before Aberdeen’s official establishment.

Did you catch that? Aberdeen was surveyed, platted, and named in 1880.

For the most part, many seem to want to stick to January 3, 1881, as our birthyear, the official file date of our plat. However, Brown County Register of Deeds, Roberta Nichols says, “Recording a plat does not create or legitimize a town, it creates a blueprint of property containing pertinent information often called subdivisions or additions. It is my understanding that a town is legitimate when it is chartered or incorporated as a municipality. However, I do not know what the laws were back in the 1800s.”

So, is the 1881 filing date any more significant than the 1880 platting date? As a side note, “filing a plat” is not the same as the “incorporation” of a town, which I will discuss later.

Lots happening in 1880

The activity following the January platting can be described by local lore. One of the most confusing discrepancies involves Samuel Jumper. In articles based on Jumper’s own accounts, he came to the newly surveyed spot of Aberdeen in May 1881 to start selling lots for Charles Prior. He claims he was the first person in recorded history to stay overnight on the site, and there was nothing here except a tent or two from the surveyors. However, in the Early History of Brown County South Dakota (1965) book, Jumper is mentioned showing people around the townsite in 1880. This book also mentions, by name, several families that lived in Aberdeen during the winter of 1880-81. It also makes mention of the first death/funeral that occurred in 1880 in Aberdeen.

Many other accounts of our early days conflict with Jumper’s testimony as well. People had claimed and owned most of the land in Brown County with the first parcels being secured as early as 1864. So, chances are likely that there were structures in the vicinity of Aberdeen’s townsite.

I checked with the Brown County Assessor’s office, and my search indicates there are five properties currently on the tax roll that were built in 1880. And who knows, there might have been more. Without reading all the records at both the Register of Deeds and Assessor’s office, it seems like some development was happening in the area during the midsummer of 1880 around the same time Prior made his decision to plat Aberdeen. However, none of the houses listed at the Assessor’s office from 1880 fall into Prior’s original 16-block plat.

The manner in which history has been told to me, and written by previous authors, they paint a picture of Prior in late 1880 redirecting the railroad grade to an empty area, and then platted it as Aberdeen in 1881. He started to sell lots in May, and the train arrived in July. After that, growth in Aberdeen took off.

That’s simply not the case if houses were already here at least six months to a year before the train. In August of 1881, only three months after Jumper’s claim of nothingness, the local newspaper reported there were 64 structures in Aberdeen. If only there was something deemed official that clearly defined when Aberdeen was a bona fide town that listed a specific day and year. Perhaps then I would understand the establishment of Aberdeen better.

And to my delight, there is … sort of.

In 1882, things in the newly formed town were going fairly well. On April 4, 1882, the Brown County Commission voted to allow the people of Aberdeen to conduct a vote on whether or not to incorporate. During the Commission meeting on May 18, 1882, the members declared Aberdeen incorporated. Aberdeen held an election on June 5, 1882, and the newly incorporated town elected E.H. Alley as the Executive (or Mayor).

Could that be our official birthyear?

But wait, there’s more. Just a year later, a new Alderman form of government was desired by the townspeople, and a new charter was created. On March 15, 1883, the Territorial Legislature made an official ruling, based on the wishes of the townspeople, that Aberdeen hereby become a fully incorporated town. Yet again, elections were held.

So, is 1883 our birthyear? Attorney friends of mine say the 1883 incorporation is superfluous, and the 1882 incorporation is the year of our official status as a town.

Local history professor, Brad Tennant, from Presentation College concurs with the 1881 birth year based on the official filing of the plat with Brown County. The newspapers and Chamber of Commerce have also stuck with 1881 as the town’s birthyear. The Dacotah Prairie Museum likes to tell tours that July 6, 1881, should be the birthday of Aberdeen because that’s when the first train rolled in, bringing supplies that built the town. Some research will show a community’s platting date alongside their incorporation date, but there seems to be no consensus as to which year should be celebrated in upcoming jubilees–aside from simply picking one. When is a town officially a town?

Anniversary Confusion

I realized that if I wanted to learn as much as I could about Aberdeen’s formative years, Aberdeen was not the place to look because there were no newspapers in the town during the time of the platting and filing.

One outside source, the Wisconsin State Journal, wrote on December 7, 1880, “But the Milwaukee & St. Paul has put most of its energy of construction into its Hastings and Dakota branch. This has been pushed sixty miles further into Dakota, to Bristol; while the road is graded to Aberdeen, on the James River. The grading has also been carried north and south of Aberdeen along the James Valley, over an extent of 100 miles.” Seems as though Aberdeen was a growing concern in late 1880. The Yankton Press and Dakotan made a report a couple days later that read “A new land and locating office has been located at Aberdeen, the business center of Brown County.” The date was December 9, 1880. The “business center”? In 1880? Hmmm…

So, I went back to old Aberdeen newspapers. In the archives, I searched 10 and 20 years after 1880 and 1881 to see if there were mentions of anniversary celebrations. In two separate Aberdeen newspapers in 1907, there was an announcement in “City Briefs.” It read, “On next Monday, December 23, Aberdeen will be 27 years old. The city was platted on December 23, 1880, by Charles H. Prior.” They believed the anniversary year to be 1880, but for some reason, they were a couple days off from the actual second date that’s on the plat itself (December 21, 1880). Then, in a newspaper article from 1930, the headline asked, “Should we be celebrating our 50th anniversary?” Some folks around town were trying to push that idea at that time. The newspaper referred the matter to T.C. Gage, an original Aberdeen pioneer–merchant and developer–turned historian, who in fact declared Aberdeen’s birth year as the year of the plat filing of January 3, 1881. The townspeople would have to wait another year to party.

T.C. Gage kept a scrapbook during the formative years of Aberdeen. He has clippings in it from the 1931 Aberdeen Daily News’s Golden Jubilee edition. One clipping shows a picture of C.F. Easton (of the Castle fame) with the text, “C.F. Easton, the father of the Home Building and Loan Association movement in this city, arrived in Aberdeen in the summer of 1879.”

What? 1879?

Two columns over is another mention, “Frank Beard…an honored guest at the fiftieth anniversary of the city, arrived in the townsite of Aberdeen in the early summer of 1880.” In the same newspaper, “Patrick Burns…At Ortonville, Mr. Burns hired a team and drove to Aberdeen, arriving here on October 2, 1880, for the first time.” By all media accounts, Aberdeen seems to be a popular destination in 1880.

The local newspapers loved to retell stories of old timers’ recollections. Those stories got reprinted every 25 years in the next jubilee newspaper. Almost every single mention of dates and years associated with our founding or incorporation are inconsistently noted in some fashion. Some could simply be typos made by a typesetter. Then there’s Google, which comes along and mixes the search results up even further. I feel bad for any children in school trying to do a report on the founding of Aberdeen.

After all this research, I would be confident in saying Aberdeen was established in 1880. There was a plat of a town, a town name, the hype, and people who claimed they lived in Aberdeen in 1880. Terms like established, settled, platted, incorporated, and founded all mean different things to a town’s history. Again, when is a town an official town? Who’s to say–other than our relatively consistent history of anniversary celebrations–what our real birthday should be? For now—to keep the peace and avoid rewriting our history—Happy 140th Birthday Aberdeen! //

I could not have written this without the help of Roberta Nichols, Register of Deeds for Brown County. Sarah Swenson from the Brown County Department of Equalization office also helped with early date verification. I accessed early newspapers from Aberdeen including the Aberdeen Daily News, the Aberdeen Democrat, and the Aberdeen American News. The books, Early History of Brown County South Dakota, (Western Printing, 1965) and Brown County History (Northern Plains Press 1980) provided lots of information about Brown County and early Aberdeen settling. Don Artz’s books, The Town in the Frog Pond (Memories, Inc. 1991) and The Life and Times of the Dacotah Prairie Museum Building (Aberdeen/Brown County Landmark Commission 2000) were used for many details.

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A Fast-Growing Community This illustration was taken from the book, Early History of Brown County South Dakota, 1965. The actual illustration is nowhere to be found. If you subscribe to the notion that Samuel Jumper arrived at an empty townsite in May 1881 to start selling lots, it seems crazy to imagine—in just two years with floods and winters—that the town could have grown this fast. In fact, the first newspaper in town boasted in August 1881—just two and half months after Jumper’s arrival–that there were 64 buildings in Aberdeen. That is almost one structure per day. If things had gotten started even a year earlier, this scene would be more plausible. But maybe it’s accurate. Early stories say people did not take the time to paint their buildings because commerce moved so fast. This view from June 1883 looks southeast from where the two Milwaukee lines meet (bottom center). The Northwestern Railroad is up on the horizon. The original plat of 1880 is indicated in color. The only thing that is recognizable is the Presbyterian Church on Kline Street. The building has since moved from that spot and placed on First Avenue Southeast—currently home to Spellman Painters. The roundhouse in the bottom center was just recently demolished by the BNSF Railroad. Can you find the baseball game? Image restoration by Symmone Gauer.