Biography of Charles Henry Sheldon

Charles Henry Sheldon, the second governor of South Dakota, was born in Lamoille County, Vermont, in 1840. Despite a difficult upbringing, he displayed a passion for oratory and a strong abolitionist stance. Sheldon’s military service during the Civil War was commendable, and he eventually settled in Dakota, engaging in farming and becoming a respected figure in local politics. As governor, he faced numerous challenges, including economic downturns and crop failures, yet he tirelessly worked to preserve the state’s credit. Sheldon’s legacy is honored in South Dakota, where he is remembered for his ability, principled nature, and enduring friendships.

Charles Henry Sheldon, second governor of the state of South Dakota, was born in Lamoille County, Vermont, September 12, 1840, the son of Gresham and Mary (Brown) Sheldon, and was the third in a family of four, consisting of two sons and two daughters. Gresham Sheldon was a hatter by trade and for many years was a resident of Montreal where he owned an independent business, but, meeting with reverses, died in 1844, a poor man, when Charles was but four years of age. Mrs. Sheldon lived to be eighty-six years of age, dying in 1880 at the home of Charles, whose constant care she had been throughout his life. The early life of Governor Sheldon was a hard struggle. His mother was very poor and he was compelled to work from his earliest recollection to eke out the family expenses. Until approaching manhood, he found employment on farms and then for several years in small stores; nevertheless, he managed to pick up a good deal of elementary learning and from his childhood was passionately fond of oratory, in which he constantly trained himself. His sympathetic nature made him a natural abolitionist, and when the war broke out, when he was in his twenty-first year, he promptly offered his services. But upon his first enlistment, he was, upon physical examination, for some reason rejected. He enlisted again on the 23rd of November, 1861, and was duly mustered into service in Company E, Seventh Regiment Vermont Volunteer Infantry. His military service was highly creditable, and at the close of the war, he had won the position of second lieutenant of Company I of the Seventh Regiment. After the war, he settled in Golconda, Pope County, Illinois, where he engaged in mercantile business, and later he was connected with a large tobacco commission house at Paducah, Kentucky.

In 1880, Governor Sheldon removed to Dakota and settled upon government land near Pierpont, Day County, where he opened a farm and built a home which he maintained until his death. In 1886, he was sent to the territorial legislature, and in 1892, he was chosen governor of the state, a position he filled with credit for four years. There have been no more difficult years in the history of the West than the four during which Charles H. Sheldon held the governor’s chair in South Dakota. Before he had been in office six months, the great national panic of 1893 was on, and the period of depression continued throughout his term. To add to the embarrassments of the period, came the almost total crop failure of 1894, and upon the heels of that, the Taylor defalcation of January 1, 1895, by which the state treasury was robbed of every dollar. Throughout all of these trying experiences, the governor labored unceasingly to maintain the state’s credit, and with results as good as could be hoped for when adverse conditions are considered. At the close of his second term, he retired quietly to his farm and lived in simple comfort until the campaign of 1898 came on when he responded to the call of his party to engage in a speaking campaign in the state and was assigned to a series of appointments in the Black Hills and made one of his most powerful speeches in the city of Deadwood on Saturday night, October 15. Almost immediately following the close of his address, he was taken with a chill. Pneumonia followed, and he died at the Bullock Hotel on Thursday morning following, shortly after his wife and son reached his bedside.

Governor Sheldon was twice married. His first wife was Miss Mary Waters, of Pope County, Illinois, to whom he was married shortly after the war, and whose death occurred in 1874. She left him no children. He was married in 1875 to Miss Martha Frizzell, of Johnson County, Illinois, and the union was blessed with three children, James B., Ethel, and Charles H. James died in 1894 while a student at Brookings College. Governor Sheldon was a man of marked ability, of good and strong impulses, and his memory is cherished in South Dakota by a host of friends.


Robinson, Doane, History of South Dakota: together with mention of Citizens of South Dakota, [Logansport? IN] : B. F. Bowen, 1904.

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