Biography of Richard Franklin Pettigrew

Richard Franklin Pettigrew, a former United States senator from South Dakota, was a determined leader who played a significant role in shaping the nation. Born in Vermont in 1848, he ventured to the West and settled in Sioux Falls in 1870. Pettigrew served as a delegate, congressman, and senator, displaying unwavering commitment to his principles. He became renowned for his speeches opposing annexation and advocating for settlers’ rights and the honorable treatment of Native Americans. Pettigrew’s influential career extended beyond politics, as he contributed to the growth and development of Sioux Falls and engaged in successful mining ventures after leaving public office.

Richard Franklin Pettigrew
Richard Franklin Pettigrew

RICHARD FRANKLIN PETTIGREW, of Sioux Falls, former United States senator from the state of South Dakota, is a native of Ludlow, Vermont, where he was born July 3, 1848. He comes from Yankee ancestry on both the paternal and the maternal sides, though primarily of Scotch origin. He left Vermont at six years of age and went to Wisconsin with his parents, who were among the early emigrants to that state. After a short residence in Dane County, the family moved to Rock County, in the same state, and located permanently on a farm in the town of Union. Mr. Pettigrew engaged in farm work until he was sixteen years of age, receiving such education as the rural schools afforded, when he entered Beloit (Wisconsin) College. At this institution, he remained two years and then went to Iowa, where he remained a year teaching school and engaging in the study of law. He then undertook a course of law study at the state law school at Madison, Wisconsin, but was called home in December 1867 by the death of his father, the management of the farm devolving upon him.

In 1869, Mr. Pettigrew came to Dakota as chainman in a land-surveying party, and after a couple of weeks of service, the compass was entrusted to him. He remained in the field throughout the season, his work being in Moody and Brookings counties. At the close of the surveying season, he returned to Madison and devoted the winter to studies in the Wisconsin law school. The next spring (1870), Mr. Pettigrew returned to Dakota and made his home at Sioux Falls, where he has since resided. He constructed a modest law office on Phillips Avenue, teaming the lumber himself from Sioux City, a hundred miles away, and entered upon the practice of law. Thus, twenty-two years after life came to him in the rugged fastnesses of one of the oldest states of the union, he found himself among the few who had cast their fortunes in the solitude of the far-west region of the plains. His feet were on the threshold of a new empire, a wilderness to be subdued and developed and finally added to the crown of the republic as one of its richest jewels. The new man and the new west were face to face, and the life struggle of one was cast in the unknown future of the other. Raw manhood and raw nature walked hand in hand, the mission of the man to strive, of nature to respond.

Into the task, Mr. Pettigrew entered with the stern energy of youth, with unflinching courage, with a will before which all obstacles yielded, opposition vanished, and healthful ambition triumphed. These were the characteristics that came out of the east along with this new man of the west, and they have attended his career as he has led continuously the march of progress in his chosen field of labor.

In this embryonic commonwealth, there came to Mr. Pettigrew many of the honors to be gathered along the frontier of civilization. He was three times elected to membership in the upper house of the legislature of Dakota Territory, as a Republican, and in 1880 that party sent him to Congress as the delegate for the territory, in which capacity he served throughout the forty-seventh Congress. He was a member of the constitutional convention of 1883, a convention composed of delegates from the south half of the territory. As chairman of the committee on public indebtedness, he framed the existing constitutional provisions under that head, the second constitutional convention under a congressional admission act incorporating the report of his committee into the constitution that finally became the organic law of the state of South Dakota.

South Dakota was admitted to the union in 1889, and under the provisions of the admission act, Mr. Pettigrew was elected United States senator on the 16th of October of that year, along with the late Gideon C. Moody, both of the Republican Party, taking his seat in the Senate on the 2nd of December following. Under the rules of the Senate, the two South Dakota senators drew for the long and short term, respectively, and Mr. Pettigrew secured the long term. At the expiration of his term, Mr. Pettigrew was re-elected to the United States Senate as a Republican for the term beginning March 4, 1894, and he served until March 3, 1901. During most of his last term as senator, he was chairman of the committee on Indian affairs and a member of the committees on appropriations and public lands, besides serving on several less important committees.

Mr. Pettigrew was a delegate from his state to the Republican national convention of 1896 and was one of those who led in the stormy conflict in that body against the repudiation of bimetallism. The termination of that struggle was the practical defeat of the double monetary standard as a principle and a policy of the Republican Party. With several other distinguished advocates of the cause of bimetallism, Senator Pettigrew withdrew from the convention and from the party and became one of the organizers of the Silver Republican Party. During the presidential campaign of 1896, he was among those who spoke and labored in South Dakota and other states in behalf of the fusion ticket, and he was largely instrumental in carrying South Dakota for the fusion presidential candidate, William J. Bryan, and the fusion candidate for governor of South Dakota, Andrew E. Lee.

In the year 1900, Mr. Pettigrew was the candidate of the fusionists for the United States Senate to succeed himself. The legislature was that year strongly Republican, and he was defeated. He retired from the Senate March 3, 1901, and has since held no public position. He was fourteen years a member of the national legislative body, two years as territorial delegate, and twelve years as senator, representing the territory of Dakota and the state of South Dakota.

Mr. Pettigrew’s career as a member of the United States Senate brought him prominently before the nation. He became one of the leaders in that distinguished body of statesmen, and it is well enough known among those versed in the affairs of the Senate that it is led by a few, while the others follow. Mr. Pettigrew was at all times distinctively a leader. Throughout the formative period of his life, which covered his frontier experiences, his training gave to him those characteristics of self-reliance which admonished him to go first and say to the others, “Come.” In the Senate, as elsewhere, his place was in the van, and he quickly found it and then retained it. ‘Twas not his nature to sit under the restraint of silence or the direction of others. His ever-busy mentality must originate, plan, suggest, and confer — must bring the friction of his reasoning in contact with the arguments of others and do his share in the formation of principles that sustain the fabric of government. He was one of those who gave time and thought and toil of mind to the intricate questions that arise to perplex the nation and array sentiment against sentiment. In this school, there is no short road to recognition. It comes at the end of processes that transform the student into the statesman, and because of these requirements, it is only the few that attain to positions of leadership.

Mr. Pettigrew was never through with an undertaking until he had mastered all its intricacies and had familiarized himself with every detail. This involved continuous application. His most laborious hours were spent in his library, and the time thus taken was not borrowed from the sessions of the Senate. His evenings, often lengthened to the coming of another day, were devoted to study and research. Through his attention to public questions, he became a counselor among the thoughtful men that direct the affairs of the highest legislative body of the nation, and by them, his wisdom was freely sought, his stock of general information being admittedly voluminous and accurate. This was an achievement of industry, of comprehensive mental grasp, and of the wonderfully retentive memory with which he is endowed.

During his second term as a senatorial representative of South Dakota, Mr. Pettigrew found himself alienated from the political party with which he had served from the beginning of his active career. It was not alone that he differed with his political associates on the monetary question. The Republican Party had made other departures from the faith in which he had been schooled and had committed itself to what seemed to him an abandonment of the doctrine that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, and to an espousal of a policy laden with imperialistic possibilities. In combatting these tendencies of the Republican Party, Mr. Pettigrew delivered a speech in the Senate on the 22nd and 23rd of June and the 2nd and 6th of July 1898, against the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. This extended presentation of the case, covering one hundred and eighteen pamphlet pages, at once gave him national prominence. In it, he implicated representatives of the United States government in the insurrection that overthrew the Hawaiian government, giving a complete history of the events leading to the subsequently achieved annexation of the islands to the domain of the United States. In a visit to Honolulu, he had obtained information that was made the basis of his argument, which no public man undertook to refute. His facts were new to the public, and their vigorous presentation attracted general attention.

Among his other notable speeches in the Senate were several in opposition to the acquisition of the Philippine Islands, to which he applied exhaustive research. His defense of the South African Republic was another painstaking and effective effort. Throughout his entire service in Congress, he contended for general laws in behalf of settlers on the public lands and for honorable treatment of the Indians from which the lands were taken. On the 24th of February 1899, he addressed the Senate in opposition to the Nicaragua Canal Bill, advancing reasons why the Panama route should be selected as the site of an interoceanic canal. In this, he pioneered the movement that has resulted in the substitution of the Panama for the Nicaragua route.

It was not alone in his public capacity that Mr. Pettigrew left the impress of his strong personality upon the undertakings with which he has been connected. The city of Sioux Falls, his home since 1870, the metropolis of South Dakota, wealthy, progressive, and always growing, owes much of its success to his efforts on its behalf. Cities do not create themselves. They are the product of well-directed intelligence, and it was in part his intelligence that has covered the granite hills of the Sioux with beautiful homes and the facilities for creating homes.

He has also had a prominent share in the constructive work of the Territory of Dakota and the State of South Dakota. He gave to each a strong guiding hand, recognizing from the beginning the possibilities of a realm almost unknown when he came into its existence.

Since Mr. Pettigrew retired from official life, he has devoted his talents and energies to his personal affairs with the same success that always attended his labors on behalf of the public. He has engaged chiefly in mining enterprises, out of which he has accumulated a comfortable fortune in the few years in which he has been free from the cares of a congressional career.


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

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