Arthur Mellette was born on a farm in Henry County, Indiana in 1842. He served in the U.S. Army in the Civil War as a private in the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment, Company H. After the war ended, he earned a degree from the University of Indiana Law School and established a practice in Muncie. He ran a newspaper in his local community and served as a county superintendent of schools.
Mellette married Margaret (Maggie) Wylie and the couple had four sons and one daughter. The couple were concerned about Mrs. Mellette’s health so, in 1878, the family moved to the state of Colorado. That change did not improve her condition, so the family moved to Dakota Territory. They settled in Springfield, in the southeast corner of the Territory, and Mellette was able to secure a job as registrar of the U.S. Land Office there. In 1880, the Land Office was relocated, and the family moved to Watertown in the northeast part of the Territory.
Mellette was active in politics and worked hard to have Dakota Territory made a state. He used his own money to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress to divide Dakota Territory into two states. When statehood for North Dakota and South Dakota was granted, Mellette was appointed as South Dakota’s first governor. He served from 1889 to 1893, two two-year terms.
In 1895, State Treasurer W.W. Taylor stole most of the money in the South Dakota State Treasury and fled to South America. Governor Mellette sold his home and the land surrounding it and deposited the proceeds in the State Treasury. (Taylor was eventually apprehended and approximately $100,000 of the $367,000 he'd stolen were recovered. Learn more.)
Governor Mellette suffered greatly after paying Taylor’s debt to the state. It was this suffering that caused the first governor to lose his health. He died in Kansas in 1896 but his body was returned to Watertown. Attendees at his crowded funeral are credited his as saying that the South Dakota Governor was the most honest person in the state.
Listen to a live interview with Gary Enright on SDPB Radio's "In the Moment" on Monday, April 26 at ~12:45pm CT, 11:45am MT.