Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Arts (MA)

Degree Name


Department or School/College

Department of History

Committee Chair

Harry Fritz

Commitee Members

Dan Flores, Jeff Greene


Dakota Territory, James S. McClellan, John McClellan, Melvin Grigsby, Minnehaha County, Sioux Falls, Sioux K. Grigsby, South Dakota, Western Town Company, William Van Eps


University of Montana


John McClellan was among the original founders of the Sioux Falls town site in Dakota Territory in the year 1857. During his lifetime, McClellan never spoke much about his family or his origins. After amassing considerable wealth selling land in the 1870s and 1880s, McClellan died in an elevator accident in 1899. His death left open the question of who would inherit his money and property. Three groups of claimants came before the local courts with the belief that John McClellan was, in some way, their relative. After eighteen years of litigation, none of the claimant parties could prove that the man who died in Sioux Falls was their relative by the name John McClellan. As a result, the courts escheated McClellan’s estate to the state of South Dakota. Given the evidence presented by the claimants, the question remains as to whether or not this was the correct decision. By utilizing the archived materials from the McClellan estate trial, the two Sioux Falls newspapers of the day, and various other documents from throughout the United States, it was possible to thoroughly reexamine the cases presented by all three of the trial’s claimant parties. The research material showed that each claimant had a relative named John McClellan, and all of their documented family stories seemed to fit the pattern of the Sioux Falls man’s life. However, there were no solid means by which any of the three parties could prove that their relative was the same man who died in Sioux Falls in 1899. By recreating the story of John McClellan’s life from numerous archival materials, and by reexamining the evidence brought forward during the estate trial, it is clear that the state of South Dakota was correct in its ruling that John McClellan died intestate. Ultimately, each claimant was mistaken in the identity of the John McClellan in Sioux Falls. This is the first time the story of John McClellan’s life, as well as the estate trial following his death, has been told in detail.



© Copyright 2008 Peter Nels Olsen