Oregon Historical Quarterly/Volume 5/The Evolution of Spokane and Stevens Counties


By Thomas W. Prosch.

Prior to 1860 the county of Walla Walla was of vast area, approaching 200.000 square miles. It included all of Eastern Washington except a little strip along the Columbia River known as Skamania County, in which were a few people dwelling at the Cascades. Eastern Washington then meant all that it does now. and, in addition, all of Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming, reaching to the summits of the Rocky Mountains. In Walla Walla County at that time were perhaps two hundred white people and one hundred times as many, or about twenty thousand, Indians. The Indian wars of 1847-48 and 1855-56-57-58 had driven from this great and magnificent region the few white settlers who had there endeavored to make their homes, and the arbitrary exclusion orders of the military authorities generally prevented their return. A few daring individuals were scattered about prospecting for gold, trapping and hunting, trading, and occupying the country somewhat from the spirit of opposition and obstinacy—because they were not wanted by the Indians or the Federal soldiery. The policy of the territorial authorities was the. reverse of that of General Wool, Colonel Wright, and the War Department in this respect. lt favored the opening of the eastern lands to settlement and the confinement of the Indians to reserved lands set apart for their exclusive use. So Walla Walla County was created at an early day with a view to encouraging the location of white men and women within its borders. The same idea prevailed later in the creation of other counties in the immense district referred to. The operation was sometimes a slow one, requiring repeated efforts, as will be seen in what follows, concerning what are now two of the great counties of the State of Washington.

By act of the Washington legislature, approved January 29, 1858, the county of Spokane was legally created. The boundary lines were the Snake River from its mouth to the 46th parallel; thence east along that parallel to the summit of the Rocky Mountains; thence north by the mountain tops to the 49th parallel; thence west by that parallel to the middle of the Columbia River, and finally south by the river to the place of beginning the mouth of the Snake. A glance at the map will show the inquirer that the area inclosed was immense, exceeding that of quite a number of the States of the American Union. Apparently there were a few people in the new county, or at least the legislators thought so, as Lafayette Alexander was appointed auditor; Patrick McKenzie, sheriff; Robert Douglas, John Owen and William McCreary, commissioners. There being no town, the county seat was located upon the farm of Angus McLeod. The territory described was made to compose a county for civil and military purposes, under the general laws, rules and regulations governing other counties, and entitled to elect the same officers other counties were entitled to elect.

Nothing came of this legislation. In the months required for printing the laws, the lack of postoffices and infrequency of mails, and the impossibility, perhaps, of reaching the individuals named, may be found the reason or reasons for their nonassumption of the offices and honors endeavored to be thrust upon them. Or it may be that they could see inconveniences and expenses connected with holding office under the conditions surrounding them, without compensating advantages, and that their inaction was of the nature of declension. The following legislature took notice of the failure of the previous appointees to qualify and organize the county. By law of the 18th of January, 1859, appointees were again provided for as follows: Robert Douglas, John McDugald and Angus McLeod, commissioners; Thomas Brown, sheriff; Patrick McKenzie, auditor; Thomas Sternsger, probate judge, and Solomon Pelkey, justice of the peace. As several new names appear among the appointees, it may be inferred that they were either newcomers to the county or that the legislators did not the year before know them. It is a fact that difficulty was experienced more than once in finding a sufficient number of suitable men to fill the offices in the newly created counties of Washington Territory. This was plainly the case in Spokane both in 1858 and 1859, as provision was not made in either year for treasurer, coroner, assessor, constable, and other officers. The new officials were authorized to hold their offices until the next regular annual election, or until their successors were elected and qualified. No election was held in Spokane County owing to the failure of the newly appointed officials to qualify, organize and set in motion the county machinery. There is reason to believe that the few white people then in that vast region, dwelling chiefly in Bitter Root Valley, now in Montana, did not give unqualified approval to the legislative creation. By petition, signed in November and December of 1859, they plainly indicated their disapproval of inclusion within the county of Spokane. They then asked for the creation of Bitter Root County, extending five hundred miles along the western slope of the Rocky Mountains from the 41st parallel to the 49th. As the petitioners were chiefly Hudson Bay Company men, French Canadians and half-breeds, not at that time in good repute in Washington Territory, their request was coldly received by the legislature, and went unheeded and ungranted.

The territorial legislature, which then met every year, was determined not to be balked and defeated in this matter. In January, 1860, it again took notice of the nonaction of its appointees. In an act approved on the 17th of that month the county of Spokane was second time legally created. The boundaries and limits were as before, to-wit: The 49th parallel on the north, the Snake River and the 46th parallel on the south, the Rocky Mountains on the east, and the Columbia River on the west. This time the seat of government was fixed upon the land claim of Dr. Bates. James Hayes, Faques Dumas, and ——— Leaman were named as commissioners; John Winn, sheriff; R. K. Rogers, treasurer; ——— Douglas, auditor; F. Wolf, coroner, and J. R. Bates, justice of the peace. A partial organization of the county was effected this time, the commissioners boldinir their first meeting on the 9th of May, 1860, when they established election precincts. July 18th they ordered the first warrant drawn, for $24.50. August 8th they fixed the liquor license at $200 per annum, and billiard table licenses at $30. The officials reported in 1861 225 white people in the county, of whom only one was of the female sex. The larger number of men at this time is to be accounted for by the fact that gold had been discovered in that region and a great number of miners and others were then rushing there from all parts of the Pacific Coast. The officials also reported assessable property to the amount of $142,174, consisting of horses, cattle, farms and mills, upon which the Territory, which was then conducted upon a very economical basis, levied a tax of one mill on the dollar, the charge being $142.17. Small as it was, the amount was not paid promptly, the first report of money received by the territorial treasurer from Spokane County being that of July 11, 1863, when $219.03 came to hand: no more money being received, by the way, until seventeen years later.

Notwithstanding the remissness of the county officials, the legislature proceeded upon the theory that things were moving on and that there was a county there with increasing population and political demands. Several new counties about this time were cut off from Walla Walla and Spokane on the east, named Idaho, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Boise and Missoula, and these new counties were later included in the territory of Idaho as organized in 1863. Meanwhile the Washington legislature, January 27, 1860, gave to the Walla Walla district court exclusive jurisdiction in Spokane County. This arrangement continued two years when the legislature (January 3, 1862) established the district of Spokane County, with jurisdiction in Spokane and Missoula counties, and court terms to be held at the seat of Spokane County. January 2, 1862, the office of assessor of Spokane County was abolished and the duties formerly devolving upon that official were placed upon the sheriff. January 19, 1863, the treasurer was authorized by law to loan the school funds in advantageous manner. Why this was done does not become apparent from the record, but it was probably because there being no children there were no schools and no better way of using the money. Another court jurisdiction act was passed in January, 1868.

In conjunction with other counties Spokane was represented in the legislatures of 1861-62-63-64 by John A. Simms, J. R. Hates, B. F. Yantis, Daniel Stewart, and Isaac L. Tobey. Tobey seemed to have a grievance against his Spokane constituency, for on the 13th of January, 1864, he introduced in the house, bill No. 59, which he pushed with so much vigor that in less than a week it had passed both houses and was the law of the land. This bill declared "that the County of Spokane is hereby annexed to Stevens, and the two counties hereafter shall compose but one county to be known as the county of Stevens." Thus ended for the second time the county of Spokane, the existence of which was uncertain, changeful and troublous from its beginning, or attempted beginning, six years before. By the new law Colville was made the county seat until otherwise ordered by the people of the county. The officers of Spokane County were continued as the officers of Stevens County, and the legislative representation of both counties wax given to the one county of Stevens.

By act of January 20, 1863, Stevens County was created. It was cut off from Walla Walla and included all that portion between the Wenatchee River on the south, the 49th parallel on the north, the Columbia River on the east, and the Cascade Mountains on the west. It was named in honor of Isaac Ingalls Stevens, the first Governor of Washington Territory, 1853 to 1857, and delegate to congress from 1857 to 1861. Stevens entered the Union army at the outbreak of the rebellion, and was successively colonel, brigadier general and major general. On the first of September, 1862, he was killed in battle at Chantilly, Virginia. The honor paid to his memory on this occasion by the legislature was a deserved one which met the hearty approval of all citizens. W. B. Yantis was made sheriff of the new county; Charles H. Campbell, auditor; Richard Longfield, - - Doyle, and - - Hill, commissioners. The seat was located temporarily at the store of H. Young. For judicial purposes Stevens County was attached to Spokane. It may be said that though Stevens has been continued with numerous changes from that time to this, it now includes almost nothing of its original area, it being at this time all on the east side of the Columbia River except a small tract in the north. B. F. Yantis introduced in the house the bill creating Stevens County. Stevens made its first contribution to the territorial maintenance fund, $138, in the summer of 1864.

The legislature in January, 1865, legally defined the southern boundary of Stevens County as commencing at the eastern boundary line of the Territory of Washington, where it is intersected by Snake River; thence down the river to the Columbia: thence up the Columbia to the north line of Yakima County; and thence west to the summit of the Cascade Mountains. At the same session the sheriff was authorized to collect Chinese poll tax out of his county, pursuing any person who should attempt to evade the same. This Chinese poll tax was a source of considerable trouble and some income to the people of the eastern counties in those days. In November, 1863, the commissioners of Spokane County instructed the auditor to write to Dr. Isaac L. Tobey, the representative, to get a bill passed by the legislature to tax Chinamen. They suggested $1.50 per month as a proper charge, collectible quarterly by the sheriff. They also urged Dr. Tobey to have Stevens County attached or annexed to Spokane, alleging that the citizens had failed to organize their county as contemplated by law. The Columbia River was a serious obstacle to the collection of the poll tax, MS the Chinese were chiefly placer gold miners and they only li;:<l to cross the river, to get from the clutches of the officers on either side. The counties were consolidated as suggested, except that Spokane was merged into Stevens instead of Stevens into Spokane. By this union, and by the further law permitting the sheriff to chase and capture the fleeing Chinese in adjacent counties, it was hoped to either drive the Mongolians out of the country or get from them substantial revenue. In 1865, also, the judge of the First Judicial District was directed once a ear to hold a term of court at the seat of Stevens County.

In 1865-66 Anderson Cox represented Walla Walla, Stevens and Yakima in the council; in 1866-67 B. L. Sharpstein represented Walla Walla and Stevens in the council, and J. J. H. Van Bokkelen represented Stevens in the house; in 1867-68 Stevens and Walla Walla were represented in the council by J. M. Vansickle. and in the house Stevens by W. P. Winans; in 1869 C. H. Montgomery represented Stevens in the house, and J. M. Vansickle, Stevens and Walla Walla in the council; in 1871 H. D. O 'Bryant represented Walla Walla and Stevens in the council, and W. P. Winans in the house. Stevens being in population the lesser county the joint councilman was always from the other part of the district. In the election of legislators the people there had some singular experiences. In I860 they chose Hon. W. H. Watson to represent them in the house. That part of the Territory was not entitled to a member according to law. On presentation of his claim at the capitol he was refused a vote, but as partial compensation was made doorkeeper. Watson seems to have been a butt of ridicule among the members. One committee suggested that His Excellency, the Governor, appoint Judge Watson inspector of customs at Colville, with the rank and pay of Indian agent, and another committee recommended to the legislature the creation of a new State east of the Cascade Mountains, with .Judge Watson as chief magistrate. In 1862 Charles H. Campbell was elected over B. F. Yantis by a vote of 48 to 38. Yantis went to Olympia to contest the propriety of his opponent's election. The latter was either frightened out of the field or concluded that it was not worth while, and made no appearance, Yantis being admitted with slight question and serving out the full term. In 1864 Isaac L. Tobey was re-elected to the House of Representatives. The pay of members then was $3 per day in currency, worth 40 cents on the dollar. As he could not get to Olympia on the mileage allowance and could not live there on the pay, Tobey resigned. The next year W. V. Brown was chosen to represent Stevens in the house, but he, too. refused the honor, and the county again was without a champion in that body. In 1866-67 there were no returns at the capital, but J. J. H. Van Bokkelen told the members that he had been elected. They took his word for it, and he served as from Stevens County. It probably made a difference with the applicant for legislative honors in such cases what political party was in power.

Stevens County was not of great moneyed assistance to the Territory in the times under review. A number of years it paid nothing into the treasury, and again only turned court cost bills in as an offset to the regular Territorial tax. In the 70's, however, it became an annual source of support.

By statute approved November 5, 1875, the seat of Stevens County was located temporarily in the town of Spokane Falls, on the south side of Spokane River, and until the qualified electors of Stevens County should decide for themselves upon a place for the permanent location of the county seat, the place having the majority of votes cast at the next general election to be declared the permanent seat of Stevens County. The law directed the commissioners to have all the county records removed to and properly housed in Spokane Falls on or before May 1, 1876. In this case the created proved greater than the creator. The county commissioners declared the legislative act non-operative, and books, papers and officials remained at Colville instead of going to the then new village of Spokane Falls, now the great and grand city of Spokane.

On the 30th of October, 1879, the Governor approved a legislative act that for the third time created the county of Spokane. Probably no other county in the United States has had so many legal creations. The county as created on this third effort included all the country now embraced within the limits of Douglas, Lincoln, and Spokane counties, and more particularly described as follows: "Commencing at a point where the section line between sections 21 and 28 in township 14 north, range 27 east, strikes the main body of the Columbia River on the west side of the island; thence west to the mid-channel of the Columbia River; thence up the mid-channel of the Columbia River to the Spokane River; thence up the mid-channel of the Spokane River to the Little Spokane River; thence north to the township line between townships 29 and 30; thence east to the boundary line between Washington and Idaho Territories; thence south on said boundary line to the 5th standard parallel; thence west on said parallel to the Columbia Guide Meridian: thence south (n said meridian to the 4th standard parallel: thence west on the 4th standard parallel to the range line between ranges 27 and 28; thence south on said range line to the section line between sections 24 and 25 in township 14 north, range 27 east; thence west to the place of beginning." W. C. Gray, John H. Wells, and Andrew Lafevre were appointed commissioners with directions to provide for a special election for county officers to be held on the second Monday in December. The seat was located at Spokane Falls, but the people were given authority to change the location by majority vote at the next general election. Provision was made for revenue for the new county, and for a continuation until otherwise provided of all acts of a local nature then in force in the county of Stevens. The town of Cheney was for a few years the seat of Spokane County.

These two counties of Spokane and Stevens, and for sixteen years the one county of Stevens, 1864 to 1880, have been carved by the legislature into, at this writing, ten counties, namely: Chelan, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Spokane, Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, Franklin, and Whitman. Their combined area is 28,548 square miles. Their population in 1900 was 125,848. Other counties will be formed hereafter from the ten, and the inhabitants will increase indefinitely in number as time rolls on. As the reduced Spokane is today it is of 1,777 square miles, and the reduced Stevens 3,945 square miles. Their combined population, as both counties are increasing in this way very rapidly, is probably not far from 100,000. The statements immediately foregoing relate only to that portion of the two counties within the present limits of the State of Washington. Spokane County, as created in 1858, extended east to the summits of the Rocky Mountains, and included an area now in Idaho and Montana greater than that in Washington, and which, also, is cut up into a number of counties and occupied by many thousands of citizens.