Shoshone County’s mistaken origin accounts

Note:  This article was originally published under a different title (namely, “Did Shoshone County Turn 150 Years Old This Year”) in Idaho magazine, July 2008.


Hubert Howe Bancroft

There is a majestically large book in the Wallace Public Library’s locked glass case.  Its pages amount to a veritable bible of early Idaho history and biography.  It is titled An Illustrated History of North Idaho, Embracing Nez Perces, Idaho, Latah, Kootenai and Shoshone Counties, published in 1903. Historian Robert Wayne Smith wrote of this volume — in relation to Shoshone County’s early history in particular — that the book contained “…more documentary material and more authoritative information than any other work.”

The book says, on page 33:  “The territorial government of Washington…organized Shoshone County in January, 1858, comprising all of the country north of the Snake river and between the Columbia river and the Rocky mountains, with the county seat on the land claim of Angus McDonald.”

Organized in 1858?

If so, then 2008 would be Shoshone County’s 150th anniversary year.

No small anniversary.

An 1858 birth date would make Shoshone County older than the State of Idaho and even a little older than the Idaho Territory.  The state was created by the U.S. Congress on July 3rd, 1890, the territory on March 4, 1863.

But what is the source and authority behind this birth year assertion?

The great volume in the locked glass case offers no source.


A little digging revealed, however, that the 1858 claim appears in more than a few additional historical works.  For instance, Hiram T. French’s History of Idaho (1914, page 109) says Shoshone County was created on January 29, 1858.  Vardis Fisher, the celebrated Idaho writer and historian, dated the county’s origin to 1858 in his The Idaho Encyclopedia (1938, page 329).  W. Earl Greenough’s First 100 Years [of the] Coeur d’Alene Mining District (1947, page 7) says, “Shoshone county was without county government for three years following its creation in 1858.”  Even U.S. Senator Mike Crapo’s web page on Shoshone County offers:  “It was the first organized unit of government within Idaho boundaries, created and named for the Shoshoni Indians in 1858 by the Washington Territorial Legislature as part of Washington, effective in 1861.”     

Yet none of the above authors offered a citation or source.

A little more digging finally turned one up.

Author Clyde A. Bridges published an article on the history of Idaho counties in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly in April, 1940.  Bridges wrote as follows about the county’s birth (pages 189-190):  “On January 29, 1858, the Washington territorial legislature set aside that part of Walla Walla County lying east of the Columbia River, north and east of the Snake River, north of the forty-sixth parallel, west of the Continental divide, and south of the forty-ninth parallel, as Shoshone County.  Its county seat was ‘on the land claim of Angus McDonald,’ the agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Colville (Washington). ”  In a footnote, Bridges cited page 404 of Hubert H. Bancroft’s History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889, published in 1890.

At last, a source!

Also of interest in another of Bridges’ footnotes was the following:  “There seems to be some confusion among historians regarding the organization of Spokane and Shoshone counties.  Professor Meany wrote in his History of Washington, 235, that “an examination of the laws creating new counties discloses some confusion of names and boundaries.  On January 29, 1858, Spokane County was created . . . . That threw into Spokane County all of southern Idaho and pieces of western Wyoming and Montana.”  George W. Fuller, in his History of the Pacific Northwest, 299, agrees with Meany that Spokane County was organized prior to Shoshone County.  Thomas W. Prosch, “The Evolution of Spokane and Stevens Counties,” in the Oregon Historical Quarterly, V, 25-26 (March, 1904), makes a statement similar to those of Fuller and Meany.”

The plot thickens.


What, then, did Bancroft write about the origin of Shoshone County, and what source did he cite for the 1858 birth date?

Hubert Howe Bancroft was the greatest and most prolific historian of the American West.

Remarkably, the full text of 39 volumes of Bancroft’s works is available on the web at a site called “” (go to

The collection includes, at volume 31, Bancroft’s History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889.  Therein, on page 404, is written in plain English:  “The county of Shoshone was set off from Walla Walla county by the legislature of Washington as early as January 29, 1858, comprising all of the country north of Snake River lying east of the Columbia and west of the Rocky Mountains, with the county seat ‘on the land claim of Angus McDonald.’”

To Bancroft’s sentence was added a lengthy footnote, the first part of which read:    “McDonald was the H. B. Co.’s [Hudson’s Bay Company’s] agent at Colville.  The county commissioners, excepting John Owen, who was U.S. Indian agent, were of foreign birth; namely, Robert Douglas and William McCreany.  Patrick McKinzie was appointed sheriff, and Lafayette Alexander county auditor.  Wash. Laws, 1858, 51.  Another act, repealing this, and without altering the boundaries, giving it the name of Spokane, and making new appointments, was passed Jan. 17, 1860.”

The rest of Bancroft’s footnote offered an account of subsequent changes in Shoshone County’s boundaries and a selected bibliography of early writings on Idaho’s history and geography.

Of course, and for our purposes, the important thing is that Bancroft provided a source for his 1858 assertion in the legislative history of Washington Territory:  namely, “Wash. Laws, 1858, 51.”


Through the kind help of Crystal Lentz, Reference Librarian, Washington State Library in Olympia, I was emailed a pdf copy of page 51 of the 1858 volume of Acts of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Washington.  Therein was indeed an act passed on January 29, 1858 creating a county out of the eastward flank of Walla Walla County.

The act named newly appointed county commissioners Robert Douglass [sic on the extra “s” in “Douglass”], John Owen, and William McCreany.  It named newly appointed sheriff Patrick McKinzie and county auditor Lafayette Alexander.

The county’s boundaries were described as follows:  “Commencing at the mouth of the Snake river, following up said river mid channel to (46th) forty-sixth parallel of north latitude ; thence east along said parallel to the summit of the Rocky mountains; thence north following said summit to the (49th) forty-ninth parallel of north latitude ; thence west along said parallel to the Columbia river ; thence down mid channel of said river to the place of beginning.”

The county being created, however, was not Shoshone County; it was Spokane County.

There was something else worth noting.  Regarding the question of the county seat, the act declared:  “That the county seat of said county, be, and the same is hereby temporarily located, on the land claim of Augus McLeod” (emphasis added).

Bancroft, it will be recalled, had placed the county seat on the land claim of someone named Angus McDonald.

Interestingly, Bancroft’s narrative placed the assertion about the county seat’s location in quotation marks, thus implying that that particular portion of his sentence had been quoted directly from the text of the act.

It bears noting that there is something almost sacred about the act of quotation among historians and other scholars.  That makes it all the more puzzling that the one name Bancroft got wrong in the act would be the one name he also placed into a quoted portion of a sentence.

In discussing this curious mistake with jurist and historian Richard Magnuson, he pointed out that Bancroft had a crew of assistants working with him on his historical projects.  One of them might have made the mistake.

Still, the misquotation poses a mystery, and I don’t have a clue as to how it might be explained.


If not 1858, when then was Shoshone County created?

Once again with the help of Crystal Lentz, two acts relating to the creation and boundaries of Shoshone County were found in Volume I of the Laws of Washington.

The earlier act, passed on January 9, 1861, set the county’s boundaries as follows:  “Commencing at the mouth of the Clearwater river, thence due east to the 115th degree of west longitude, thence south to the 46th parallel of latitude, thence along said 46th parallel to the summit of the Rocky mountains, thence along the line of summit of said mountains to the 42d parallel of latitude, thence west, along said 42d parallel, to the intersection with the boundary between the state of Oregon and the Territory of Washington, thence north, along said boundary, to the point of its intersection with the Snake river, thence down, mid channel of said river, to the place of beginning….”

Then, on December 21, 1861, the territorial legislature redefined the county’s boundaries.


An Idaho State Historical Society “Reference Series” transcript, titled “Early Shoshone County,” explains:  “…the original Shoshone County boundary left Pierce…in Spokane County, Washington. Except for the miners around Pierce, Spokane County also lacked white settlement of any consequence. But with the gold rush, Lewiston, Elk City, Newsome, and Florence sprang up within a year. Thousands of miners came in, and the Washington election, July 8, 1861, Shoshone County cast the largest vote in the territory–even though the voters (mostly around Pierce) did not live in the county. That mistake was corrected by new legislation…establishing Nez Perce and Idaho counties for the newer mines and moving Shoshone County northward to include Pierce and the mines that were supposed to have made up Shoshone County in the first place.”


Well then.

Shoshone County wasn’t created in 1858 but instead in 1861.

It’s still older than the State of Idaho or the Idaho Territory.

But hold on.

Before beginning to plan any county-wide celebration in 2011 (the new sesquicentennial year) it should be noted that the Shoshone County that was described in January, 1861 and re-described in December, 1861 barely overlaps the current boundaries of our county.

Indeed, the future site of the City of Wallace, the present county seat, would have been securely located in Spokane County, not Shoshone, in 1861.

Shoshone County was not only created and re-created over the course of its early history but moved all over the map of the Inland Northwest, too.

Then again, what the hey:  Happy Birthday, Shoshone County, wherever you are and whatever your age!

— Ron Roizen

Note:  The author wishes to thank Crystal Lentz and Richard Magnuson for their kind help.

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2 Responses to Shoshone County’s mistaken origin accounts

  1. margo139 says:

    It sounds like this was posted a few years ago. Thank you for digging out the truth. It is wonderful that you were able to discuss this is Richard Magnuson and bring his voice into your research. I’d love to see the tombe in the Wallace Library.

    • ronroizen9 says:

      Thanks Margo. Truth be told, Magnuson was quite pleased with this piece once it was finished. He said, and I won’t soon forget this remark: “You solved it!” Meaning the mystery of where that older, and mistaken, origin-for-Shoshone-County date came from. The ILLUSTRATED HISTORY volume, a treasure if there every was one, is in the locked case at the Wallace Public Library. Also, its text is downloadable — FREE! — from the web. Even better, the pdf download is searchable — meaning things like searching for specific names or events is made much, much easier. Gotta love the internet! Ron

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