Note: This is the first post in a series on this remarkable episode in Wallace, Idaho’s early history.
Recently, I’ve been trying to gain a better understanding of the tumultuous events in the little frontier mining town of Wallace in 1889. I even drove down to Moscow and spent some time at the microfilm machine in the University’s library down there. It’s a complicated story, with ties to still older history and to events taking place far away from North Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Mining District.
The event that caught the nation’s eye and that threw Wallace’s citizens into confusion and doubt occurred on the night of Tuesday, February 19th, 1889. Here’s the two-paragraph news item that appeared in the New York Times on March 1st of that year:
The day after the great land rush, cooler heads assembled at city hall for a meeting to assess the young town’s true land-ownership situation. A committee of five men was appointed to investigate the status of Wallace’s townsite’s patent. The committee, in turn, selected three of its members — J.F. Cameron, P.J. Holohan, and Alfred J. Dunn — to travel to the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene City to get to the bottom of the matter. The delegation left the next’s morning train and returned on Friday, February 22nd. The news they brought back doubtless sent another shock wave through Wallace’s population.
According to the land office, Col. William R. Wallace, the town’s founder and namesake, had attempted to “locate” (the term of art used for claiming public land) Wallace’s 80-acre townsite using Sioux half-breed scrip in June of 1886. His application was duly forwarded to the GLO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. for processing and the issuance of a patent. Back in D.C., however, it was discovered that Wallace’s scrip’s original “scripee” (the person to whom the scrip was originally issued) had, through an attorney, requested replacement of his scrip from the GLO on grounds that he’d lost the original. Said scripee, Walter Bourke, was issued replacement scrip on July 26, 1871 and subsequently located land with the replacement in Dakota Territory, on March 9, 1880. Bourke was issued a patent for his Dakota land claim on December 10, 1881. These transactions nullified the land-securing value of Col. Wallace’s original scrip, said the GLO, and the GLO, in turn, retained Wallace’s now valueless scrip.
Col. Wallace had been informed of this GLO decision and its justifications in a letter dated February 3rd, 1887. Hence, Col. Wallace and his Wallace Townsite Company had been selling land they knew they did not own ever since that date. The recent decision by the Interior Secretary, the one that triggered the February 19th, 1889 land rush, had no effect on the townsite’s patent because Col. Wallace and his company never possessed a patent for the land in the first place.
Col. William R. Wallace, not surprisingly, reacted bitterly to the mass land-jumping event of February 19th. The town’s first newspaper, the Wallace Free Press, was published and edited by the Dunn brothers, John and Alfred. They, whom Col. Wallace had recruited in order to start a newspaper in his nascent town, joined in the chorus of public criticism and outrage that greeted the news the three emissaries brought back from Coeur d’Alene on Friday, February 22nd. Col. Wallace had to explain himself. But what to say? He composed two lengthy letters, both published on March 1st — one in the Spokane Chronicle and the other in the Murray Sun. The Wallace Free Press, which Col. Wallace refused to be interviewed by, republished both letters in full in its issues of March 9th and 16th. The Press‘s editors also employed these occasions to dispute the arguments and self-defense Col. Wallace’s letters offered. (David J. Vergobbi, of the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, presented a useful paper on Col. Wallace’s relationship to the Dunn brothers at a meeting of the American Journalism Historians Association in October, 1994.)
Wallace’s defensive effort, as reflected in his two letters, might be divided into three rhetorical elements: (1) a sweat-equity argument, (2) a legally-I’m-in-the-right argument, and (3) a fuller description of his account of his interactions with the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene. Wallace’s sweat-equity argument boiled down to a plea that he’d earned the right to the townsite’s title through his pioneering efforts, his foresight, his labor, the money he’d expended on the town’s development, and even the property taxes he’d payed Shoshone County. “…I commenced improvements,” Wallace wrote in his Murray Sun letter, “by building trails and roads up the different canyons, and clearing the ground of fallen timber, and fencing the same…and for three years I was laughed at and called a crank for the faith I had in the future.” For its part, the Wallace Free Press was more inclined to credit “street, bridge and sidewalk improvements” for the most part “to men who paid for property.” Of course, Col. Wallace’s passionate conviction that he’d earned the right to the townsite’s title fell short of an actual patent issued by the GLO.
Col. Wallace’s legally-I’m-in-the-right argument asserted that the GLO had acted incorrectly in preferring Bourke’s putative Dakota land claim over the townsite claim in Wallace. Especially in his Murray Sun letter, Wallace relied heavily on the analysis and legal opinion of one Luther Harrison, formerly with the Interior Department and now a valued consultant on cases relating to the acquisition of public lands. Once again, the Free Press was unimpressed. “The title to the townsite of Wallace has been destroyed by simply making known the records of the land office,” argued the Press, “The mere statement that the Dakota patent is fraudulent does not make it so. The Dakota patent has stood for eight years. Due research was no doubt made by the department at Washington before a patent [was] ever issued upon duplicate scrip.”
Col. Wallace’s description of his interactions with the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene was laid out in fuller form in his letter to the Spokane Chronicle. This is the part of Wallace’s argument that is arguably the most interesting — and the most telling. I’ll pick up with what he had to say in Part 2 of this series.