Note: Important safety tip: You might want to fasten your seatbelt and hold on to your hat in reading this part!
I’m guessing that some readers of Col. Wallace’s account of his past dealings with the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene City respecting his claim to the Wallace townsite reacted with slack jaws, wonderment, and shock.
Wallace description of that history showed (1) that he’d engaged in under-the-table dealings with a GLO representative, (2) that he’d quite possibly bribed said official, and (3) that he’d continued selling lots in Wallace on the basis of an illicit assurance from the same GLO representative. Said representative, Robert McFarland, claimed Wallace, had assured him that the scrip-nullifying letter received from Washington, D.C. by the Coeur d’Alene City office would be deep-sixed and forgotten.
It was an account that — in some eyes, at least — might have further discredited the beleaguered Colonel. It was also an account that bespoke volumes about the shady practices and corrupted personnel that plagued the contemporary U.S. General Land Office, according to historian Harold H. Dunham (1937), especially between the years of 1875 and 1890. Permit me to lift a single brief paragraph from Dunham’s revelatory article on the history of the GLO’s operations and practices over this period.
The question naturally arises as to how millions of acres of public land could be stolen, why the General Land Office was indifferent to the robbery, and in what way it cooperated with the thieves. The answer can be found in the history of the bureau from 1875 to 1890. During these crucial years the federal government had the opportunity to provide a comprehensive plan for land disposal under a department of public lands. Instead of adopting a suitable policy, Congress permitted reckless absorption through inadequate and faulty administration (Harold H. Dunham, “Some Crucial Years of the General Land Office, 1875-1890,” Agricultural History 11(2):117-141, 1937, p. 118).
To be sure, Dunham’s indictment of the GLO was directed chiefly at the great corporations and monopolies that sought to circumvent federal rules in order to secure for themselves vast stretches of rich agricultural, timber, and mineral land claims. Col. Wallace was not. of course, one of these mega-players. Yet, the conditions that greased the wheels of misconduct and corruption for big interests at GLO also may have aided Col. Wallace’s awkward situation in early 1887. GLO staff were overworked, underpaid, poorly organized, and were called upon to administer immense, uncharted land areas. Moreover, local GLO offices were often lonely outposts thousands of miles away from their home headquarters in the nation’s capital.
With the above in mind, let us turn now to Col. Wallace’s remarkable account of his dealings with the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene City, published in the Spokane Chronicle and republished in the Wallace Free Press.
In 1886, explained Col. Wallace, he and a “Mr. Lockey” of Helena bought Sioux half-breed scrip from the First National Bank of Spokane, with the aim of using it to “perfect” the townsite’s patent. A survey was done of the site by the United States deputy surveyor. Lockey then “took the scrip to the United States land office at Helena, and in a letter now in my possession pronounced it good.”
I also took the scrip to Major Armstrong, then land receiver at Spokane, and his opinion corroborated others that the scrip was genuine, and on the strength of this the land was located by Walter Bourke, through his attorney in fact, and afterwards transferred to the Wallace Townsite company, a corporation duly organized under the laws of Idaho, and the same improved by cutting streets and alleys, and bridging the river at crossings, laying sidewalks, etc. at the expense of said townsite, and none other, of several thousand dollars.
Then, in 1887, continued Col. Wallace, land receiver, Robert McFarland sent word to him that he should come to the land office in Coeur d’Alene. There, wrote the Colonel, McFarland showed him the letter conveying the news that the Interior Secretary had decided to reject Wallace’s land claim. Wallace continued:
I paid Mr. McFarland $50 for advice, and he told me that the letter was all that was or need be known of the matter, and that he would not allow it to become a part of the record, and under this arrangement I could take other means to secure a title to the land, which I at once commenced to do. I went to Spokane and consulted as to the price of Valentine scrip, and finding the price beyond my reach, I went to the land receiver, McFarland, and he told me to go and sell the land, that no one could injure me for it, and that as my attorney he would protect me.
What should we make of Col. Wallace’s remarkable account?
The $50 Wallace paid McFarland “for advice,” it should be noted, is equivalent to more than $1,000 in 2017 dollars. Moreover, Wallace’s effort to secure Valentine scrip after receiving the bad news from McFarland clearly indicates that he fully understood that his application for title to the townsite had been denied. McFarland’s subsequent advice to go ahead and sell the land was an act of collusion and betrayal of his official duties with the General Land Office. Beyond all that, Col. Wallace’s words cannot have offered much assurance to worried land owners who thought they had obtained secure titles with their purchases of lots in Wallace.
Well, what a defense he’d offered!
On the evening of Thursday, March 7th, 1889 — now, a day short of two weeks after the startling revelations of Friday, February 22nd — the town’s trustees met for their usual gathering. The main topic of discussion was deciphering the town’s path forward. It was becoming clear to all that a new and independent effort would have to be mounted to secure a patent for the townsite from the General Land Office. Even so, Col. Wallace made a plea to the trustees, even before the meeting was called to order, that he be given thirty days to prove his title. If, after that period he failed, Wallace continued, he’d “relinquish any and all claim.” The Wallace Free Press (which recounted the Colonel’s request to the trustees in its March 9th issue) took a jaundiced view of Wallace’s temporizing proposal. “We bespeak the sentiment of the people,” the editors wrote,
when we say that no such proposition will be accepted. We do not know exactly what can be accomplished in thirty days; we know what has not been done in more than two years; and we know what it is necessary to do to make the title as good as that which so many of us have paid for. The latter can not be done in thirty days, if indeed it can be done at all by the townsite company. The trustees will proceed with patenting (loc. cit.).
Col. Wallace, it appeared, was fighting a losing battle in attempting to regain the town’s trust. It is intriguing to try to reconstruct in one’s thoughts the contemporary cultural mindset that would have made the Colonel’s account of his dealings with the GLO in Coeur d’Alene serve as a comfort and reassurance to citizens of Wallace who had bought property from the Wallace Townsite Company.
There were additional curiosities in Col. Wallace’s letter’s arguments and descriptions — one of which I’ll turn to in the next post in this series.