Safeguarding Col. Wallace’s Semi-Sullied Reputation


Wallace, 1887

There are weighty questions in history’s halls – Why did Rome fall?  What launched the Renaissance?  Why the American Civil War?  The following doesn’t deal with one.  It merely touches on one of history’s countless minor footnotes – in this case, here in Wallace.

Author Tony Bamonte offered a long quotation from Richard Magnuson’s Coeur d’Alene Diary at page 59 of his recently published book, Historic Wallace, Idaho and My Unforeseen Ties:

In 1887, the Colonel was called to Coeur d’Alene by the U.S. Land Receiver and informed that the scrip he used to buy the land was no good.  Wallace claimed he then paid the land officer $50 “for advice” and was told the government’s letter informing the land office about the scrip would not become a part of the Land Office records.  Wallace then went to Spokane Falls to buy other land scrip so he could cover his purchase, but he found it was too expensive.  He claimed the land officer told him to sell the land and no one could injure him for it.  The land officer said he would protect him as his attorney…. Wallace contended the entry or issuance of duplicate scrip was fraudulent, and that he would fight to establish his rights.

On March 7, the town council met to consider ways to raise money to get a patent on the town land.  Colonel Wallace asked that nothing be done for 30 days, as a land officer was on the way to investigate his land problem.  His request was not complied with.

Bamonte continued on page 60:

Wallace apparently believed the land officer and had faith that that the issue could be rectified.  According to the previous quoted passage, he did not try to conceal this from the city council, and the Wallace Townsite Company continued selling lots.

Bamonte’s claim that Col. William R. Wallace “…did not try to conceal…” his GLO troubles, I suggest, sprang directly from his placement of Magnuson’s mention of “March 7” into year 1887.  And, yes, if Col. Wallace had revealed his difficulties to the town council as early as March 7, 1887, then, as Bamonte suggested, Col. Wallace could not be said to have engaged in a protracted and deceptive silence about the matter.

But Bamonte was incorrect in placing Magnuson’s “March 7” in 1887.  The meeting Magnuson’s text referenced was held on March 7, 1889, two years later.  It is precisely that two-year gap that gave rise to Col. Wallace’s tarnished reputation regarding his real estate dealings.  He kept his GLO troubles to himself and for two years he sold land he did not actually own in Wallace to unsuspecting buyers.

What indicates Magnuson’s “March 7” referred to 1889 and not 1887?  Magnuson’s book’s discussion of Col. Wallace’s land-claim problem occurs chiefly in his “CHAPTER 13,” titled “TOWNSITE TROUBLE – FEBRUARY – 1889.”  It is a short chapter, less than four pages long, and it is devoted for the most part to the great land rush that occurred in Wallace on February 19, 1889.  This tumultuous event made its way into the national press and even got coverage in The New York Times (on March 1, 1889).   “About a week after the [February 19, 1889] furor started,” wrote Magnuson, “Colonel Wallace made his first extensive explanation of the townsite problem.”

He [Col. Wallace] explained that he had first located and fenced land in Wallace in the spring of 1884 for agricultural purposes.  Later he and Richard Lockey had bought Sioux scrip from the First National Bank of Spokane with which to pay for the 80 acres.

Next, Magnuson began a new paragraph, which paragraph offered a retrospective or flashback to Col. Wallace’s description of events occurring in 1887.  This is the same long paragraph, beginning “In 1887…” that Bamonte quoted on his page 59 and that I’ve reproduced above.  Magnuson’s retrospective or flashback to 1887 ended when this paragraph came to a close.  Magnuson’s next paragraph – beginning with “On March 7” – returned his narrative to events occurring in 1889 in the days following the upheaval of February 19, 1889.

There are numerous reasons for placing Magnuson’s reference to “March 7” in 1889 rather than 1887.  For one, the March 9, 1889 edition of the Wallace Free Press reported a meeting of the town’s trustees on the previous Thursday evening, or March 7.  The Press’s report, moreover, made specific reference to Col. Wallace’s appeal for a little more time, just as Magnuson’s quotation described.  “Before the board was called to order,” reported the Press’s account,

Colonel W. R. Wallace made a verbal proposition to the members to the effect that if they would delay action for thirty days he would give satisfactory evidence of title to this ground, and if he failed to do that within the stated time he would relinquish any and all claims to it.

Of course it is not wholly impossible that another and much earlier meeting also happened on March 7, 1887.  But Wallace did not become an incorporated city in Shoshone County until May of 1888 – a fact Bamonte’s book noted at page 61.  Thus the town of Wallace would not have possessed a “town council” for Col. Wallace to address in March, 1887.  Moreover, Magnuson’s account about Col. Wallace’s “townsite trouble” – which account provided the source for Bamonte’s claim that Col. Wallace was candid early on about his GLO difficulties – explicitly stated that Wallace kept the GLO’s bad news to himself.  “Colonel Wallace,” wrote Magnuson, “…never told the citizens of Wallace about the government’s cancellation” (Coeur d’Alene Diary, page 61).

Bamonte’s discussion appears to afford the suggestion that Col. Wallace’s faith in the rightness and justice of his townsite claim, despite the GLO’s rejection, became regarded by all concerned as an acceptable state of affairs for conducting subsequent real estate transactions, even though the problem remained unresolved.  Bamonte wrote (page 62):

Despite having purchased the Sioux scrip in good faith, then continued to act in good faith while diligently working to develop the townsite, the underlying problem did not get resolved.  On February 19, 1889, by government order, the townsite of Wallace reverted from patented ground to public domain.  An immediate land-jumping melee resulted…

Wallace-townsite-ad-01141888 - adjusted

Wallace Townsite advertisement appearing in the
Wallace Free Press on Jan. 14, 1888.

But Bamonte’s rendering of this aspect of the story is historically incorrect as well.  The town’s February 19, 1889 land rush was not sparked by “government” action relating to Col. Wallace’s land claim.  The rush was instead prompted by a disputed land-claim case in eastern Montana, news of which reached Wallace on February 18, 1889.  On February 18, 1889 the U.S. Interior Department (DOI) published a decision on the case of Allen versus Merrill.  The case involved the same kind of scrip Col. Wallace had attempted to employ in purchasing Wallace’s township’s site.  In the Allen v. Merrill case the Interior Department held that Sioux half-breed scrip could be used only by or on the behalf of the half-breed party to whom it had been issued.  In other words, such scrip could not be traded or sold by third parties for their own use and benefit.  As the Wallace Free Press described, news of the DOI’s decision in the Montana case reached Wallace via the Spokane Review, which newspaper had “a fair list” of subscribers in town and arrived “daily on the afternoon train” (Press, February 23, 1889). The first individual to make the “hasty conclusion” that the DOI’s decision would also cancel Col. Wallace’s claim to Wallace’s townsite, “…hurriedly walked out to the northwest corner of the Carter block, which had long been considered the most desirable property in town, and posted a notice that he claimed a 60X100 feet on said corner.”  As news spread, a wave of hopefuls soon followed and the historic land rush ensued.

Cooler heads however – and fortunately! – soon took charge of the situation.  Let me quote Magnuson’s Coeur d’Alene Diary’s account of what happened next (pages 60-61):

On the following day, at the citizens’ meeting, a committee of five was appointed to check the title of the Wallace townsite.  The meeting then adjourned.  Three of these members went to Coeur d’Alene.  They soon returned to report that the original location (i.e., claim) of Wallace townsite was made on June 5, 1886, by W.R. Wallace, that he had used Sioux scrip, and that duplicate scrip had been issued upon the same scrip used by Colonel Wallace.  The duplicate scrip had been used in locating land in Dakota Territory in 1880.  They reported that the government considered Wallace’s scrip as void, that the U.S. government canceled the Colonel’s notice of location on January 24, 1887, and that he had been so notified by letter dated February 3, 1887.  Colonel Wallace had never told the citizens of Wallace about the government’s cancellation.

The three-man committee selected to make the trip to Coeur d’Alene’s GLO outpost – which comprised J.F. Cameron, P.J. Holohan, and Alfred J. Dunn — returned with what must have been shocking news on Friday, February 22.  Col. Wallace’s title, the committee had discovered, was not affected by the DOI’s Allen v. Merrill case because he’d never actually owned the Wallace townsite in the first place.  This was the first time – i.e., on Friday, February 22, 1889 – the citizens of Wallace and buyers who’d purchased their lots from the Wallace Townsite Company became aware of Col. Wallace’s two-year silence on the matter.

There is a notable irony in Bamonte’s pages on Col. Wallace’s land troubles At page 59, Bamonte reproduced an image of a “Wallace Townsite Co.” advertisement that appeared regularly in the Wallace Free Press.  The ad promoted lots by calling attention to several of the town’s purported advantages – including first class schools, good hotels, good mail facilities, and good supplies of water and timber.  According to Bamonte’s caption, this particular ad appeared on September 10, 1887 – which is to say,  a good seven months after Col. Wallace learned the GLO’s unhappy news about his land claim.  This ad’s image, in other words, lends further evidence to the fact that Col. Wallace promoted the sales of his lots to buyers after becoming aware he did not hold title.

Once the big news of Col. Wallace’s non-ownership of Wallace’s townsite broke, on February 22, 1889, Col. Wallace hastened to offer the public an explanation.  He published two lengthy letters, one in the Spokane Chronicle and the other in the Murray Sun, both appeared on March 1, 1889.  I discussed these two letters in two posts at my blog (“Ron Roizen’s blog”), published on May 3, 2017 and May 4, 2017.  I quote first from the May 3 post:

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.” …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.

I reviewed Col. Wallace’s description of his dealings with the Coeur d’Alene land office in my May 4, 2017 post.  I wrote, in part:

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.

My account more or less echoes what Richard G. Magnuson wrote on the same subject in his Coeur d’Alene Diary and what Tony Bamonte quoted from Magnuson’s book.  This question now arises:  How could Col. Wallace have regarded his description of his dealings with Robert McFarland and the Coeur d’Alene Land Office as providing an adequate and satisfactory account of his subsequent actions?  After all, he was in effect admitting collusion with McFarland.  In what sort of historical and cultural context would such a description of under-the-table dealings, potential bribery, and illicit assurances be said to exculpate or justify Col. Wallace’s subsequent conduct?

The answer to this question lies in the turbulent and corrupted state of the contemporary U.S. General Land Office.  In 1937, historian Harold H. Dunham published a scholarly article on the troubled history of the U.S. General Land Office in this period (Harold H. Dunham, “Some Crucial Years of the General Land Office, 1875-1890,” Agricultural History 11(2):117-141, 1937).  Dunham noted the immense amount of land the GLO was responsible for — almost one billion acres or about half of the nation’s land area.  Owing to Congress’s passage of a number of land-grant provisions in the 1860s and 1870s, huge amounts of land were transferred to private ownership every year.  “For the years 1884 to 1890,” wrote Dunham, “the annual average was about 20,000,000 acres.”  The agency lacked the staff numbers necessary to effectively manage so great a volume of transactions. The Land Office’s employees were underpaid, overworked, and lodged in inadequate facilities, which resulted in high turnover and defections to private interests with hungry appetites for government land.  Bribery was also fostered.  “The unremedied handicaps of the General Land Office – crowded quarters, inadequate personnel, overburdened officials, low pay, and rapid turnover of clerks — contributed to unbusinesslike methods….” wrote Dunham.

Col. Wallace, in his contacts with Robert McFarland, was dealing with an overburdened and corrupted government agency.  The GLO’s dubious practices, moreover, had become, by the time Col. Wallace filed his claim, an open secret all around the American West.  Indeed, it is only in the context of that sort of open secret that Col. Wallace’s letters to the Spokane Chronicle and the Murray Sun, with their frank admissions of under-the-table dealings with GLO, make sense as professions of innocence or as adequate explanations.  The Colonel, in effect, had to swim in the same river with everyone else.  Perhaps we should not be too hard on him.  Still, of course, Col. Wallace’s unsuspecting buyers had more than enough reason to cry foul.

   — Ron Roizen

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