Saturday, July 10, 2004

Check out this bit. It's from the Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West, a volume intended as a reference for the fairly well-educated reader, written by mostly western state-college academics in the 1960s. That is, it's by people who perhaps weren't great stylists (though they all write very clearly and correctly, unlike most academics today) or well-read in medieval Icelandic literature or the Bhagavad-Vita, and certainly didn't know jack about Foucault or Fanon, but who knew their branch of history cold and reported it honestly. Their like is long-gone on today's American campuses.

Well, it seems that Idaho, in the 1860s when it was a territory and hadn't reached statehood yet, consisted mostly of the parts of the Northwest that other states didn't want because they were out in the middle of Assboink, Bumsquat. There was a mining area in the northern part of the state centered on Lewiston and an agricultural area in the southern part centered on Boise. The Boise area had nine-tenths of Idaho's population, and the Lewiston area only 10%, so guess which part of the state got its way. The only way to get between Lewiston and Boise was via Portland, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City, because of a rough range of mountains and canyons and desert between the two towns. It didn't help matters any that many of the Boise area people were Mormons moving up from Utah; Mormons were not real popular along about that time in that place. Anyway, not only could they not figure out what Idaho's boundaries were supposed to be, they couldn't decide which town would be the capital.

Even without the boundary arguments, few territiories had anything like the sad experience that afflicted Idaho while setting up a territorial government. William Henson Wallace, the governor who organized the territory, immediately got himself elected to Congress as Idaho's delegate. His successor, Caleb Lyon, a political oddity from upstate New York, moved from one catastrophe to another. During the 1864 capital dispute, Lyon attempted to solve the problem by delivering five speeches on his experiences in the Holy Land. He also escaped clandestinely from Lewiston under the pretence of hunting ducks. "Fleeing from the mandate of a probate judge", he left Idaho with no executive department at all; finally, his private secretary decided to take over until a legal official might show up. Afther three months a new territorial secretary, C. DeWitt Smith, reached Lewiston. With military support, he took the territorial seal and archives away from a vigilant armed guard provided by Lewiston's alert citizens, who were resisting permanent location of the capital in Boise. Smith did not last long in Boise. At the end of a strenuous chess game in Rocky Bar, August 19, 1865, he suddenly expired from the effects of a "dismal and melancholy disease". That left Idaho once again with no government. No one knew for sure where the capital was, and the supreme court had not yet succeeded in organizing itself into existence. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Caleb Lyon beat W.H. Wallace in a hard-fought contest for the dubious honor of returning to Idaho as governor.

While Lyon was on the way to Boise, Horace C. Gilson took over the government and soon got himself appointed secretary. An ill-chosen associate of C. DeWitt Smith (who had found him in a San Francisco saloon), Gilson came poorly recommended because of his doubtful "moral antecedents". Gilson and Lyon made an interesting pair. They managed to dodge serious conflict with a bitterly hostile Democratic Party legislature, but in the spring of 1866 they quietly left town. Gilson took along the entire territorial treasury of $41,062 in federal funds, and Lyon escaped with the entire Nez Percé Indian treasury of $46,418.40, to have been used for treaty payments. Lyon had been dismissed because of his policy of treating the Indians decently. Refusing to go along with local sentiment, he blocked a campaign to exterminate the local Shoshoni. But he learned his lesson quickly, and when he got through, nobody could doubt that he had made up for his mistake in trying to help the Indians. No recovery was ever made from either Lyon or Gilson in this defalcation.

With Lyon's departure in April 1866, Idaho ended up with no government again. Location of the capital was still in litigation, but at last the supreme court got organized in time to dismiss the Lewiston complaints and injunctions on June 14. Just then David W. Ballard turned up as governor, and from then on, Idaho at least had a functioning territorial administration. It was about time. A few loose ends from the period of original chaos had to be cleared up. The supreme court, for example, noticed at last that Congressional delinquency in drafting the Idaho organic act had forced the territory to operate without criminal law until early in 1864, when the legislature corrected the oversight. Straightening out territorial finances posed more of a problem and took until 1869.

I forgot who said it, probably H.L. Mencken or Robert Benchley or someone of that ilk: "God looks out for children, fools, drunks, puppy dogs, and the Republic of the United States of America."

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