Washington Territorial Legislature creates Lincoln County on November 1, 1883.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 7/24/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7858
On November 1, 1883, the Washington Territorial Legislature creates Lincoln County. It does so by partitioning the very large Spokane County into Spokane and Lincoln counties. The new Lincoln County contains the future Douglas and Grant counties. The Legislature will separate out Douglas County (which contains the future Grant County) four days later.

Railroad Politics

Judge Nathan T. Caton (b. 1832) wrote the bill creating Lincoln County. Settlers of the proposed county favored the bill, but the Northern Pacific Railway Company opposed it. The town of Cheney, named for Northern Pacific director Benjamin P. Cheney (1815-1895), was the county seat of large pre-division Spokane County, and Northern Pacific officials were determined that it should remain so.

Correctly predicting that if Spokane County was reduced by two-thirds, as it would be if Lincoln County were separated out, Spokane Falls (now Spokane) would be more centrally located in the smaller Spokane County and would become the county seat, railroad officials fought vigorously, but unsuccessfully, against division.

Persuading Colonel Houghton

When Caton's division bill was first introduced, the proposed county was named Sprague, not Lincoln. John W. Sprague was at the time a general superintendent for the Northern Pacific. Sprague, however, had made an enemy of former Northern Pacific official Colonel Joseph H. Houghton. Houghton was a member of the 1883 Washington Territorial Legislature and opposed the notion of creating any county named to honor Sprague. An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties, State of Washington, written in 1904, details how Caton overcame Houghton's opposition:

"It appeared to Mr. Caton that much of his opposition might arise from the proposed name of the new county. He sought an interview with the ex-official of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. 'Colonel,' said Mr. Caton, 'it appears to me that we are making a mistake in naming this new county for a living person. One can never be sure in such a case that the name will reflect credit upon the community. On the other hand if we name it after some one who has gone before and upon whose name there can be no stain, we run no risk of the name disgracing us. Now, as we are naming the other counties in the Big Bend country after noted Americans who have passed away, what do you say to changing the name of this one from Sprague to Lincoln?' 'Just the proper thing,' replied Colonel Houghton, and from that time he became a supporter of the bill" (p. 76).

The bill unanimously passed the Council but was strongly opposed in the house. The bill named no county seat, but I. N. Peyton and John C. Davenport lobbied for the townsite of Davenport to be named temporary county seat. At the time Davenport had exactly two houses and no rail line came near. Canton submitted the bill, but named the town of Sprague as temporary county seat. Peyton managed to have Sprague stricken from the bill and Davenport substituted as temporary county seat.

Davenport vs. Sprague

The Sprague Herald reported on July 23, 1890:

"It was thought that the change would kill the bill, for the wildest imagination never supposed a county seat would be located at a place thirty miles from a railway and telegraphic communication, and approachable only by wagon roads which during the winter were impassable, and that, too, a place existing only in name.� But the people of Sprague concluded to accept the bill as amended relying on the good sense of the voters of Lincoln County to restore her birthright, in which she was not disappointed" (An Illustrated History, 77).
An Illustrated History describes what it calls "a mass-meeting" held in Sprague. The citizens of the town debated whether to oppose the bill as long as Davenport was named temporary county seat, and quotes an unnamed attendee as stating, "it is true, fellow citizens, that we have been betrayed and deceived. We have asked for bread and been given a stone ... [but it is better to] accept the bill, then, even in its obnoxious form, and trust to the whirligig of time to set all things right" (p. 78).

The bill passed by a narrow margin of 13 to 9 on November 1, 1883, and Washington Territorial Governor William A. Newell (1817-1901) approved it on November 24, 1883. John Bartol, Edward Willis, and John McGourin were appointed county commissioners.

Working the Whirligig of Time

On November 28, 1883, four days after Lincoln County's creation was approved, the Washington Territorial Legislature reduced the boundaries of Lincoln County by dividing Douglas County out of Lincoln County. (Not until February 24, 1909, was Grant County was carved out of Douglas County.)

In November 1884, the question of naming a permanent county seat was put to vote and Sprague emerged victorious. Davenport residents at first refused to surrender the county records. Eventually, an armed raiding party from Sprague liberated the records. (In 1896 Davenport regained the county seat.)

Lincoln County Defined

Lincoln County's boundaries were defined as follows (Note that land in the United States has been surveyed and divided into units of 36 square miles, called townships):

"Beginning at the point in Township number 27 N, where the Colville guide meridian between ranges 39 and 40 E.,W.M., intersects the Spokane river, and running thence south along said meridian line to the township line between townships numbered 20 and 21 N.; thence west along said township line to its intersection with the Columbia guide meridian between ranges numbered 30 and 31 E., E.W.M.; thence south along said meridian line to the township lines between townships numbered 16 and 17 N; thence west along said township line to the range line between ranges 27 and 28 E.W.M.; thence south along said range line to the section line between sections numbered 24 and 25, in Township number 14N, of Range 27 E., W.M.; thence west on said section line to the mid channel of the Columbia river; thence up said river in the middle of the channel thereof to the mouth of the Spokane river; thence up said Spokane river, in the middle of the channel thereof, to the place of beginning" (Abbott and Carver, p. 141).

Sources: Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, compiled by J. W. Helm, The Evolution of Washington Counties (Yakima: Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978), p. 141; An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties, State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishers, 1904), p. 77; "Spokane County -- Thumbnail History," (by Ann M. Colford), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed July 7, 2006).

Related Topics:   Counties

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