Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates City of Walla Walla on January 11, 1862.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 6/01/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10387

On January 11, 1862, the Washington Territorial Legislature in Olympia formally incorporates the "City of Walla Walla," the largest community in the then-vast Walla Walla County, which was created eight years earlier from part of the existing Skamania County. This first incorporation law defines the city's geographical limits, establishes a mayor-council form of government, mandates the creation of certain city departments and appoints temporary officials, and orders that elections be held four months later. Over the next two decades the city will grow dramatically, and by 1880 it will be the largest, by population, in all of Washington Territory. Due in part to this growth, the Territorial Legislature will amend the corporate charter several times, both to expand the city's boundaries and to increase its powers. An entirely new act of incorporation will be passed in 1883.

Indigenes and Immigrants

The Walla Walla Valley in south central Washington was for millennia home to a number of Native American groups, including members of the Walla Walla, the Nez Perce, the Cayuse, and the Umatilla tribes. With the arrival of the first non-Natives a new era began, one that would begin slowly but would eventually lead to the displacement of most of the indigenous populations and their replacement by booming communities of pioneers. The town of Walla Walla, first named in November 1859, would play a central part in the economic and social development of this rich swath of agricultural land. Its early and pivotal role in the growth of what would become Washington state has led some to label it "the cradle of Pacific Northwest history" (Becker).

The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) and guided by Sacagawea (ca. 1788-1812), entered the northern part of what is now Walla Walla County in 1805 while traveling westward down the Snake River. On their return trip east they started their overland trek after leaving the Columbia River near what would become the town of Wallula, 30 miles west of today's city of Walla Walla. There is little doubt that lone trappers and prospectors preceded them, but it was they who first called the area "Wollaw Wollah," borrowing from Nez Perce and Cayuse words that meant "running," perhaps a reference to the fast-flowing waters of the Walla Walla River.

The first substantial and persistent white presence in the region, mostly men drawn and sustained by trapping, trading, and later mining, included employees of the Canadian-owned North West Fur Company, John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company, and the fabled British-owned Hudson's Bay Company that built forts and trading posts throughout the region and would become its major commercial enterprise. But it was the North West Fur Company that, in 1818, established the first fort in the Walla Walla region, building a sturdy redoubt on the east bank of the Columbia at the site of what would later become the town of Wallula. (The original town of Wallula disappeared beneath the backwaters of McNary Dam in 1952, to be replaced by a new community of the same name sited nearby on higher ground.) This outpost, a massive wooden structure dubbed "The Gibralter of the Columbia," was initially named Fort Nez Perces (sometimes spelled "Fort Nez Perce"), but soon became known as the first Fort Walla Walla (Wilma). When the North West and Hudson's Bay companies merged their operations in 1821, it became part of the latter's growing network of forts and trading posts.

Growing Slowly

The British Hudson's Bay Company and other early commercial enterprises dominated non-Native life in the Pacific Northwest for many years. The first permanent white settlers in the region that included the Walla Walla area lived on land claimed by two nations, the United States and Great Britain. It was not until 1846 and the signing of the Treaty of Oregon that all the lands south of the 49th parallel became indisputably part of the United States.

Oregon Territory was created by Congress in 1848 and stretched from the new border with Canada south to the California border, and east through all of Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 spurred a large migration westward. In 1853, Washington Territory was carved off from Oregon Territory, and the following year Walla Walla County, a huge swath of land that then encompassed half the territory, was created. In 1859 Oregon was made a state, a status Washington would not achieve for another 30 years. 

There was an interruption in the settlement of the Walla Walla Valley and environs between 1855 and 1859. The first territorial governor, Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), who was also the Superintendent of Indian Affairs, had "negotiated" treaties with Indian tribes across the territory in order to free up land for new settlement. These treaties removed most of the tribes from their ancestral lands and gave little in return, with much of what was promised never delivered (although years later tribes were able to attain a measure of political and legal vindication of rights enumerated in those treaties). One of the treaty councils was the First Walla Walla Council, a tense, 11-day gathering held in May 1855, near present-day Walla Walla. It included representatives of the Yakama, Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Cayuse tribes, but there was little unity among them. Several tribal leaders signed the resulting treaty with deep reservations and unconcealed anger. By the following December open conflict erupted in the first battles of what became known as the Indian War, which ended with the defeat of the tribes in 1858.

During most of the war period all immigration into the eastern half of Washington Territory was halted by military edict, but with the return of peace settlers would make up for lost time. On March 18, 1858, even before the last battles were fought, a new Fort Walla Walla was established, this time by the U.S. Army, and a new town, also to be called Walla Walla, started to grow on its outskirts. The Hudson's Bay Company, its possessions guaranteed by the 1846 treaty, held on for several years, but finally decamped to Canada for good in 1860.

Growing Quickly

On October 31, 1858, General William S. Harney (1800-1889) lifted the ban on white settlement east of the Cascades, and a pent-up horde of settlers and miners soon followed. In the words of historian Edmond Meany (1862-1935):

"a crowd of settlers swarmed into the region. By April, 1859, two thousand home-seekers and miners had spread over eastern Washington ... . Around the new Fort Walla Walla grew a new city, at first called Steptoe City, but later known as Walla Walla. This  brisk trade of farmers and miners developed the city so rapidly that it soon rivaled The Dalles. Walla Walla was  the outfitting point for the Oro Fino mines of Idaho, then a part of Washington, and in 1860 and 1861, thousands of men rushed to those fields" (Meany, 234).

The new town of Walla Walla was named and platted in 1859 and soon became the center of commercial activity for the region. So rapid was the population growth east of the Cascades that in 1861 an unsuccessful proposal was brought to the floor of Congress asking that a "Territory of Walla Walla" be created from the eastern half of Washington Territory (Meany, 236).

An Official City and a County Seat

Just one year later, in 1862, the Washington Territorial Legislature incorporated the City of Walla Walla and appointed it the Walla Walla County seat. Between 1860 and 1870 the county's population would explode, growing from 1,318 to 3,982, an increase of slightly more than 300 percent. It was by far the most populous county in the Washington Territory, and in the 1870 census the city of Walla Walla, with 1,394 residents, edged out both Olympia and Seattle to become the territory's largest. The county and the city would remain the most populous in the territory for most of the next decade, but by the 1890 census both had been surpassed by several others, although Walla Walla remained the second largest city east of the Cascades, behind only Spokane.

The original act incorporating the City of Walla Walla was enacted on January 11, 1862. It defined the new city's boundaries as:

"That portion of land known and designated upon the surveys of the United States, in the Territory of Washington, as the southwest and southeast quarters of the southwest quarter of section number twenty, in township number seven, north of range number thirty-six east, Willamette meridian" (1861-1862 Wash. Laws  Ch. XXIV, sec. 801).

The act prescribed a mayor-council form of government and directed  that elections be held to fill these and several other posts:

"The government of said city shall be vested in, first, a mayor; second, a recorder; third, a common council, consisting of five members, who shall severally hold their offices until the next annual meeting after their election, and until their successors shall be qualified. There shall also be elected at the same time, a city marshal, city assessor, city treasurer and city surveyor" (1861-1862 Wash. Laws Ch. XXIV, sec. 801).

The law then prescribed the powers of the mayor and council, which included the power to make laws, to impose a limited property tax, and to create roads and remove obstructions thereon. Although the statute was relatively brief, particularly when compared to later legislation, it was sufficient to permit the City to get on about its business.

First Laws, First Leaders

The 1862 charter establishing the City of Walla Walla designated men to fill the newly created offices pending elections scheduled for the first week in April of that year. B. P. Standeferd was appointed mayor, and the first council members were H. C. Coulson, B. F. Stone, E. B. Whitman (1824-1899), D. S. Baker (1823-1888), and M. Schwabacher. George H. Porter was appointed town marshal. The incorporating statute directed that the mayor and council members would serve without pay until such time as the City of Walla Walla attained a population of 1,000.

Things did not start smoothly; at the very first council meeting it was determined that two members, Schwabacher  and Coulson, were ineligible to serve as they were not residents of the city. B. F. Stone, the presiding council member, appointed James McAuliff (b.1828) and George E. Cole to replace them. The full council then elected Edward Nugent to be city attorney and appointed McAuliff, Whitman, and Stone to prepare a code of procedural rules to guide its future actions.

On April 1, 1862, an election was held to permit town residents to choose their own government officials. The results were: Mayor, E. B. Whitman; councilmen, J. F. Abbott (1823-1896), R. Jacobs, I. T. Reese, B. F. Stone, and B. Sheideman; recorder, W. P. Horton; marshal, George H. Porter; city attorney, Edward Nugent; assessor, L. W. Greenwell; treasurer, E. E. Kelly; surveyor, A. L Chapman; clerk, S. F. Ledyard.

Further problems ensued. The April 5, 1862, edition of the Washington Statesman, Walla Walla's sole newspaper, alleged that many ballots were cast by persons ineligible to vote in the election:

"It is a fact apparent to all that many illegal votes were cast at this election. Several votes were cast by men who the judges should have known resided outside of the corporation; and we are credibly informed that men who for years have been known by the community to reside miles out in the country were permitted to vote without their right being questioned. From the best information we can gain, there are not to exceed three hundred bona fide voters within the city limits, and yet nearly five hundred votes were polled at the election! With one exception, the majorities over the opposing candidate were small, and where so many confessedly illegal votes were cast, it is not unlikely that in some instance the will of the actual voters was thwarted and set aside by the interference of a class of men who had no right to vote and who have no interests whatever in the city" ("Election Results").

The paper's reservations notwithstanding, the results of the City of Walla Walla's first election were certified and the elected officials were installed in their various positions. However, one week after the vote, council member J. F. Abbott resigned and was replaced by W. Phillips. Less than a year later, in January 1863, B. F. Stone also resigned from the council and was replaced by J. Hellmuth. It does not appear that these resignations were due to the protests of the Washington Statesman.

Change from Without

The 1862 statute incorporating the City of Walla Walla contained a standard clause noting that the Territorial Legislature "may at any time alter, amend or repeal this charter" (1861-1862 Wash. Laws Ch. XXIV, sec. 801). It was not too long before this reserved power was exercised, and over the next 20 years it would be exercised frequently. Before 1862 was out, a new statute was passed allowing Walla Walla to levy an additional tax, specifically "for the purpose of removing buildings and other obstructions from the cross streets of said city" (1861-1862 Wash. Laws Ch. XXIV, sec. 801 1/2). More amendments would come in future years, expanding the boundaries of the city, increasing its powers, even authorizing such seemingly mundane tasks as the purchase by the City of a steam fire engine and the levy of additional taxes to pay for it.

For  the next 15 years, the Territorial Legislature's multiple tweaks and substantive changes to the Walla Walla incorporation statutes challenged the imagination of those whose job it was to write titles for new laws. In 1873 the legislature produced "An Act to Amend an Act Entitled 'An Act to Incorporate the City of Walla Walla'" (1873 Wash. Laws Ch. XXIV, sec. 809). The meaning of this, with some effort, could be understood. But just five years later the code revisers were forced into this tortured construction: "An Act to Amend an Act Entitled 'An Act to Amend an Act Entitled "An Act to Incorporate the City of Walla Walla"'" (1877 Wash.  Laws Ch. XXIV, sec. 811). Even for a code reviser, this was at least one clause too far.

Two years later, in 1879, the legislature passed another amendment, wisely titling this one simply "An Act to Amend the Charter of the City of Walla Walla" (1879 Wash. Laws, Ch. XXIV, sec. 812). Perhaps encouraged by this new-found clarity, the legislature in 1883 started anew with a clean slate, passing "An Act to Incorporate the City of Walla Walla and to Particularly Define the Powers Thereof" (1883 Wash Laws, Ch. XXIV, sec. 813). Much of it was a reiteration of previous provisions, but the boundaries of the city and certain of its powers were again expanded. And, just to avoid future confusion, the legislation specified that any previous legislation not consistent with the new statute was automatically repealed. With that, the Territorial Legislature seemed done tinkering with the still-young City of Walla Walla, and it was left largely on its own.

Change from Within

In 1862 when the City of Walla Walla was first chartered, the only form of city government recognized in Washington Territory was that consisting of a mayor and a city council. As explained by the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington:

"This form consists of an elected mayor (elected at-large) who serves as the city's chief administrative officer and a council (elected either at-large or from districts) which is responsible for formulating and adopting city policies. The mayor-council form is characterized by a separation of executive and legislative powers and a system of checks and balances patterned after our traditional national and state governments" ("Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities").

Shortly after the start of the twentieth century, a new configuration for municipal governments became popular, known as the "commission" form. It differed in substantive ways from the mayor/council arrangement, having

"a small council whose members functioned collectively as the city legislative body and individually as city department heads. In theory, combining executive and legislative responsibility in one small elected body was supposed to result in increased political accountability and a more efficient and responsive city government" ("Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities").

Many of Washington 's larger cities adopted this form soon after it was developed, including, in 1911, Walla Walla. The commission form of city government would remain popular until as late as the 1940s, but then quickly fell out of favor. But Walla Walla would cling to it for nearly half a century, until 1959.

Yet  another variety of city government appeared in 1908 when Staunton, Virginia, adopted what was subsequently called a "council-manager" system in 1908. This form provides for

"an elected city council, which is responsible for policy making, and a professional city manager, appointed by the council, who is responsible for administration. The city manager is directly accountable to, and can be removed by the council. Although mayors in council-manager cities have no administrative or executive duties they do serve as the chair of the city council and often play a prominent political leadership role" ("Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities").

The legislature did not authorize the council-manager form of government in Washington state until 1943, and it would be several years until Sunnyside, in 1948, became the first city to adopt it. In 1954 the citizens of Walla Walla defeated a measure to change their government to the council-manager form. By the late 1950s, only a small minority, about 8 percent, of Washington cities would still be using the commission form of government.

The matter came up for a vote again in Walla Walla in 1959, and on November 4 the city's voters mandated a change to the council-manager form by a margin of 3,107 to 2,350. Today (2013) Walla Walla is classified as a code city under Washington law, and it retains the council-manager system.

The 2010 census counted 31,731 residents in the city of Walla Walla, making it the 24th largest city in the state. Although it lost the title of largest city in the state well more than a century ago, it has remained a thriving center of commerce for the agricultural bounty of south-central Washington.


"Election Results," Washington Statesman, April 5, 1862, p. 2; "New Charter Decision Due," The Spokesman-Review, October 31, 1954, p. 29; "Walla Walla Voters Adopt Manager Plan," The Seattle Times, November 4, 1959, p. 5; Shaun Reeser, "Fraud! Walla Walla's First Election," Eastern Washington University Public History Program website accessed May 1, 2013 (http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/frontier_justice/settlers_essay4.html); Shaun Reeser, "Early Settlers in Walla Walla," Eastern Washington University Public History Program website accessed May 1, 2013 (http://www.narhist.ewu.edu/frontier_justice/settlers.html); T. O. Abbott, Real Property Statutes of Washington Territory from 1843-1889 (Olympia: The State Printing and Publishing Company, 1892); Thomas W. Prosch, "The Indian War in Washington Territory," The Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 16, No. 1 (March 1915), pp. 1-23; Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1909), 234, 236; William Denison Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); William Denison Lyman, An Illustrated History of Walla Walla County, State of Washington (San Francisco?: W. H. Lever, 1901); "Washington City 2011 Population, Property and Sales Tax Information Sorted by Population," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed May 1, 2013 (http://www.mrsc.org/subjects/finance/ctytax11p.aspx); "Washington City and Town Profiles," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed April 30, 2013 (http://www.mrsc.org/cityprofiles/); Byron Katsuyama and Lynn Nordby, "Trends in Forms of Government in Washington Cities," Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington website accessed April 30, 2013 (http://www.mrsc.org/subjects/governance/trends.aspx); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Walla Walla -- Thumbnail History" (by Michael J. Paulus Jr.), and "Walla Walla County -- Thumbnail History" (by Paula Becker), and "North West Company builds Fort Nez Perces on future site of Wallula in 1818" (by David Wilma), and "Congress creates Territory of Oregon on August 14, 1848" (by Walt Crowley), and "Washington Territorial Legislature forms Walla Walla County out of Skamania County on April 25, 1854" (by David Wilma), and "Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens convenes the First Walla Walla Council with Native American tribes on May 29, 1855" (by Stephen B. Emerson), and "Town of Walla Walla is named on November 17, 1859" (by Michael J. Paulus Jr.), and "Britain cedes its claims to the Pacific Northwest by signing the Treaty of Oregon on June 15, 1846" (by Walt Crowley), and "Washington Territorial Legislature incorporates the City of Vancouver on January 23, 1857" (by John Caldbick), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed May 1 and August 16, 2013).
Note: This essay was revised on August 16, 2013, regarding the spelling of "Fort Nez Perces."

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