Lincoln County voters choose Davenport over Sprague as county seat on November 3, 1896.

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/24/2006
  • Essay 7870
On November 3, 1896, Davenport emerges as the winner in the protracted battle over which town will be county seat of Lincoln County. It is the third time in a dozen years that Lincoln County residents have voted on the question. Davenport residents, nearly delirious with excitement, celebrate with bonfires and a brass band.

Davenport's Machinations

When Lincoln County was created in 1883, Davenport was named temporary county seat through the political maneuverings of town boosters I. N. Peyton and John C. Davenport. At the time Sprague would have been a more obvious choice for county seat: It was by far the infant county's largest town and was the only town in the county with a rail connection. Davenport, on the other hand, consisted of only two houses with sparse settlement around its fringes and had as yet no rail connection. Sprague residents were outraged, but decided not to block the bill creating Lincoln County since Davenport's designation was temporary and they could surely best the town in any popular vote.

In November 1884 the question of where Lincoln County's seat should be permanently located was put to vote. Three candidates for county seat appeared on the ballot in the 1884 election: Sprague, Davenport, and Harrington. In 1883 Washington women had secured the right to vote (a right they would lose again in 1887, briefly regain in January 1888, lose in August 1888, and finally regain in 1910), enabling Lincoln County's adult (white) females the chance to weigh in on the county seat issue.

By Some Hocus-Pocus

An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties State of Washington, published in 1904, states:

"Few voters entitled to vote failed to exercise that privilege ... . This contest was, indeed, spirited. Preceding election day Davenport was hopeful; even jubilant. But the majority vote declared that Sprague was to be the permanent county seat of Lincoln county. Charges of fraud were at once preferred. Sprague on that day cast over one thousand votes. This, it was alleged, were as many, if not more, than the entire roster of the inhabitants of the town. It is a matter of record that this number is nearly twice as many as the town polled before or since that eventful day. Many stories are told of how Sprague 'got out' the vote in this election. In the heat of another county seat fight six years later, the editor of the Lincoln County Times tells his version of how the town of Sprague won the contest of 1884: 'By invading the holy sanctity of God's acre, where hallowed ground is bedewed with the tears of broken-hearted mourners and voting the names inscribed upon the marble shafts sacred to the memory of some beloved one. By forcing innocent little children to vote, whose very natures, guided in paths of probity through the influence of the orisons whispered at the mother's knee, rebelled against the crime. By voting passengers on through trains who had no more interest in Lincoln county than the natives of Alaska, and who, without considering the responsibility of defrauding a people, looked upon the transaction as a joke' " (p. 80).
The Wilbur Register added, "Many indictments were brought for illegal voting, but by some hocus-pocus none of them ever reached trial" (November 20, 1896). The Sprague Herald countered, "In that election Davenport polled 192 votes on the county seat question, while in 1886, two years later, her entire vote was 79. And yet in the face of these figures she has the audacity to charge fraud upon the people of Sprague" (An Illustrated History, p. 80).


An Armed Mob

At 2:30 in the morning on November 13, 1884, the Lincoln County elections commissioners concluded a protracted examination of the electoral results with the announcement that the county seat results were upheld and that county offices should be removed to Sprague at the earliest opportunity. The commissioners announced that they, too, would remove to Sprague that very afternoon. A few days later Lincoln County officials leased a building in Sprague to serve as the county courthouse.

Davenport residents, however, refused to allow the county records to be removed to Sprague. The Lincoln County Board of Commissioners, fearing that the records might be harmed or destroyed and lamenting at the impossibility of conducting county business without them, met daily trying to devise a method of safely procuring them. On November 18, 1884, they sent a desperate telegram to Territorial Governor Watson C. Squire (1836-1926) in Olympia. The telegram read:

"An armed mob has forcibly taken possession of our county records and refuse to deliver them to the proper county officers. The sheriff is unable to disperse the mob or recover the records. Can you assist our sheriff? Please answer. John Bartol, W.A. Busey, John McGourin" (An Illustrated History, p. 81).
Sheriff John Cody (a cousin of Wild West Show impresario William "Buffalo Bill" Cody) sent his own similarly worded, plaintive telegram to Governor Squire.


Davenport residents, meanwhile, posted a heavy guard around the town and sent a messenger to Olympia in attempt to secure an injunction preventing the removal of the records. An Illustrated History describes the scene:

"The roads leading to Davenport from all directions were lined with men carrying muskets, revolvers, Winchesters, and other weapons of warfare, all determined to hold the fort at Davenport. For three long weeks night and day did they garrison the city ... . The injunction was not secured. Becoming weary of waiting one by one the members of the 'army' returned to their homes. Meanwhile Sprague was awaiting her opportunity. Suddenly a force swept down upon Davenport from sixty to one hundred strong and armed to the teeth. No resistance was made. Davenport surrendered the county records" (p. 82).
This was accomplished, the Lincoln County Times later said, "without the burning of powder or the spilling of gore" (An Illustrated History, p. 82).


Davenport Foiled Again

Sprague, county records at last secured, took up the daily responsibilities of a county seat. Davenport meanwhile grew stealthily and steadily, gaining a Northern Pacific rail connection in 1889 and accumulating residents more rapidly thereafter. Eager to regain the county seat, Davenport residents agreed to build a $10,000 county courthouse at their own expense if chosen by the voters. In the summer of 1890, 1,200 Lincoln County residents signed a petition requesting that county commissioners put the issue to a vote in the November election. Sprague residents demanded that the Davenport boosters place the courthouse money in a trust account, which they promptly did.

When the votes were counted after the election, Sprague was found to have received a majority of the two-thirds vote required, and so retained the county seat.

Davenport tried unsuccessfully two times to have the northern portion of Lincoln County partitioned off into a new county, called Big Bend, for which Davenport would be the seat. Sprague, predictably, objected to this plan and nothing came of it.

The Worm Turns

On August 3, 1895, Sprague suffered a devastating fire that destroyed nearly the entire town. The town had served as division headquarters for the Northern Pacific Railroad, but nearly all of the railroad's buildings burned down in the blaze and the Northern Pacific announced that it would not rebuild but instead would transfer the division headquarters to Spokane Falls (now Spokane). An Illustrated History called this "a blow harder than the fire" (p. 107).

By early 1896 Davenport residents were agitating for yet another election to decide Lincoln County's seat. County commissioners acquiesced and Davenport formally entered the race on April 6. On April 25, Harrington residents announced that their town, too, was a candidate. Residents of Edwall and Wilbur pondered seeking the honor, but in the end abstained. An Illustrated History explains somewhat ruefully, "It is generally admitted that Harrington was not very sanguine of securing the prize. It was at the earnest solicitation of Sprague and for the sole purpose of dividing the vote in order to prevent relocation" (p. 107).

On September 18, 1896, Davenport residents executed a bond for $18,800 to fund construction of a county courthouse and a county jail if Davenport emerged victorious. The language of the bond specified, with the tiniest nod to irony, that it would also fund removal of the county records from Sprague to Davenport.

On November 3, 1896, Davenport swept to victory with 1,582 votes (59 of those from Harrington residents). Sprague received 537 votes. Harrington trailed the race with 240 votes.

Davenport residents celebrated giddily, forming a torchlight procession and repeatedly following a brass band up and down Morgan Street. "Cheer after cheer went forth from the procession," reported the Spokesman-Review, "and was re-echoed by those who thronged the sidewalks ... . Bonfires and the firing of anvils were the other features of the celebration" (An Illustrated History... p. 110).

Sprague released the county records, Davenport built a county courthouse, and in 1899 the old county courthouse at Sprague was sold at auction to a group of Methodists who resold it the next year to local Catholic parishioners. In 1905 the remodeled courthouse became home to the St. Joseph Academy, Lincoln County's first parochial and boarding school, founded in 1877.

Sources: An Illustrated History of the Big Bend Country Embracing Lincoln, Douglas, Adams, and Franklin Counties State of Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishers, 1904); Lincoln County A Lasting Legacy ed. by Donald E. Walter (Davenport: Lincoln County Centennial Committee, 1988); "History," Lincoln County Washington website accessed July 10, 2006 (; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Washington Territorial Legislature Creates Lincoln County on November 1, 1883" (by Paula Becker) and "Washington Women Win and Lose the Vote between 1883 and 1888" (by Mildred Andrews), (accessed July 25, 2006); Wilbur Register, November 20, 1896; "Six Little-Known Facts About the Sisters of Providence in the West," Sisters of Providence -- Mother Joseph Province website accessed July 26, 2006 (

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