Safeguarding Col. Wallace’s semi-sullied reputation: Part 1

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Courtesy photo 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 Feb. 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 [Feb. 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 Feb. 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’ 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’ 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 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…

But Bamonte’s rendering of this aspect of the story is historically incorrect as well. The town’s Feb. 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 Feb. 18, 1889. On Feb. 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, Feb. 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 60-by-100 feet on said corner.” As news spread, a wave of hopefuls soon followed and the historic land rush ensued.

• • •

Read part 2 of Roizen’s piece in the Wednesday, March 14, edition of the Shoshone News-Press. Parts 1 and 2 can also be found online at www.shoshonenewspress.com. For more of Roizen’s works including this one, visit his blog at https://ronroizen.wordpress.com.

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