Safeguarding Col. Wallace’s semi-sullied reputation: Part 2

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Cooler heads however — and fortunately! — soon took charge of the situation. Let me quote Magnuson’s Coeur d’Alene Diary’s account of what happened next (pages 60-61):

On the following day, at the citizens’ meeting, a committee of five was appointed to check the title of the Wallace townsite. The meeting then adjourned. Three of these members went to Coeur d’Alene. They soon returned to report that the original location (i.e., claim) of Wallace townsite was made on June 5, 1886, by W.R. Wallace, that he had used Sioux scrip, and that duplicate scrip had been issued upon the same scrip used by Colonel Wallace. The duplicate scrip had been used in locating land in Dakota Territory in 1880. They reported that the government considered Wallace’s scrip as void, that the U.S. government canceled the Colonel’s notice of location on Jan. 24, 1887, and that he had been notified by letter dated Feb. 3, 1887. Colonel Wallace had never told the citizens of Wallace about the government’s cancellation.

The three-man committee selected to make the trip to Coeur d’Alene’s GLO outpost — which comprised J.F. Cameron, P.J. Holohan and Alfred J. Dunn — returned with what must have been shocking news on Friday, Feb. 22. Col. Wallace’s title, the committee had discovered, was not affected by the DOI’s Allen v. Merrill case because he’d never actually owned the Wallace townsite in the first place. This was the first time — i.e., on Friday, Feb. 22, 1889 — the citizens of Wallace and buyers who’d purchased their lots from the Wallace Townsite Company became aware of Col. Wallace’s two-year silence on the matter.

There is a notable irony in Bamonte’s pages on Col. Wallace’s land troubles at page 59, Bamonte reproduced an image of a “Wallace Townsite Co.” advertisement that appeared regularly in the Wallace Free Press. The ad promoted lots by calling attention to several of the town’s purported advantages — including first class schools, good hotels, good mail facilities, and good supplies of water and timber. According to Bamonte’s caption, this particular ad appeared on Sept. 10, 1887 — which is to say, a good seven months after Col. Wallace learned the GLO’s unhappy news about his land claim. This ad’s image, in other words, lends further evidence to the fact that Col. Wallace promoted the sales of his lots to buyers after becoming aware he did not hold title.

Once the big news of Col. Wallace’s non-ownership of Wallace’s townsite broke, on Feb. 22, 1889, Col. Wallace hastened to offer the public an explanation. He published two lengthy letters, one in the Spokane Chronicle and the other in the Murray Sun, both appeared on March 1, 1889. I discussed these two letters in two posts at my blog (“Ron Roizen’s blog”), published on May 3, 2017, and May 4, 2017. I quote first from the May 3 post:

Wallace’s defensive effort, as reflected in his two letters, might be divided into three rhetorical elements: (1) a sweat-equity argument, (2) a legally-I’m-in-the-right argument, and (3) a fuller description of his account of his interactions with the General Land Office in Coeur d’Alene. Wallace’s sweat-equity argument boiled down to a plea that he’d earned the right to the townsite’s title through his pioneering efforts, his foresight, his labor, the money he’d expended on the town’s development, and even the property taxes he’d payed Shoshone County. “…I commenced improvements,” Wallace wrote in his Murray Sun letter, “by building trails and roads up the different canyons, and clearing the ground of fallen timber, and fencing the same…and for three years I was laughed at and called a crank for the faith I had in the future.” …Of course, Col. Wallace’s passionate conviction that he’d earned the right to the townsite’s title fell short of an actual patent issued by the GLO.

Col. Wallace’s legally-I’m-in-the-right argument asserted that the GLO had acted incorrectly in preferring Bourke’s putative Dakota land claim over the townsite claim in Wallace. Especially in his Murray Sun letter, Wallace relied heavily on the analysis and legal opinion of one Luther Harrison, formerly with the Interior Department and now a valued consultant on cases relating to the acquisition of public lands.

I reviewed Col. Wallace’s description of his dealings with the Coeur d’Alene land office in my May 4, 2017, post. I wrote, in part:

Wallace description of that history showed (1) that he’d engaged in under-the-table dealings with a GLO representative, (2) that he’d quite possibly bribed said official, and (3) that he’d continued selling lots in Wallace on the basis of an illicit assurance from the same GLO representative. Said representative, Robert McFarland, claimed Wallace, had assured him that the scrip-nullifying letter received from Washington, D.C., by the Coeur d’Alene City office would be deep-sixed and forgotten.

My account more or less echoes what Richard G. Magnuson wrote on the same subject in his Coeur d’Alene Diary and what Tony Bamonte quoted from Magnuson’s book. This question now arises: How could Col. Wallace have regarded his description of his dealings with Robert McFarland and the Coeur d’Alene Land Office as providing an adequate and satisfactory account of his subsequent actions? After all, he was in effect admitting collusion with McFarland. In what sort of historical and cultural context would such a description of under-the-table dealings, potential bribery and illicit assurances be said to exculpate or justify Col. Wallace’s subsequent conduct?

The answer to this question lies in the turbulent and corrupted state of the contemporary U.S. General Land Office. In 1937, historian Harold H. Dunham published a scholarly article on the troubled history of the U.S. General Land Office in this period (Harold H. Dunham, “Some Crucial Years of the General Land Office, 1875-1890,” Agricultural History 11(2):117-141, 1937). Dunham noted the immense amount of land the GLO was responsible for — almost one billion acres or about half of the nation’s land area. Owing to Congress’s passage of a number of land-grant provisions in the 1860s and 1870s, huge amounts of land were transferred to private ownership every year. “For the years 1884 to 1890,” wrote Dunham, “the annual average was about 20,000,000 acres.” The agency lacked the staff numbers necessary to effectively manage so great a volume of transactions. The Land Office’s employees were underpaid, overworked, and lodged in inadequate facilities, which resulted in high turnover and defections to private interests with hungry appetites for government land. Bribery was also fostered. “The unremedied handicaps of the General Land Office — crowded quarters, inadequate personnel, overburdened officials, low pay, and rapid turnover of clerks — contributed to unbusinesslike methods….” wrote Dunham.

Col. Wallace, in his contacts with Robert McFarland, was dealing with an overburdened and corrupted government agency. The GLO’s dubious practices, moreover, had become, by the time Col. Wallace filed his claim, an open secret all around the American West. Indeed, it is only in the context of that sort of open secret that Col. Wallace’s letters to the Spokane Chronicle and the Murray Sun, with their frank admissions of under-the-table dealings with GLO, make sense as professions of innocence or as adequate explanations. The Colonel, in effect, had to swim in the same river with everyone else. Perhaps we should not be too hard on him. Still, of course, Col. Wallace’s unsuspecting buyers had more than enough reason to cry foul.

• • •

Parts 1 and 2 can 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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