By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian | Posted: Monday, December 13, 2010 10:45 pm
On Dec. 14, 1860 - 150 years ago Tuesday - Missoula County was born. Legislators of Washington Territory in faraway Olympia carved it from the east end of Spokane County.
All the major networks reported the news, and by the next morning, Montanans were queued up at the motor vehicle registration office at the county courthouse in downtown Missoula.
If you buy that, there's some oceanfront property in Ekalaka you've got to see.
In December 1860, four months remained before shots would be fired at Fort Sumter to launch the Civil War. It was nearly two years before the major Montana gold rushes commenced, another two before there was a territory called Montana, and yet another before anything resembling a town of Missoula arose in 1865. The closest "courthouse" was in Colville, some 300 rough miles to the northwest.
The original Missoula County was created after a petition drive, signed in December 1859 by 48 men of Lt. John Mullan's road-building crew wintering on the St. Regis DeBorgia River, and by 29 others from the Jocko and Bitter Root Valley.
They asked the Washington Territory Legislature to create a new county from land on both sides of the Bitterroot Mountains, to call it Bitter Root County, and to locate the county seat on this side of the mountains in the Bitter Root Valley. Maps of the day show the valley stretched all the way from above present-day Sula to Paradise, where the Bitter Root River joined the Flathead to form the Clark's Fork of the Pacific.
"The petitioners state that they are without the means of preserving order and carrying the law into execution," Gov. Henry McGill told the Legislature in Olympia in early December 1860. "I would therefore commend their request to the favorable consideration of the Legislature."
Considering the shenanigans that transpired in what became western Montana over the next few years - especially the bloody deaths at Hell Gate in 1864-1865 - you have to wonder if "carrying the law into execution" wasn't misinterpreted.
The first Missoula County boundaries were most of present-day western Montana. But the county was boxed along political lines - 115 degrees latitude, which lopped off the western edge of the state, and 46 degrees latitude, which crosses between Darby and Conner.
The borders were expanded to encompass all of Montana west of the divide by the Idaho Territorial government.
The 1860 Legislature in Olympia established the county seat "temporarily at or near Worden & Co. Trading Post in Hell Gate Ronde."
The previous August, Francis Worden, Capt. Christopher Higgins and their clerk Frank Woody had set up shop at the crossroads of ancient trails that, since June, also included Mullan's new military road. The trading post was built two miles west of present-day Reserve Street.
Some reference dates: What's now western Montana became part of Idaho Territory in 1863 and of Montana Territory on May 26, 1864. Worden, Higgins and Co. moved their operations to present downtown Missoula in 1865.
On Feb. 2, 1865, Missoula County was officially welcomed into Montana when the first Legislature, meeting in Bannack, established the territory's original nine counties. A year later, Missoula County's seat was moved from Hell Gate to Missoula.
It's tempting to understate the role county government played around here in the earliest years. After all, there were no property assessments, and county taxes weren't levied until the Montana days in 1866.
But the distant county was a player in Washington and Idaho territorial politics. According to the 1860 census, the Bitter Root Valley ranked sixth among the most populated areas in Washington Territory with 278 "citizens" - 82 whites or mixed bloods, and 196 Indians. The latter population qualified only if their families had renounced tribal rule and were paying taxes.
Legislators in Olympia appointed the first five Missoula County officials - Higgins, Worden and Thomas Harris as the first commissioners; Henri Chase as justice of the peace; and M.W. Tipton, a Frenchtown-area rancher, the sheriff.
According to Leeson's History of Montana, only Higgins and Harris qualified, for reasons unclear. They canvassed the region advertising the first election of Missoula County in early summer of 1861. Seventy-four votes were cast at Fort Owen, Hell Gate and the Jocko Agency, and eight men were duly elected to posts.
The first white citizens of Missoula County were pioneers in an isolated land, all from somewhere else. But they were not people who ignored the political scene.
On Feb. 28, 1861, Maj. John Owen remarked in his journal at Fort Owen: "Mr. (Thomas) Harris left for Hells Gate to attend the Maiden Convention of our New fledged County."
The Democratic convention was held at the Worden and Co. store. Worden, Higgins and Owen were elected delegates to the territorial convention in Olympia in June, to nominate a delegate to Congress.
"We learn," reported an Olympia newspaper, "that there is probably not a Republican vote in that county."
According to the late George Weisel, a University of Montana professor who researched the men and women of western Montana in the 1850s based on entries in the Fort Owen ledger, Thomas Harris was a main cog at the Bitterroot trading post.
He hired on with Owen in 1851 at Fort Hall and helped construct the buildings and operate the grist mill. He was often the man left in charge when Owen went on hundreds-of-miles shopping spins.
Harris and another trusted employee, Caleb Irvine, took Indian wives, a popular practice. The lack of a formal ceremony for such unions bothered Owen, and in January 1858 he persuaded the two to sign marriage contracts.
"I have often thought of the correctness of it & in the absence of any person duly authorized to perform the Marriage Ceremony We did it ourselves in the presence of Witnesses," wrote Owen. On the same day he named Thomas, the 7-year-old son of Harris and wife Lizette Ranier, as his legal heir.
With county governance in place after 1860, legal weddings could be performed. Henry Brooks became Missoula County's first elected justice of the peace in 1861. The following year, on March 5, 1862, he performed what's recognized as the first legal marriage at Hell Gate, uniting George White and the widow Josephine Mineinger.
It was a wedding for the history books, especially after Owen described it in his journal.
"... Everybody got drunk and Blake stole the wedding cake," the Major wrote. "After a short dance the happy couple retired, the men wishing there were enough brides to go around."
Brooks wore the moniker Bishop Brooks after that.
Days later, the judge was immersed in another slice of history - Montana's first criminal trial. It was held at Bolte's Saloon at Hell Gate, and Sterne Blake, the wedding cake thief, was one of the jurors.
Accounts of the trial vary, but it concluded when "Baron" Cornelius O'Keefe was fined $40 and another $50 in court costs for beating a man's horse and pushing it into a hole to its death. The highlight came when O'Keefe, a colorful Irishman representing himself, challenged Brooks' credentials to be judge.
In O'Keefe's version, after a heated exchange, he punched the judge between the eyes, knocking him off the bench and precipitating a general melee. Frank Woody was attorney for the plaintiff, who was known as Tin Cup Joe, and Woody wrote:
"While the unpleasantness was in progress, the court and a portion of the jury had fled for life and when harmony was restored they were no where to be found."
According to Lenora Koelbel, whose 1972 "Missoula: The Way It Was" is the consummate book on early Missoula history, O'Keefe wanted to appeal the verdict, but decided against it. District court was in faraway Colville. Missoula wouldn't have one until 1876.