Throwback Thursday: Asotin County

Washington county mapAs the WSBA celebrates its 125th year, it’s an opportunity to review the history of Bar members.

In 1965, there was an effort to create a written history of members of the Bar in each county; we reviewed some of those accounts, mostly on yellowed paper, often carbon-copied from manual typewritten notes. The dry dates and memorials also serve to remind us how each of these who came before served our profession and their communities, and how they led the way to the bar we have in 2015.

A Brief History of  Asotin County

Situated in the southeastern most corner of Washington, Asotin County is bound to the east by Idaho and to the south by Oregon. It is the sixth smallest county by land mass at 636 square miles, with a population around 20,551. Home to the Nez Perce tribe prior to settlement, Asotin County takes its name from the Nez Perce word for eel, “Has-shu-tin,” which were once abundant in Asotin Creek.

Asotin County is rich in Native American history. The Nez Perce Trail extends east from the Columbia River through present-day Walla Walla and Asotin County and across the Rocky Mountains. The trail allowed the nomadic Nez Perce people to hunt buffalo in the Great Plains, and it opened up trade and commerce between tribes on both sides.

In 1805, the arrival of the Lewis and Clark Expedition at Alpowa (now Chief Timothy State Park, in Clarkston) on their way to the Pacific Ocean marked the beginning of white exploration of the area. The Nez Perce were friendly to the explorers and provided aid, saving the Corps of Discovery from starvation. Lewis and Clark returned to Alpowa on their journey back in 1806, followed by several other expedition groups years after them.

Lewis and Clark with guide sketch

Sketch of Lewis and Clark with Native American guide. Charles M. Russell [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Part of what would become Asotin County became an Indian reservation, which was later moved to Idaho. The land remained “Indian Territory” through most of the 1860s. Asotin County’s settlement and growth did not boom until the 1890s, when the construction of an irrigation canal transformed the barren earth to fertile farmland, causing a Clarkston population boom from 15 people to 2,200. Irrigation of the land produced flourishing fruit and berry orchards and vegetable farms, followed by expansion and further population growth.

Asotin County Scandals

In the early 1930s, Asotin County was thrust into the national spotlight over a controversial murder case. Twelve-year-old Herbert Niccolls Jr. shot and killed Sheriff John Wormell. Following his conviction, Niccolls became the youngest person in Washington to receive a life sentence and serve in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. Father E.J. Flanagan of Boys Town mounted a nationwide campaign urging listeners to contact Governor Roland Hartley with requests for the young Niccolls to be paroled. The requests were denied, but years later, Governor Clarence Martin pardoned Niccolls in 1941, following Niccolls’ success and evident reform in prison. (Niccolls later became an accountant at 20th Century Fox in Hollywood, and lived a crime-free life until his death in 1983.)

More trouble came in the 1930s when a fire burned down the Asotin County Courthouse. The fire was caused by arson, and some speculated that it was a “Clarkston hit job,” as there had been attempts to move county offices from Asotin to the much larger town of Clarkston. Eventually, the Old Ayers Hotel in Asotin was converted into a courthouse, and it remains the Asotin County Courthouse today.

Asotin County Courthouse

Asotin County Courthouse, 2013. Kona Jack [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Asotin County and the Law

The 1965 files from Asotin County consist mostly of memorials for bar members, written in the form of resolutions from “the Committee of Washington and Idaho Bar Associations.” Shortly after his passing, Attorney John G. Applewhite was memorialized in a 1942 resolution. The resolution was sent to his family and a copy ordered to be “spread upon the minutes” of the Asotin County Superior Court, and a copy sent to the WSBA.

An ad hoc “Special Committee” was appointed in 1943 to create a resolution for WSBA member Elmer Halsey. He was recognized for “his ability as an attorney worthy of the highest tradition of his chosen profession; his private trusts and obligations were discharged with scrupulous fidelity and exactitude.” A separate document notes that Halsey was Asotin County Prosecuting Attorney for fourteen years, a Washington State Representative for fourteen years, a member and clerk of the Clarkston School Board (for the less-specific “many years”), president of the Washington State Good Roads Association, and a member of the Judicial Council of the State of Washington representing prosecuting attorneys.

Mr. Charles Baldwin is memorialized after passing in 1933 in a letter to the Bar as well as a court document filed under “Memorial.” It notes that Mr. Baldwin graduated from Santa Clara Law School in 1880, where he won a gold medal for oratory speaking on the subject of “Lord Nelson.” He practiced in California, then in Oregon for 15 years. The memorial notes he moved to Montana, where he served as district attorney, “establishing the record of trying 200 cases without losing a single case.”

Baldwin came to Asotin County in 1900, and his wife, “to whom he referred as his partner,” worked as his stenographer. He loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and camping; he enjoyed equally fine arts, history, and poetry, especially Shakespeare and Byron. The memorial contains an excellent summary of what many aspire to be: “While he possessed strong opinions of his own on civic, religious, and social subjects, he exercised a spirit of tolerance for the opinions of others.”


See the other counties featured in our Throwback Thursday series:

Adams County