Throwback Thursday: Clallam County

Clallam County Courthouses in 1860 and today

For Throwback Thursday, a look at Clallam County and the northwestern-most settlement on the contiguous U.S.

A Brief History of Clallam County

The northwest horn of the contiguous U.S. is the bounty at the end of an epic journey. For the earliest European explorers, reaching the northern of edge of the Olympic Peninsula and gazing over the Strait of Juan de Fuca must have felt like reaching the end of the world.

Explorers first reached this land now known as Clallam County in the late 1700s. It was one of the first parts of what would be Washington touched by Europeans. They found a rain-soaked and fertile coastline – 100 miles along the Strait and 35 miles along the Pacific – and seemingly endless stands of Douglas fir, red cedar, western hemlock, Sitka spruce, and other giant conifers. It was a bounty of natural resources highly valued by native tribes for centuries.

British Royal Navy Captain James Cook reached the tip of the horn and christened it Cape Flattery in 1778. A decade later, fur traders arrived and began doing business with dozens of villages of the Makah people, the Quileute, and the Klallam (“the strong people”) for whom Clallam County would be named. Klallam territory stretched along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Hoko River east beyond Discovery Bay with about 30 villages. The explorers brought diseases that devastated the tribes.

About 1851, the first settlers of the future Clallam County staked their claims at New Dungeness, west of the Dungeness River, where they raised potatoes and felled trees to make cedar shakes, ship masts, and pilings – the beginnings of thriving timber industry. Within a couple years, settlements expanded southward to the sweeping prairie where Sequim is today.

Clallam County and the law

Clallam County was established in 1854 as part of Washington territory. Three years earlier, Angus Johnson arrived at False Dungeness, what’s now Port Angeles, in 1851. Following Johnson were two men who later became judges – Marcus Huntoon and Nicholas Meagher.

The first Clallam County prosecutor was elected a few years later in 1860, when D. J. Brownfield received a plurality with 90 votes cast. The writer of the 1965 Clallam County Bar History notes wryly that “the recorder was very frugal in his use of letters and words. In addition to the “Pros. Atty.,” there was elected a “Rep.,” a “Co. Comis” and a “Sherif.”

History also notes that a probate court was established to handle matters such as selling “lickor to Indians” and murder. The last judge of the Territorial Probate Court was George Venable Smith, who was also president of the “Puget Sound Co-operative Colony,” a group of emigrants from the east who settled at the mouth of Ennis Creek, just east of Port Angeles. After statehood, Smith was elected first presiding judge of the new district.

An old faded book recounts the murder of a man named Captain Hunter by persons whom an entry calls “Quinetts” (probably Quinaults). Captain Hunter was slain in “Pisth,” likely Pysht as we know it today. The jury was composed of a foreman and four others. In their verdict they reported they had proceeded “on board a canoe for the seat of the murder.” Also: “When we arrived at Crescent Bay we met the partner of the said murdered man and we finding that the man had been buried some days and we deeming (sic) it unnecessary to proceed further.”
The city of Port Angeles was set aside as a reserve by the U.S. government during Lincoln’s term in 1862; it shares this distinction with only one other city – Washington, D.C. Title to all lots in town stems from a patent issued by the federal government. Early pioneers waited for the government to open the platted lots for settlement, and one of the first to offer suggestions for how to do that was “John C. Murphy, a fighting Irish lawyer, a man blessed with a native gift of gab and always ready for a fracas of any kind.”

After public discussion, it was agreed by voice vote that a date and hour was to be set for the “squatters rush” and that all claims be limited to two city lots, each 50 feet by 140 feet and covered with old-growth forest. The land rush occurred on July 4, 1890.

That year, the county board approved a vote to move the county seat from Whiskey Flat, now Dungeness, to Port Angeles. There were few people in Whiskey Flat, but businesses and individuals in Port Angeles pledged money and land, and others pledged the same at Port Crescent. The election was heated, but Port Angeles won with 687 votes to Port Crescent’s 293. Just seven people voted to retain Whiskey Flat.

The history notes that it is “either fact or fable, depending on which old-timer one talked to,” but after rumors that Whiskey Flat citizens would oppose any removal of county records by force, a posse led by members of the Bar assembled, and 25 wagons and saddle horses moved the records in the dead of night. “It is pretty well conceded that in fact, and probably to the disappointment of some members of the expedition, they were treated with kindness and hospitality,” the history notes. The official date of the change was Nov. 10, 1890.

By 1900, the bar had about a dozen practicing lawyers. Thomas F. Trumbull and his brother John Trumbull had offices in both Port Angeles and Port Townsend. James G. McClinton was Judge of the superior court from 1892 to 1901. Other lawyers included W. L. Marquart, George Clementson, William B. Ritchie, J. E. Cochran, James Stewart, and A. A. Richardson.

In 1965, history states, “The practice of law for a time remained very informal. The earlier lawyers had few law books and relied mostly on general principles. It was a common joke to accuse opposing counsel of unfair practice if he appeared in Court with books and decisions to sustain his position.” The 1965 summary ends with this prediction:

“At the present time, with the Supreme Court of 50 states and the federal courts handing down decisions daily, all published in a multitude of volumes, it is becoming difficult to determine what the law is; what it is today may not be what it was yesterday. We understand that soon, however, with the aid of computers it will be possible to have all of the decisions at any given point, flow out of a machine at the press of a button. Soon, instead of teaching a course on “How to Find the Law,” the professors will be teaching how to operate a computer.

See the other counties featured in our Throwback Thursday series:
Pierce County
Chelan County
Yakima County
Lewis County
Kitsap County
Asotin County
Adams County

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