County seat situation a game of musical chairs | Taking Stock

Apr 12, 2017

In spite of what you may see on the nightly news, we live in a relatively settled political environment.

When the Puget Sound region was settled in the 19th century, government was a very changeable thing. Nationally, the country was terribly split by the issue of slavery. The Whig Party ceased to exist. The Republican Party came into being. The Democratic Party was split into north and south factions.

Locally, it was even worse. County government changed almost with the seasons.

Puget Sound was part of Oregon Territory – specifically part of Clark County, Oregon Territory, which stretched from the Columbia River to what is now the northern border of British Columbia.

In the 1844 national election, President Polk was elected on a campaign slogan of 54-40 or fight. Fifty-four degrees, 40 minutes was then the northern border of Oregon Territory, and now the northern border of British Columbia. A treaty in 1846 settled the northern boundary of Oregon Territory at 49 degrees north, where the national border remains.

But, can you imagine walking, riding a horse or paddling a canoe to the county seat in Vancouver. They couldn't then, either. New counties seceded from the old, and a new county seat was created.

As a practical matter for people who hoped to profit from real estate promotion, it was expedient to have the county seat nearby. That was where you would register your deed, or take your lawsuit to the local judge.

County seats became prized possessions. If you look around the state now, you find that is still true. The county seat is more often than not the largest municipality in a county.

Lewis County was carved out of Clark County. Then, in early 1852, Thurston County was carved out of Lewis County. Thurston County still went all the way to the Canadian border. The hike to Olympia from points north was still a long one, and not likely to add to local prosperity.

Before the end of 1852, just three days before Christmas, the Oregon Territorial Legislature handed out presents. Thurston County was divided up. Pierce, King, Island and Jefferson counties came into being. The last three were considerably bigger than they are now.

Jefferson County included all of present day Clallam County and part of Kitsap County. King County went across Puget Sound to include much of what is now Kitsap County. Island County included present San Juan, Whatcom, Skagit and Snohomish counties.

Yes, we were once a part of Island County, that little place to the west where many of us enjoy weekends away from home. And before that, before the creation of Washington Territory, this was Thurston, Lewis and Clark counties in Oregon Territory.

Having our own county didn't end the turmoil. Then, the struggle was to have the county seat. Mukilteo, Cadyville (Snohomish) and, finally, Everett claimed the county seat, in that order. And, ever since, Everett has clearly prospered from the control of the county seat.

Government today is much more settled and sedate. Imagine how it was for residents of Missoula. Missoula was once part of Clark County, Oregon Territory. That would have been a long ride to the county courthouse, and then to discover that the county seat had moved 200 miles. Fortunately for Missoula, counties and states have divided like amoeba and, now, Missoula is the county seat of its own Missoula County, Montana.

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