Asotin, City of -- Thumbnail History

  • By Happy Avery
  • Posted 6/30/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11080

The City of Asotin is located in Southeastern Washington at the confluence of Asotin Creek and the Snake River, seven miles south of the twin cities of Clarkston, Washington, and Lewiston, Idaho. Home to 1,251 people as of the 2010 census, Asotin is also home to the government of Asotin County. The county is one of Washington's smallest in both population and area: Its population was estimated at 22,189 in 2014 and it spans 636 square miles in the extreme southeast corner of the state where it meets both Idaho and Oregon. The City of Asotin stands at an elevation of roughly 800 feet amid the fertile grasslands that characterize the northeastern region of the county. The small town celebrates a rich frontier history largely centered on Native-newcomer relations, agricultural development, and the struggle to retain its status as the Asotin County seat. Despite stagnant growth throughout the twentieth century, Asotin has proven tenacious. Today the tiny community offers a quiet lifestyle in a picturesque setting in Washington's "banana belt." From its earliest days to the present, Asotin's mild winters and natural amenities have made it an ideal environment for seasonal visitors and permanent residents alike.

Early Encounters 

In the late nineteenth century, scientist Thomas Condon (1822-1907) identified the oldest geological portion of what was then Washington Territory as the area lying along its eastern border, where the foothills of the Blue, Bitterroot, and Coeur d'Alene Mountains form an irregular belt of rocks ranging in age from the carboniferous to the cretaceous. An elevation near the point where the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington now make contact was one of the first islands to rise from the bed of the ancient Pacific Ocean. Over time, pines, firs, cedars, hemlocks, and spruces formed a great coniferous forest whose diverse plant and animal resources would eventually support diverse human populations throughout the area.  

For centuries before the first non-Indians reached the Northwest, the spot near the confluence of what are now known as Asotin Creek and the Snake River was a favorite winter resort for people of the region. A relatively warm winter climate and an abundance of freshwater eel in the mouth of the creek attracted a large annual encampment of Alpowai Nez Perce Indians, whose word for eel later became the source of the town's name.  

Asotin's longtime residents met the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it traveled through the area en route to and from the Pacific Ocean. The Corps of Discovery entered the area from the future site of Lewiston in October 1805 and followed the Snake River west about 15 miles to camp just above the mouth of Alpowa Creek. The Corps came back through the following spring, in May 1806. Members of the expedition recorded the hospitality they enjoyed under the leadership of Apash Wyakaikt, who also led some 20 villages along Asotin Creek. Apash Wyakaikt acquired his more familiar English moniker, Chief Looking Glass, upon meeting expedition leaders William Clark (1770-1838) and Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) for the first time in 1805. They distributed gifts of small, circular metal mirrors with an eye attached to the rim of each through which a cord could be tied. As the story goes, Captain Lewis repeatedly said "looking glass" as he pointed at the object hanging around Apash Wyakaikt's neck in an effort to reveal its name in English. According to local lore, those present understood this exchange to be a naming ceremony for the venerable leader, who later passed down the name to his son (c. 1832-1877), the famed warrior. 

Other well-known figures of the Age of Exploration traveled through the Asotin area in the early nineteenth century. Members of the overland expedition commissioned by American fur magnate John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) and led by William Price Hunt (1783-1842) from 1810 to 1812 endured near starvation and other challenges as they journeyed through the region, and likely Asotin specifically, en route to Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River. John Work (c.1792-1861), a chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, came through on his way from Walla Walla to the Clearwater River in September 1812. Although early local histories of Asotin boast the fleeting presence of these explorers and traders who provide the small town some claims to fame, most of these characters left no record of the place or their experiences there. Years later, however, through another expedition commissioned by Astor, Captain Benjamin Bonneville relayed his experiences in the vicinity of Asotin to Washington Irving (1783-1859), who recounted them in his 1837 epic The Adventures of Captain Bonneville

Bonneville too had the distinct pleasure of meeting the elder Chief Looking Glass. Apash Wyakaikt hosted Bonneville at his winter home near Asotin in February 1834. Bonneville and his party enjoyed a great feast, fine accommodations, and an array of entertainment for one night before pressing on to Walla Walla. As they left, Bonneville and his men could not help but take note of the fertile landscape and its potential for agriculture. More than 20 years later, Apash Wyakaikt was among the Nez Perce signatories of the 1855 Treaty of Walla Walla that established a reservation encompassing part of Southeastern Washington and opened the region to the plow.  

The first non-Indian residents of the Asotin area, however, were not interested in cultivating crops. In 1861, first Sam Smith and then Robert "Bob" Bracken (ca. 1841-1906) moved in near the confluence of Alpowa Creek and the Snake, where Lewis and Clark had recorded the first written glimpses into the history of Asotin. Smith opened a store and hotel to service travelers heading to and from the Orofino gold mines in Idaho. Smith soon left the region, but Bracken established his first permanent home eight miles south of present-day Asotin in 1862. He married a Nez Perce woman named Mary and continued to move about what would later become Asotin County, raising sheep and horses, until his death in 1906.

Not long after gold was discovered in Southeastern Washington in 1859, within the boundaries of the Nez Perce Reservation, the area around Asotin attracted prospectors along with entrepreneurs like Smith. A gold rush was on, as was the push to reduce Nez Perce lands even further. A new treaty negotiated with the Nez Perce in 1863 moved the reservation boundary across the Snake River to a few miles east of Lewiston. Most of the Nez Perce communities in Southeastern Washington relocated to North Central Idaho, but several bands refused to leave and several families stayed to take up farming. A number of immigrants arrived to try their luck at placer mining along the Snake, Asotin Creek, and its tributaries.  

A Tale of Two Cities 

Placer mining persisted in the area through the 1870s, but the Asotin Creek valley grew and prospered as a predominantly agricultural economy, focused on livestock, farming, and fruit orchards. Although Smith and Bracken were within range earlier, the early settler closest to what is now Asotin proper was Peter "Jerry" Maguire (1832-1935). Maguire arrived in Asotin in 1867 and relocated to three miles above the mouth of the creek in 1868. He owned about 300 horses and ran a packing business that serviced the surrounding mining camps. After the mining bubble burst, Maguire devoted all of his time to raising stock. Other newcomers trickled in during the years following Maguire's arrival to find largely unsettled lands ideal for cultivating wheat and ready markets across the Snake in bustling Lewiston.

Meanwhile, some Nez Perce continued to use the area seasonally, especially during the summer months to graze large horse herds and to pursue game from the lower Asotin flats to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. In general, Native-newcomer relations remained strong in Southeastern Washington during this period. However, as Chief Joseph (1840-1904) mounted his renowned resistance to the United States government's efforts to force the last of the Nez Perce communities onto the reservation in Idaho, tensions brewed in Asotin. The younger Chief Looking Glass led his band of Alpowai Nez Perce, which included many from Asotin, in joining Chief Joseph's campaign, generating anxiety and even panic among white settlers. Some simply left the region while others stayed and strategized a defense in the event violence should erupt. Locals converted the homes of Maguire and William Hopwood (1835-1898) into forts, but they were never needed. Chief Joseph and his followers headed in the opposite direction, toward the Bitterroots, facilitating a return to normalcy in Asotin.

By 1878, the makings of a town, or rather two, were emerging at the confluence of Asotin Creek and the Snake. That spring, local resident Alexander Sumpter Jr. (1853-1916) and Columbia County Surveyor Alfred T. Beall (1836-?) platted two separate town sites within close proximity of each other along the flats paralleling the Snake. Sumpter recorded the town site of Assotin City with the Columbia County Auditor in July 1880. At that time, a post office was established and Sumpter became the first postmaster. Meanwhile, Beall platted the second town site at the request of Lewiston business leader Theodore M. E. Schank (1852-1885), who built his house in Asotin in the early 1870s. Schank recorded the plat of Asotin in November 1881.

Sumpter's Assotin City at the upper end of the flats comprised six blocks and several businesses, including a shipping warehouse built in 1881 by Jackson O'Keefe (1851-1951), who would later serve as a unified Asotin's first treasurer. O'Keefe's warehouse made Assotin City the only shipping point in Southeastern Washington and thus an important stop on the Snake. At the same time, Schank's Asotin at the lower end of the flats started with 15 blocks and platted an addition in 1882. The only building there was Schank's cabin, but not for long. Rapid growth in Asotin helped fuel the campaign for the creation of Asotin County, to be carved from the eastern portion of the newly formed Garfield County. On October 20, 1883, the Washington Territorial Legislature passed a bill establishing Asotin County and approving the choice of Asotin as the county seat. Territorial Governor William A. Newell (1817-1901) signed the law a week later.

The selection of Asotin as county seat renewed competition between Asotin and Assotin City but also breathed new life into the area. Assotin City's growth had lagged behind its fraternal twin from the beginning and community leaders now aimed to catch up by offering free rent, equipment, and fuel to attract new businesses and house new county offices. But leading citizens in Asotin, like Schank, countered with similar offers and Asotin came out on top once again. Persistent development in the mid-1880s made the two towns almost indistinguishable. By 1886 the rivalry had waned as Assotin City essentially surrendered and that year the two officially merged under the name Asotin. Nearly all of the county's grain continued to be shipped out of Asotin and as the decade drew to a close, this thriving community of roughly 200 people moved for municipal incorporation. 

Asotin Enters the Modern Era 

Asotin incorporated in 1888, or so its residents thought. Washington's transition from territory to state in 1889 adversely affected Asotin's status when the new state's Supreme Court issued a ruling in February 1890 that effectively invalidated municipal incorporations achieved by order of district courts under territorial law. Citizens of Asotin quickly mobilized to correct the problem and, in accordance with new state laws, petitioned the Asotin County Commission for an election, at which the vote to reincorporate was nearly unanimous. The commission certified the favorable vote along with the city's new slate of elected officials and filed these proceedings with the Washington Secretary of State on July 2, 1890.

During the 1890s, Asotin entered an era of progress and modernization sparked by irrigation development. Wheat, barley, and orchards of plums, peaches, and especially apples, along with cattle farming, drove much of the local economy. The fertile grasslands around Asotin, however, had their limits, particularly to the north along a relatively barren stretch known as Jawbone Flat. The construction of an 18-mile-long irrigation canal from Asotin Creek to the Jawbone in 1896 produced astounding results. After the canal began bringing water to Jawbone Flat in July of that year, the population of the area that would soon become Clarkston exploded from a mere 15 or so people to approximately 2,200 in 1903.

Meanwhile, in 1899, as Asotin's own population reached the 500 mark, the Asotin Land and Water Company organized. The company started as a competitor of the Lewiston Water and Power Company, a predecessor to Lewiston Clarkston Improvement Company, for the waters of Asotin Creek. In 1902, the Lewiston company acquired control of the Asotin Land and Water Company as an affiliated subsidiary. Although the Asotin Land and Water Company retained its identity as an organization until the late 1930s, this corporate takeover was emblematic of the dominance that the Lewiston-Clarkston area, particularly Clarkston, would continue to assert over Asotin in the modern era. Nonetheless, water development facilitated the platting of additions to Asotin in 1899 and 1902. In addition to water, the construction of the county courthouse and a spate of other new buildings, including the town's first brick building, in 1899 helped usher Asotin into the twentieth century. In 1902, Asotin boasted 1,065 residents, more than double its size of three years earlier. Yet Asotin's growth paled in comparison to its new neighbor Clarkston, and the divide between the two would only widen over the years to come.  

The Protracted Battle for County Seat 

As Clarkston continued to boom in the first two decades of the twentieth century, popular sentiment there favored moving the home of county government from the now-stagnant Asotin to the largest and arguably most economically important city in the county. The county-seat contest surfaced in time for the 1916 county elections. Clarkston boosters succeeded in getting the issue on the ballot for the November election, but the votes were split. Since Clarkston failed to secure the required three-fifths majority, Asotin retained its tenuous hold on the county seat. 

In 1936, a fire destroyed the original Asotin County Courthouse built back in 1899. After arson was deemed the cause, unproven speculation circulated that Clarkston supporters were behind it. Meanwhile, community leaders in Clarkston seized the opportunity to reignite the campaign to take the county seat and the issue was again put to the voters in November 1936. Although the margin had widened significantly since 1916, with 1,951 votes favoring Clarkston to 1,291 cast for Asotin, the pesky three-fifths rule kept the county seat out of reach for Clarkston once again. A mere eight votes were all that Clarkston needed. When it was discovered that 141 votes cast at the West Asotin Precinct, including 13 for Clarkston, were invalidated over a technicality, the results were contested. Judge Fred H. Witt (1879-1952) decided the case in favor of Asotin, and his decision was affirmed on appeal by the state Supreme Court.

Clarkston supporters refused to give in just yet and mounted one more effort for the election of 1946. Both communities put on a lively campaign. Clarkston rallied around its rapidly growing population, which jumped eighty percent over the course of the 1940s, to argue the county government ought to move closer to its largest population center. Asotin supporters appealed to voters' pragmatic interests by reminding them of the extensive and costly effort of converting the Old Ayers Hotel into a courthouse to replace the one lost in the fire of 1936. Simply put, moving the seat to Clarkston would necessitate a new courthouse at considerable and undue expense to taxpayers. The tactic must have resonated. Asotin squeaked by on the three-fifths rule yet again: Clarkston's 1,732 votes were not enough to outdo Asotin's 1,687. Asotin retained its status and as of 2015 the courthouse remained in the Old Ayers Hotel.  

Enduring the Test of Time 

At mid-century, Asotin's growth remained stagnant, like that of many small towns bypassed by emergent national highway systems built to accommodate the rapidly expanding commercial transportation industry and personal automobiles. Improved roads tended instead to feed larger trading centers, like the Clarkston-Lewiston area. However, Asotin was connected to the larger highway system by Washington State Route 129, and its two main economic drivers -- agriculture and the county government -- helped sustain the small town into the twenty-first century.

Water development in the region also continued to affect Asotin. In 1945, Congress authorized the Lower Snake River Project, for which the construction of four dams along the Snake River began in the early 1960s. The fourth one, the Lower Granite Dam between Garfield and Whitman Counties, created 39-mile-long Lower Granite Lake, which extends upriver to a few miles north of Asotin. In 1962, Congress authorized a fifth dam on the lower Snake a few miles upstream from Lewiston, near Asotin. Concerns over its environmental and recreational impact stalled the Asotin dam project and it was ultimately scrapped in 1980. 

The town's Asotin Days festivities, long held every summer, and an annual street fair inaugurated in 2015, demonstrate this unique hamlet's vibrant sense of community. Additionally, Asotin's natural amenities bring in revenue from recreational enthusiasts eager to fish and play in the mighty Snake, hike and bike the surrounding hillsides, or take advantage of year-round golf. As the last stop on the Snake's entry to Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America, Asotin also offers a gateway to the canyon's stunning sights. In 2015, Asotin officials were working in cooperation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in securing funds to reopen the Asotin Marina, which had been forced to close by sediment build-up. The facility was developed in the 1970s, replacing local docks and river access lost when the water level rose behind Lower Granite Dam, and provided the closest public marina access to Hell's Canyon.


Sources: Elgin V. Kuykendall, Historic Glimpses of Asotin County, Washington (Clarkston: Clarkston Herald, 1954), 1-18, 27-55; George Day, "City of Asotin 100 Year Centennial," The Valley American, June 22, 1983, p.10; F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 635-713; "Asotin County, Washington," U.S. Census Bureau website accessed February 25, 2015 (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/53/53003.html); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Asotin County -- Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty), http://historylink.org/ (accessed February 20, 2015); Edmond S. Meany, "Washington Geographic Names," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, October 1917, p. 275; J. Orin Oliphant, "Notes on Early Settlements and on Geographic Names of Eastern Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, July 1931, p. 176; William Denison Lyman, Lyman's History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918), 395-420; Frank T. Gilbert, Historic Sketches of Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties, Washington Territory (Portland: A. G. Walling, 1882), 429; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990), 176-177; "Asotin Preserves Church Landmark," Spokesman Review Magazine, June 29, 1976, p. 17; "Asotin Dam Funds Endorsed," Spokesman Review, September 28, 1967, p. 6; "Consortium Ends Asotin Dam Idea," Spokane Daily Chronicle, Associate Press, March 14, 1980, p. 5; City of Asotin website accessed March 19, 2015 (http://cityofasotin.org/).

Related Topics:   Cities & Towns

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You