The Washington Territorial Legislature established Alfred Allen's farm near Rockland Flats across the Columbia River from The Dalles, Oregon, as Klickitat County's first county seat on December 20, 1859. This location was considered temporary, however, as there were too few people residing in the county for the Territorial Legislature to determine any permanent site at the time.
In the late 1850s, Mortimer Thorp (1822-1894) used the land that would become Goldendale as grazing land for cattle, also building a house and fencing property. Thorp never acquired title to the land, however, and soon abandoned it to move to the Yakima Valley. Lyonel J. Kimberland then filed a soldier's homestead claim on the land. Soldier's claims were a special provision under the United States Homestead Act of 1862 relating to the homestead rights of soldiers who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
On August 15, 1871, John J. Golden (1826-1906) bought the land from Kimberland. He hired a surveyor to plat the town of Goldendale, and filed plat maps with the county auditor on March 13, 1872. Thomas Johnson immediately built a house in the infant town, operating a store out of his front room. Although not the first store in Klickitat County it was the only one in operation at the time and thus became a nucleus for settlement. As settlement in Goldendale increased, it became obvious that Rockland Flats was not the most convenient location for Klickitat County's county seat.
On May 8, 1872, Klickitat County commissioners decided to put the question of moving the county seat from Allen's farm to the new town to county residents during the next general election. Although Goldendale was the only town in the county, it was by no means a shoe-in. An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties, With An Outline Of The Early History of The State Of Washington, published in 1904, explains:
"From the first Goldendale, being in the midst of one of the best agricultural sections of the county, was considered to represent the farming interest of the district and was strongly opposed by the stockmen. Although the largest number of the voting population was in the valley, and it would have been in their own immediate interests to have Goldendale the county seat, still the influence of the cattlemen was sufficiently strong to defeat it, although by a narrow margin. The vote stood seventy-seven for Goldendale and seventy-eight for Rockland" (p. 101).Early Goldendale boosters fought back by laying out as many county roads as possible leading to Goldendale in order to ensure the town's importance. An Illustrated History ... continues:
"This was accomplished without the opposition's even suspecting its object, and Goldendale, being made easily accessible from almost all parts of the county, soon became quite an important business point. When finally Representative Nelson Whitney succeeded in getting a bill through the legislature allowing a three-fifths vote to settle the question, Goldendale had very much the best of it" (p. 102).
The question was decided on November 5, 1878. Five-sixths of the votes were in favor of Goldendale. By February 1879, all county property had been moved to Goldendale and county offices were open for business. On November 14, 1879, John Golden donated title to land on which the county could erect a courthouse. Settlers, unwilling to burden the still sparsely settled county with a construction debt, raised $3,500 in private funds and built a courthouse with a two-cell jail. A fire destroyed this structure along with seven full blocks of Goldendale on May 13, 1888.