Columbia County is formed on November 11, 1875.

  • By Michael J. Paulus Jr.
  • Posted 2/13/2008
  • Essay 8482
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On November 11, 1875, Columbia County is formed out of Walla Walla County, which had been established on April 25, 1854. The area comprising the new county had been home to a number of diverse native North American groups and, by the 1850s, a few non-Indian settlers. Permanent settlement had begun in 1859, at the end of the local Indian Wars, when claims were taken up along the Touchet River. With the formation of the county, Dayton becomes the county seat. Columbia County will develop into an area known for its agricultural products -- including asparagus, green peas, and especially wheat -- and food processing.

Before the County

The area that would form Columbia County was originally home to diverse native North American groups, including the Nez Perce, Walla Wallas, Umatillas, and others. Non-Indian settlers first came to the area in the early 1850s, but they left during the local Indian Wars of the late 1850s. In 1859, after the land east of the Cascades was declared fully open for settlement, homesteaders began to settle along the Touchet River.

By act of the territorial legislature, on November 11, 1875, a county line was drawn down from the Snake River, around Waitsburg, and down to the Oregon State line. West of the county line was the newly downsized Walla Walla County; east of the line, to the border of Idaho Territory, created in 1875, was Columbia County. County commissioners were named to organize the county and Dayton, a town platted by Jesse and Elizabeth Day in 1871, was selected as the temporary county seat until the county’s first general election.

Defining the County

Competition for the county seat was intense, since the county spread far to the north and east of the Touchet and Dayton, the major area of settlement. Anticipating settlements in these other areas, Marengo, on the Tucanon River, became an  alternative possibility for the location of the county seat. In the 1876 election, Dayton won 418 votes and Marengo 300. Local historian W. D. Lyman pointed out that the latter number “pretty nearly represented at that time the population of the eastern two-thirds of the county” (Lyman, I:323). The election resulted in the demand for another county division, and in 1881 Garfield County was carved out of the eastern part of Columbia County.

Regional growth and rail lines during the 1880s enabled Dayton and Columbia County to grow quickly. Starbuck and other villages linked to the region’s developing transportation infrastructure began developing as well. Although other agricultural industries have had their place in the county’s history, wheat farming has been the dominant industry since the 1890s. When future Whitman College President Stephen B. L. Penrose (1864-1947) arrived in Dayton in 1890 to revitalize the town’s Congregational church, he found “a thriving farming town of two thousand, situated on a small river between low hills whose tops are crowned with wheat fields. ... Slow steady growth has continued for years, and now I find a pleasant little town with two railroads, a hotel (an excellent one), electric lights, several churches and good schools” (Stickles, 66-67).

Sources: Online Encyclopedia of Washington History, “Columbia County” (by Phil Dougherty), (accessed January 1, 2008); W. D. Lyman, Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield, and Asotin Counties Vols. 1 and 2 (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918); Frances Copeland Stickles, Another Sort of Pioneer: Mary Shipman Penrose (Milwaukie, OR: Castle Island Publishing, 2007).

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