Clark County

In 1974 the newspaper wrote that the county commissioner should be thankful they didn’t have to govern the area included in any of the first three county boundaries that existed north of the Columbia River in the 1840’s.

The first county north of the river was created by the Oregon provisional legislature in 1843, before Oregon was officially an American Territory. The county was called Clackamas and included two thirds of present-day Washington State, over half of British Columbia, plus the panhandle of Idaho and Western Montana.

A companion county to the west, called Tualatin, included Southwest Washington west and north of the Cowlitz River, the Olympia Penninsula, Vancouver Island and about 80,000 square miles of Western British Columbia, then called New Caledonia.

The northern boundary of these two counties was the 54th parallel plus 40 minutes, which was recognized as the southern boundary of Russian Alaska. However everything north of the 49th parallel the British had sworn to defend as part of Canada.

Two years later the provisional legislature had second thoughts. It moved the name Tualatin south of the river, which is one tenth Tualatin’s original size. Then the legislature reduced Clackamas County to a narrow strip south of the Columbia River extending west to the Pacific Ocean and east to the Rocky Mountains.

Everything north of the Columbia to 54-40 and east to the Rockies was called the Vancouver District, which encompassed 550,000 square miles, or twice the size of Texas. The boundaries of the new Vancouver district lasted about four months. On Dec, 19, 1845, the mapmakers got out their pencils again and redefined the Vancouver district as everything north of the Columbia to the river’s big bend near Wallula, and everything west of the Columbia where the river meanders southward through British Columbia and Eastern Washington.

This action cut most of Eastern Washington, Eastern British Columbia, the Idaho panhandle and Western Montana from the Vancouver District and gave it to Clackamas County.

Two days later, on DEC 21, 1845, the lawmakers decided the Vancouver District was still a monstrosity, and created Lewis County out what had previously been Tualatin County in Western Washington and Western British Columbia. They then named Vancouver District, Vancouver County.

In 1846 the U.S. and Britain settled the disputed boundary at the 49th parallel, and this whacked off all of present day British Columbia from Lewis, Vancouver and Clackamas counties.

Two more years went by and Congress established Oregon Territory and a new legislature was elected to replace the provisional map jugglers. At the first session the lawmakers changed the name of Vancouver County to Clark County, thereby honoring the second of the two famous explorers. Not being good spellers they called it Clarke with a terminal “e” although Capt. William Clark spelled his name without it.

In subsequent sessions the Oregon territorial legislature subdivided the area north of the Columbia into more counties, including Thurston, which is named for the Oregon territorial delegate to Congress, Samuel R. Thurston. Thurston County people preferred Simmons County, for the Irish-American emigrant Mike Simmons who had spent the winter of 1844-45 near present-day Washougal and later founded the town of Tumwater. But the legislature knew best.

It wasn’t long before the citizens on “Northern” Oregon felt neglected economically and politically by the Willamette Valley. A convention was held at Monticello (now Longview) in November of 1852 and the American settlers petitioned congress to free them “form the shackles of their Willamette masters.”

Congress obliged the following year, setting the southern boundary of the new Washington Territory at the Columbia river to the big bend, and along the 46th parallel to the Rocky Mountains.

The first Washington territorial legislature met in 1854 and carved out several more counties. In 1859 Walla Walla County was formed and assigned everything east of the Cascades to the Rockies. This cut Clark County down to almost its present size, except that the northern boundary was at the Kalama River. (In 1863 Congress established Idaho Territory from the eastern half of Walla Walla County.)

In 1873 Clark county suffered its final “indignity” when the northern boundary was pulled back to the north fork of the Lewis River.

As Washington Territory grew sectional rivalries became increasingly bitter. Border counties began feeling the political muscle of the Puget Sound counties. Economically Clark and Walla Walla counties were more a part of Oregon than Washington. A series of attempts were made to shift the balance of power.

In barefaced horsetrading Vancouver became designated as the territorial capital instead of Olympia, only to have the law thrown out by the territorial supreme court.

Walla Walla tried to get the panhandle of Idaho annexed to Washington so Walla Walla would be in a better position to claim the state capital. Residents of the panhandle were ready and willing because they were isolated from the rest of Idaho territory by a mountain range.

Given statehood in 1859, Oregon tried four times to annex the rich Walla Walla Valley, and many Walla Wallans were ready and willing.

In 1869 a vote was taken to split Washington down the Cascade range and make a new Territory of Columbia” out of the eastern half plus the panhandle of Idaho. Washington voters turned it down, while the panhandlers voted for it.

Nothing came of all this ferment. Statehood was not to come to Washington until 1889, 30 years after Oregon, but its boundaries were now settled and insurgents in Walla Walla, Clark and other border counties were stuck with them.

It stayed Clarke county for 75 years. Finally, on December 23,1925, as a kind of Christmas present, Governor Ronald Hartley signed a bill dropping the “e” and correcting the spelling.

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