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Idaho secretaries of state were often at odds with lawmakers

Edward J. Curtis, secretary of Idaho Territory, was acting governor for many years when those appointed either did not come or left after a few months.
Edward J. Curtis, secretary of Idaho Territory, was acting governor for many years when those appointed either did not come or left after a few months. Provided by Arthur Hart

William B. Daniels, the first to hold the office, was born in Mentor, Ohio, in 1817 to a farm family that crossed the plains to Yamhill County, Ore., in 1854. He studied law, became a practicing attorney and took an interest in Republican politics. On March 10, 1863, Abraham Lincoln appointed William H. Wallace governor of the new Idaho Territory and Daniels secretary. When Wallace ran for Congress, and was elected, Daniels became acting governor, as well as secretary. In the first meeting of the Territorial Legislature in Lewiston in December 1863, he spoke passionately against slavery, calling it “a cause so vile” that it should not “cloud the morning” of young Idaho’s existence.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, enough southern Democrats migrated to the gold camps of Idaho to win nearly every election against Republican candidates. Attacks on Acting Governor Daniels were so vicious that he resigned in disgust and went back to Oregon.

In the colorful prose of our late State Historian Merle Wells, “Pioneer settlers tolerated their territorial governments as a necessary evil. With a governor, secretary and supreme court sent out from Washington, D.C., and a territorial legislature elected by settlers who objected violently to the executive and judicial officials appointed to govern them, Idaho had more of a war than a government much of the time. And until 1866, the new territory sometimes lacked enough officials even to have a war.”

C. DeWitt Smith was appointed Idaho’s next territorial secretary in July 1864. After an arduous voyage to San Francisco by way of Panama, he finally reached Lewiston, where he soon took the territorial seal and what archives he could carry to Walla Walla and on to Boise, thereby effectively moving the capital. As Merle Wells put it: “On Aug. 19, 1865, Smith died suddenly in Rocky Bar after playing too strenuous a chess game. At this point H.C. Gilson took over. An enterprising bar tender ‘of doubtful moral antecedents’ whom Smith had met in San Francisco, he had accompanied the late secretary to Lewiston and Boise. In the emergency, he obtained a commission as secretary, and for whatever it was worth, Idaho had a government again.”

Horace C. Gilson is remembered as the crook who stole the entire treasury of Idaho Territory, some $41,000, and fled to Hong Kong. He was pursued for several years by his bondsmen, even to Paris and Vienna, but was never caught.

S.R. Howlett was appointed in July 1866, to serve as the next territorial secretary, and was soon embroiled in what became known as the “Tempest in a Teapot” incident. Howlett refused to pay legislators their salaries until they had taken the required oath of allegiance to the United States, which the former rebel members refused to do. Thomas Donaldson, who knew Howlett personally, wrote, “He was small in build but vigorous and determined, and his anti-Rebel views and vocabulary were marvelously complete and active. I do not think that Howlett was ever afraid of anything, man or beast, in his entire life!”

When legislators called on him and demanded their pay, he told them, “no oath, no money.” Some threatened him with physical violence, but since Howlett had the backing of the U.S. Marshal and the army at Fort Boise, nothing came of it. The unhappy legislators then passed a bill changing the wording of the oath of allegiance to suit themselves, an act in direct opposition to the power of the national government. Gov. David Ballard promptly vetoed it, an action upheld in Washington, D.C.

Edward J. Curtis, appointed secretary on May 4, 1869, was to hold the position longer than anyone until Pete Cenarrusa was appointed to fill the vacancy left by the death of Edson H. Deal in 1967. Pete was elected and re-elected eight times, from 1970 until 2015.

Next week we’ll share more about Idaho’s secretaries of state.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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