Idaho Territory’s Gov. Ballard inherited quite a mess in 1866

David W. Ballard
David W. Ballard

Governors and secretaries of the territories were appointed by the president of the United States in 1866, and their legislatures were elected by the people. When President Andrew Johnson appointed David W. Ballard to be governor of Idaho Territory in April 1866, Ballard was a medical doctor in Lebanon, Linn County, Ore., with a large practice. A lifelong Republican who had supported the Union during the Civil War, he had been elected to the state Senate after Oregon became a state in 1859.

When Ballard arrived in Boise in the spring of 1866, the Idaho Legislature was dominated by Southern Democrats, often described by their opponents as “rebels” or “secessionists.” They had supported the Confederate cause in the Civil War but had fled the conflict to seek their fortunes in the gold fields of Idaho.

William H. Wallace, chosen in 1863 by his old friend Abraham Lincoln to be Idaho Territory’s first governor, had stayed around only long enough to be elected Idaho’s representative in Congress and to move to Washington, D.C. Territorial Secretary Horace C. Gilson then became acting governor and embezzled most of the territory’s funds before fleeing the country.

Our second governor, the eccentric and incompetent Caleb Lyon, also stole money from the territorial treasury but died before he could be prosecuted for the crime.

David Wesley Ballard was born in Bridgeport, Ind., on Feb. 21, 1824. He studied medicine in Bridgeport and earned his M.D. from a medical college in Cincinnati. He established a large medical practice in Moravia, Ohio, before following the Oregon Trail across the plains, driving a team of oxen. In the 1860s he described the adventure to his good friend Thomas Donaldson: “He told me with great humor of the trials and tribulations incident to his fitting out for his march across the plains in 1855: ‘Got the wrong kind of oxen, got the worst kind of guides, and had the worst kind of luck!’ he laughingly said.”

Donaldson describes Ballard as “short and somewhat portly in stature, with blue eyes, sandy hair and whiskers, red cheeks and good teeth. … He was usually laughing or in agreeable humor. He was honest and fearless and devoted to the interests of Idaho. His strongest characteristic was good old horse sense. His administration was dreadfully stormy. The secessionists by whom he was surrounded hated and reviled him, but he bore their attacks bravely and did not yield an inch. Ballard knew that he had the sympathy of the respectable element of the territory and the support of the government, and the Army was practically at his command.” When unruly Democrats in the Legislature threatened violence to the territorial governor and secretary, Ballard called in troops from Fort Boise to restore order.

A unique feature of Ballard’s tenure was that while governor, he was forced to support himself and his family for an entire year by practicing medicine because the Legislature had conspired to deny him his pay!

John Hailey, former congressman, stagecoach king and first head of the State Historical Society, in his “History of Idaho” quoted from Ballard’s first message to the Legislature on Dec. 3, 1866. It suggests only a part of the mess the new governor had inherited: “Since the adjournment of the last legislature, the laws enacted at that and the preceding session, have been printed, in separate volumes, each of which has been appropriately and conveniently indexed. The publishing work has been well executed in good type and on good paper, with substantial binding, but for want of funds to pay for the work, the books still remain in the hands of the publisher at San Francisco.” Lawmakers had to do their work without knowing what Idaho’s laws were.

When Ballard’s term of office expired, two thirds of the citizens of Idaho voluntarily petitioned President Ulysses S. Grant to reappoint him, but Grant had already chosen someone else. Ballard went back to Lebanon, Ore., where he resumed his medical practice. He died there Sept. 19, 1883.

Gov. William J. McConnell said of him, in his book “Early History of Idaho”: “He was a man of tranquil temperament, with a clear conception of duty and a fixed determination to do whatever he conceived to be right.”

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