Umatilla County was carved from Wasco County

At one point in time, all of Oregon east of the Cascades belonged to Wasco County.  A glance at a map will show how ponderous and unwieldy it was, embracing more, than half of Oregon.  When formed, the farthest settlement to the west was at The Dalles and it was organized with that place as the county seat, with all the "wilderness: to the east and south added to it.  The impossibility of people in the new settlements going s far to transact official business was evident.  If they were to enjoy the benefits of a government, it must be one of their own and accessible.

    The Powder River settlers, where the largest population was, and where the need of a government was the most urgent, sent a petition to the Legislature, asking for the creating of a new county to be called Baker.   The petition was presented on the night of September, 1862, by O. Humason, Representative from Wasco, and was referred to a special committee of three. These gentlemen thoroughly investigated the question, and became convinced that at least two new counties were necessary for a seat of justice on Powder River would not benefit the people of Umatilla or John Day Rivers, while one west of the mountains would be of no advantage to those on the other side.  They therefore reported two bills, one for Baker to embrace all of the state east of the summit ridge of the Blue Mountains, and one for Umatilla, to contain the John Day and Umatilla settlements, the count seat to be with the latter.  The bills passed.

Grande Ronde Landing vs Umatilla City for the seat

The county seat of Umatilla County was designated in the bill to be "temporarily located at or near the Umatilla River, opposite the mouth of the Houtamia, or McKay Creek, at what is known as Marshall's Station, until the same shall be removed by the citizens of said county as provided by law.

There were then no regular town within its limits except the mining camps on John Day River.  For this reason the county seat was located in the center of that portion which promised to contain the largest population and on the great route of travel from The Dalles to Walla Walla, and from the Columbia to Powder River.  At this time an effort was being made to start a town on the Columbia, where goods for Powder River could be landed and forwarded to their destination, thus saving time and distance over the Walla Walla route.  It was expected to become a rival of Walla Walla; to be, in fact, the "Sacramento of Oregon," and door to the mines.  A point eight miles below the mouth of Umatilla River was selected and a town called Grand Ronde Landing was laid out.  This was followed early the next spring by a new town just above the mouth of the Umatilla, which was laid off and christened Columbia, though the name was soon changed to Umatilla Landing or Umatilla City.

Thus before the county was fairly organized, two new candidates for the seat of justice had sprung up.  In the struggle between the rivals on the river, Umatilla Landing prevailed, and Grande Ronde resigned in its favor.  The discovery of the Boise mines that winter and the great trade that at once sprang up with southern Idaho, gave an impetus to Umatilla as soon as is started that caused a busy, thriving city to appear in a few months where had been but a wide waste of sand.

Middleton is named the county seat

Umatilla City, as the only real town, wanted to be the county seat, but there was no election till 1864, and no way could be found to secure the prize.  The county court met at Marshall's Station and fully organized the county by the appointment of all necessary officers. The name of the place was changed to Middleton, and an unsuccessful effort was made to build up a town.

J.W. Johnson was appointed county judge to succeed Richard Coombs, and S. Hamilton took John R. Courtney's place as commissioner.   The government was not in good working order until May 1863, when a special meeting of the court was held and the first record of its proceedings kept.

Umatilla City finally becomes the county seat

Umatilla City was still intent on becoming the county seat, however it wasn't until a special election held in March 1865, that circumstances settled the question once and for all.  The same day that the special election was enacted in October 14, 164, Grant County was created out of Umatilla and Wasco, taking all south of 45th parallel including the John Day and Granite Creek mines, thus leaving the voters of Umatilla City in a majority.  Union was created out of Baker, north of Powder River the same day.  The election was duly held, a majority of votes were cast for removal, and the commissioners held their first meeting in Umatilla City on April 3, 1865.  Two months prior to this a house and lot had been purchased in Middleton for county purposes for $403.50 which were now sold for the same sum.  In April 1865, $2,100 was paid for a court house at Umatilla, and $1,440 for a jail which was completed in September 1866. Unfortunately, Umatilla City didn't stay the county seat for long!

Umatilla County seat put to another vote

In 1868 the fortunes of Umatilla City were on the wane, owing to a decline in her trade with the mines.  On the contrary the agricultural section was prosperous, and increased in wealth and population continually.  It had been discovered that the hills along the base of the Blue Mountains were extremely productive for grain, and thousands of acres of it had been taken up.  During the two previous years the number of population in the north and east had increased to such an extent that they largely outnumbered those of Umatilla City.   From the vicinity of the present towns of Weston, Milton and Centerville it was a long journey to the county seat, and the people there were desirous of having it moved nearer to them.  There were enough residents on Umatilla River to defeat an attempt to remove it to the extreme northeast corner of the county, which prevented an effort for that purpose and resulted in a combination to have it located at some central point on that river.

M.E. Goodwin had a land claim just below the mouth of Wildhorse Creek, on the edge of the Indian reservation, which offered a good site for a town, and an effort was made to secure the county eat at that point.  The advocates of removal applied to the Legislature and secured passage of the Act of October 13, 1868, providing tat at the next general election the county clerk should place in nomination "two candidates for county seat of Umatilla County, to wit: the present location, Umatilla Landing, as the one candidate; and upper Umatilla, somewhere between the mouth of Wildhorse and Birch Creeks, as the other candidate, to be voted on at said election.

If a majority favored removal, the commissioners were to call a special meeting and appoint three persons to locate the site for county buildings, and give an appropriate name to the new county eat.  The Act provided that the existing county buildings be used until new ones the third of November, less than a month after passage of the Act.  The county officers were divided on the question,  being governed by their personal interests, as was every one else.

The Vote for Pendleton

The vote was close, 394 being cast for upper Umatilla, and 345 for Umatilla Landing. The commissioners appointed J.S. Vinson, James Thompson and Samuel Johnson to locate and name the county seat.  They selected Goodwin's location and bestowed upon it the name of Pendleton at the suggestion of Judge G.W. Bailey, in honor of Hon. George H. Pendleton of Ohio.  The town was laid off and liberal offers were made by the proprietors to induce people to locate there.  Mr. Goodwin, Judge Bailey and a few others who were interested in the new town, advanced money to build a court house, in order to secure the removal as quickly as possible.  At that time there were only two buildings: the private residence of Judge Bailey and a little shed in which Goodwin kept hotel. When the committee reported in January, 1869, that they had located the seat of justice on land donated by Mr. Goodwin on sections 10 and 11, township 2 north, range 32 east, Judge Bailey ordered the county officers to remove their offices and records to Pendleton.   He rented his dwelling house for their offices, reserving the cellar for a jail.   All but the Treasurer obeyed the order.

Umatilla City files suit

Suit was brought by the people of Umatilla to compel them to return.  Judge J.G. Wilson decided that the removal was premature, as Umatilla was the proper county seat until new buildings had been erected. The decision was rendered early in March, and the officers were compelled to cart their records back again. Meanwhile work was rapidly progressing on the court house, and as soon as it was at all habitable, the officers piled their records into a wagon one quiet Sabbath morning and departed for Pendleton, thus avoiding an injunction.  Again suit was brought by citizens of Umatilla, who endeavored to have the removal declared illegal on the grounds that the Act was void because of indefiniteness.  They argued that "Somewhere between the mouths of Wildhorse and Birch Creek: was so indefinite a description that citizens were unable to tell what locality they were voting for.  The court held that the description was sufficient to show the general locality desired by voters, and that the Act had amply provided for its definite location by the three commissioners.  The result was a complete triumph to Pendleton, and a sad blow to the waning fortunes of Umatilla Landing.

The court house at Pendleton which had been so hastily built by the citizens was paid for by the county, and in the summer of 1879 a new jail was erected in the court yard. A fire proof vault was added to the court house in 1876.  The county steadily increased in population, and advanced in prosperity, as is amply shown by a table of property valuations given on another page.  Pendleton became quite a city, and the new town of Weston began to spring up in the northern end of the county.

In 1874, Weston had advanced to such proportions that it aspired to possess a county seat. The little town of Milton had appeared to the northeast of it, though as yet containing but a few houses, and the rich farming lands in that section had become occupied by a numerous and prosperous population.  The question of a division of the county and creation of a new one with the county seat at Weston, was discussed. In the end, regardless of the growth in the northeast portion of the county, Pendleton prevailed as the county seat.

From "Historic Sketches of Walla Walla, Whitman, Columbia, and Garfield Counties,  Washington Territory and Umatilla County, Oregon," by Frank T. Gilbert, Portland, Oregon  1882

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