Early County Road Conflict
Unlikely characters added drama in early county road conflict
A. C. Smith and Matt Johnson
Contributed by Jim Reavis
There has always been a certain glamour attached to the history of the American West, primarily because of the tendency to relate the story in terms of conflict. According to the movies and popular novels settlement occurred only as the result of pioneers battling the wilderness, trappers fighting Indians, cowboys vying with rustlers, miners versus miners, etcetera, etcetera, in seemingly endless combinations. And while unquestionably such drama did occur, and frequently, this concentration on the spectacular occurs at the expense of a less compelling but far more common script – the lives of the everyday people who actually tamed the territory. For instance, one of the more neglected characters in Western lore is the frontier merchant although the history of the region, and certainly the history of the Wallowa Country, could not be told without him. It was the merchant after all who supplied the bare necessities for civilized existence as well as the creature comforts that sooner or later even the hardiest pioneer seemed to crave.
Strictly speaking a merchant is one who buys and sells goods for profit. However, if we include in that definition one who deals in services it affords an opportunity to examine the story of one of the Wallowa Country’s most illustrious early citizens and the first man in the area to involve himself in a business other than agriculture. The man’s name was Anderson C. Smith.
Mr. Smith, familiarly known as A. C., roamed this area as a hunter and trapper before any white man had settled here and even in his own day earned a reputation as the “Kit Carson of the Pacific Coast.” A friend to both the Nez Perce and Cayuse bands of Indians who claimed the Grande Ronde and Wallowa territories, he was often called upon to serve as an intermediary when trouble arose between the whites and the native Americans. By the early 1870’s however, A. C. had given up the nomadic life and settled on a ranch near Cove, contenting himself with raising horses. From his favorable vantage point he witnessed the initial penetration of whites into the virgin Wallowa Valley and as the trickle of adventurers promised to become a stream he stuck upon a scheme for assisting the new settlers while earning a profit for himself.
On September 17, 1871 A. C. Smith filed incorporation papers for the Grande Ronde and Wallowa Wagon Road and Bridge Company with the express intent: ‘to engage in the construction of a wagon road commencing at the Grande Ronde River in Union County, at the north end of Indian Valley, and running in a north-easterly direction to the crossing of the Wallowa River, and southeasterly to the Wallowa Valley.’ This effort, so easily stated. Became a herculean task requiring more than a dozen hired hands and as many months of hard labor to complete. But, on February 26, 1873 Mr. Smith could proudly announce ‘the bridge across the great Wallowa River was completed and thrown open to travel on the 22nd of the present month…
In the same correspondence announcing the bridge opening Smith played down the rumored Indian troubles his structure purportedly had caused. While admitting he had been visited by old Joseph’s two sons (he called them “the two Joseph boys’), he denied there had been any trouble, in fact he said, “Their conduct towards myself and party…was of the most sociable and friendly character…’ A. C. certainly did not want any fear of Indian reprisals to dissuade potential immigrants from using his bridge so his explanation of the visit must be read with that in mind. In contrast, an earlier correspondent with less at stake had been just as adamant in reporting to the La Grande Mountain Sentinel that upon discovering the bridge the Indians were ‘much incensed’ and ‘exceedingly insolent’ to the extent that one family already had fled the valley from fear of future trouble.
A. C. may be forgiven if he viewed the Indians’ reaction to his efforts with optimistic
blinders since he had high hopes for the new territory that he described glowingly as ‘one of the most desirable places in which to live anywhere to be found between the Rocky and Cascade mountains.’ Admitting his road needed just a few grade improvements, which he anticipated completing ‘as soon as spring fairly opens,’ he immodestly declared the result would be ‘one of the finest mountain roads anywhere in Eastern Oregon.’ And, further once completed the improved access to the remote section would result in ‘thousands of men’ rapidly filling up the improving the valley.
As we now know, Mr. Smith greatly overestimated the drawing power of the newly opened valley and he probably never recovered the cost of his venture, especially since it became obsolete in a few years when the Wallowa Canyon road was built. But, if he never reaped the bonanza he foresaw in 1873, he did earn the lasting gratitude of many hundreds of settlers who found their burdens slightly eased as they traversed his toll road and bridge into the lush grasslands spreading out from what is still know as Smith Mountain.
One of those early travelers that Smith accommodated was also one of the first men in the Wallowa Country who more specifically fits the definition of merchant. Matthew Johnson by name, this man of commerce came to Oregon from Canada by way of Washington Territory. Curiously, Mr. Johnson, or Matt as he seems to have been known, had a hand in the founding of three different towns in the Wallowa Valley and yet very little recognition of him has survived. Perhaps his personality had something to do with that, for surely he was a man of volatile emotions.
In 1878 or 1879 Matt earned his initial mention in local historical lore when he opened a general store on the site of what would one day become the town of Joseph. However, his first building was poorly constructed. At least that is the most obvious conclusion if we are to believe the story of one early settler who reported that one day a stiff wind blew down out of the mountains and demolished the log structure, scattering Johnson’s goods all over the flat in the process. Apparently undaunted by that disaster Matt reopened his store in a new building and remained in business (and in Joseph) long enough to be named the fledgling village’s first postmaster in 1880.
By the time of his postal appointment Johnson had acquired a competitor in the person of Frank D. McCully and it was in the latter’s store one fall day that Matt had a run-in with the local doctor who answered to the name of Thadeus Dean. It seems the two had been feuding for some time and used the chance meeting to settle their differences. In the words of eye-witness McCully, ‘They both carried six shooters but did not take the time to draw them at first. Johnson hit Dean over the head with a nail puller hastily grabbed from the counter but did not knock him out. Dean charged Johnson, I got in between them, and by that time Johnson had drawn his gun. I wrestled with him to hand over the gun and prevent his shooting Dean. As we struggled the six shooter went off. Instead of hitting any of our legs, however, the bullet passed through a table leg and into the floor.’
A year or two later Johnson found himself embroiled in yet another dispute, this time over his homestead claim. A neighboring settler claimed Matt had infringed on his property so the two appeared before the land commissioner to resolve the issue. In the course of the hearing Johnson said something so irritating to the commissioner that he declared in contempt, whereupon Johnson leaped over the table and began striking the hapless man with his fists. Needless to say Matthew Johnson did not receive a favorable ruling on his land claim.
His welcome in Joseph had obviously worn thin by the summer of 1884 so Johnson purchased a lot in the soon-to-be-platted town of Lostine and became one of its first businessmen. Apparently this venture proved successful because the next fall Matt opened a branch store in yet a third county town, the newly created Colevill, (Coleville)? Yes, indeed. At least that is what Johnson, Lucien Cole, and others called the settlement they began in October of 1885. Later it became better known as the town of Wallowa.
Johnson’s Coleville adventure proved to be premature, however, and he experienced a setback that caused him eventually to lose not only that store but the one in Lostine as well. In November 1886 he turned over all his assets to a receiver and dropped out of historical sight. But just prior to his bankruptcy he had one last hurrah in a fiasco ever since known as the Toll Road Controversy.
As mentioned above, A. C. Smith’s toll road and bridge was superseded in the late 1870’s by the construction of a new route through the Wallowa Canyon. This new road, also built by private enterprise, came about as the result of each resident of the valley contributing labor, tools, and equipment on an equitable basis. As is human nature, however, once the initial flurry of activity ended and the road became usable it began to receive less and less attention from the very citizens who had labored so hard in its construction. Over the years, then, it began to suffer from the lack of adequate maintenance. Finally, in the spring of 1886, the always enterprising Matthew Johnson decided to form a corporation that would assume responsibility for repairing and maintaining the road in exchange for a charter from the county allowing the corporation to charge a toll for its use. It seemed like a reasonable proposition, especially in light of the small toll he proposed. But those then living in the valley saw it differently. Violently stirring from their lethargic attention to the road, the arose as a man to oppose the plan and fired off an emotional resolution to the county court demanding in no uncertain terms that the charter be denied. And they were successful. An intriguing historical question remains, though; were they incensed over the proposition itself or the man who proposed it?
The coincidental linking of the A. C. Smith and Matthew Johnson stories through the toll road is not the only time their tales merge, in fact Matt’s youngest son married the youngest of A. C.’s seven daughters. Unfortunately the marriage ended tragically a few years later when the groom was callously murdered in a barroom brawl, but that is another story. The point is that fiction writers in search of Western adventure could find far less suitable subjects than the simple story of two frontier merchants with the unlikely names of Smith and Johnson.