Asotin County -- Thumbnail History

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 2/14/2006
  • Essay 7643
Asotin County is located in extreme southeastern Washington. In the 2000 Census, the county population was 20,551, and the population of Clarkston, its largest town, was 7,337. The county seat is the small town (pop. 1,095 in 2000) of Asotin, seven miles south of Clarkston. At 636 square miles, Asotin County is the sixth-smallest county in the state. It has a fertile agricultural region in the north-central region, while farther south, the terrain becomes more rugged and is marked by creeks and gullies. Elevations dip to as low as 740 feet in the northeastern corner near Clarkston, and rise to exceed 6,000 feet in the extreme southwestern region in the Blue Mountains. Asotin County's history has been primarily an agricultural one centered on farming and fruit orchards.

Early Days

The Nez Perce tribes lived in Asotin County for many years before Lewis and Clark arrived in 1805. The word Asotin comes from the Nez Perce word for eel, Has-shu-tin, so named because of the eel that abounded in Asotin Creek. Though indigenous to southeastern Washington as well as east into Idaho, the tribes lived a rather nomadic life and every season trekked across the Rockies on the Nez Perce Trail to hunt buffalo in the Great Plains. The Nez Perce Trail extended east from the Columbia River at the present-day town of Wallula in Walla Walla County through Garfield and Asotin counties, crossing the Snake River at the Red Wolf Crossing below Silcott, about seven miles west of present day (2006) Clarkston, Washington, and then continuing east across the Rockies to the Great Plains.

Lewis and Clark passed through the county on their expedition, both outbound to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, and on their return trip to Missouri in 1806. The Expedition camped at the Nez Perce village of Alpowa (near today's Chief Timothy State Park) on October 11, 1805, and again on May 4, 1806.

Captain B. L. E. Bonneville led the next major expedition through Asotin County in February 1834, surveying the region on behalf of the United States government (which declined to pay him for his efforts) and spending several weeks with Native American tribes in their tribal villages, first in the southern part of the county on the Grande Ronde River, then farther north on the Snake River.

Chief Timothy

One Native American who has gone down in the annals of early Asotin County history was a Nez Perce by the name of Timothy (1808-1891), also known as "Old Timothy" and "Chief Timothy." Timothy lived with his tribe for much of the nineteenth century near the mouth of Alpowa Creek on the Snake River, and said he remembered seeing Lewis and Clark pass through the area when he was a young boy.

As chief of the tribe in the 1850s, he provided members of his own tribe to assist the U.S. military in the Indian Wars. He is most remembered for helping a United States force of some 100 men, under the command of Colonel Edward J. Steptoe (1816-1865), escape across the Snake River from hostile rival tribes in May 1858, possibly saving the entire force from annihilation in the process.

In the mid-1850s part of what would later become Asotin County (as well as part of adjoining Idaho) became an Indian reservation, resulting in the relocation of a fairly significant number of Native Americans to the future Asotin County. Although the reservation was moved farther east into Idaho in 1862, the Native Americans remained, and the county remained largely "Indian Territory" through most of the 1860s.

White Settlement

Whites made a few tentative settlements in Asotin County during the 1860s. The first settler, Sam Smith, arrived near the confluence of Alpowa Creek and the Snake River on June 10, 1861, and opened a small store and hotel for travelers on their way to and from the Orofino gold mines in Idaho. However, Smith didn't stay long, and for much of the 1860s, the only activity in the county was from gold prospectors, who found little gold. In the late 1860s, a few more permanent homes were built, mostly along Asotin Creek and in or near what would later become Asotin.

In 1877, a number of settlers arrived and built cabins on Asotin Flat near present day Anatone. By the end of the 1870s contemporary accounts put the population of the area between Anatone and Asotin between 200 and 400.

Anatone established its first business in 1878 and was an early important trading post, but the town itself was not platted until 1901. Although Anatone is the third largest town in Asotin County, its population over the years appears to have never exceeded 100 or so people; a sign at the edge of town in 2003 read "45 people, 27 cats, 22 dogs and 21 horses" (Lewiston Tribune).

Assotin City and Asotin

Eighteen miles north of Anatone, Assotin City was platted in 1880. There were actually two Asotins in the early years: Assotin City, located on the southern end of present day Asotin, and the town of Asotin, just to the north, on the southern flank of Asotin Creek. Asotin was platted in 1881 and by 1883 had outgrown its rival to the south; in February 1886, Assotin City changed its name to Asotin and within a year the merger was complete.

Asotin County was formed from the eastern portion of Garfield County in 1883. On October 20, 1883, the Washington Territorial Legislature voted to create Asotin County, and Territorial Governor William Newell (1817-1901) approved the law on October 27. Asotin County "officially" came into being on November 12, 1883.


Asotin grew steadily during the 1880s and 1890s. Wheat and later barley were early crops, followed by cattle farming. Plum, peach, and especially apple orchards were also planted and actively maintained.

Asotin County's growth was assured in 1896 by the construction of an 18-mile-long irrigation canal running from Asotin Creek above Asotin to Jawbone Flat, an area of potentially fertile -- but at that time barren -- land along the Snake River in and to the west of present-day (2006) Clarkston. On July 18, 1896, the canal began providing water to Jawbone Flat, and the effect it had on the area was remarkable: Population of the area that would soon become Clarkston boomed from perhaps 15 people in 1896 to approximately 2,200 in the Clarkston-Vineland area in 1903. (Vineland, a community just west of Clarkston, merged with Clarkston shortly after 1903).

The Growth of Clarkston

Clarkston's growth was further aided by the opening of the Lewiston-Clarkston Bridge on June 24, 1899, which connected Clarkston to Lewiston, Idaho. The first Clarkston settlers wanted to name the new town Lewiston, and applied for a post office with that name. The United States Postal Department rejected the request, reasoning that Lewiston, Washington, would cause too much confusion with Lewiston, Idaho, just across the Snake River. Thus in 1897 the town was officially named Concord (after Concord, Massachusetts), but by 1900 the post office had changed its name to Clarkston. In 1901 the legislature made the name change official, and Clarkston was incorporated on August 4, 1902.

The irrigation of Jawbone Flat and the subsequent rapid growth in the early years of the twentieth century of a wide variety of fruit and berry orchards and vegetable farms in this newly irrigated region had a profound effect on Asotin County. Whereas during the last two decades of the nineteenth century most of the county's growth had been in or near the town of Asotin, Asotin and Anatone both peaked in their population growth shortly after 1900 and -- with some fluctuations -- both towns have remained relatively stationary in population since, with Asotin averaging near 1,000 and Anatone about 100. Clarkston meanwhile quickly grew to a population of 6,209 in 1960 and 7,337 in 2000.

Floods and Flash Floods

Asotin County was fortunate in that its towns escaped destruction by fire, which was so common to many Western towns in the nineteenth century. But Asotin County has had another recurring problem unique to its rugged terrain: flooding. One significant flash flood struck Asotin Creek after a thunderstorm in May 1897, inflicting considerable damage, but causing no fatalities. A similar flash flood on Asotin Creek in June 1925 killed two young children, both members of the same family. A state highway department employee drowned in yet another flash flood at Dry Gulch in 1976.

Asotin County has also experienced river and creek flooding caused by heavy rain and snowmelt. At least four significant floods linked to rain and snowmelt struck the county between 1960 and 2000, with the most damaging floods occurring in January 1974 and in February 1996.

Prohibition Days

During Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the rugged remote areas of Asotin County favored moonshine making, and "any of us who were raised in (these) more remote areas during that time knew the location of stills," wrote Asotin County historian Robert Weatherly in The Best of Jawbone Flat Gazette.

But the remoteness of much of Asotin County also made it difficult to bring it into the twentieth century: Even in the early 1930s it was common to see people in the remote areas of the county riding a horse instead of driving a car, whereas in the larger cities the automobile had been basic transportation for nearly 20 years. Electricity did not reach some of the remotest areas of Asotin County until the late 1940s.

A Murder and a Fire

Asotin County was thrust into the national spotlight in the early 1930s. On August 5, 1931, 12-year old Herbert Niccolls, Jr. shot and killed Asotin County Sheriff John Wormell. The case attracted national attention, and when Niccolls was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, Father E. J. Flanagan, the founder of Boys Town, made a nationwide appeal for Niccolls' "parole" to Boy's Town. It didn't happen, though Niccolls reformed in prison and was paroled in 1941.

A more local scandal rocked Asotin County later in the 1930s when the Asotin County Courthouse burned down on August 16, 1936. The fire was caused by arson. There was unproven speculation that the fire was a "Clarkston Hit Job," as there had been attempts to have the county offices moved to Clarkston, which by 1936 was considerably larger than Asotin. Though there was further talk after the fire of moving the county seat to Clarkston, eventually the Old Ayers Hotel (built in 1905) in Asotin was converted into a courthouse, and it remains the Asotin County Courthouse today (2006).

Development of the Lower Snake River

Agriculture continued to dominate Asotin County's economy through the 1950s. Thanks to the irrigation of Jawbone Flat, a wide variety of produce and fruit was grown in the regions west of Clarkston along the Snake River. Abundant meat and dairy farms complemented vegetable and grain farms and orchards.

From the early days of settlement on the Snake River, people had talked of opening the river to make it navigable all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Finally in 1945 Congress authorized the Lower Snake River Project. Beginning in the early 1960s the project began to take shape with the construction of four dams along the Snake River in Washington state. Asotin County was affected by the construction of the final dam, the Lower Granite Dam. Construction on the dam began in July 1965.

Though the Lower Granite Dam bridges Whitman and Garfield counties, it has had far reaching impacts on Asotin County. It created a large lake, the 39-mile-long Lower Granite Lake, which reaches into Asotin County. Preparation for filling the lake took more than two years after the Lower Granite Dam was completed before the lake was allowed to begin filling on February 15, 1975. In the meantime, a new port was built on the Snake River at Clarkston (the second farthest-inland port in the United States), which was dedicated on June 20, 1975.

Although Clarkston is actually the smallest of a trio of area ports, which include ports in Lewiston and Wilma (Whitman County), the port has brought an incalculable economic boost to Clarkston since 1975, adding a new dimension to life in Asotin County.

Sources: F. A. Shaver, An Illustrated History of Southeastern Washington (Spokane: Western Historical Publishing Company, 1906), 635-706; Robert Weatherly, "Asotin County Courthouse 1899-1936," The Best of Jawbone Flat Gazette, Vol. 2 (Clarkston: Twin City Printing, 1986), 2-4; Robert Weatherly, "The Clarkston Lewiston Bridge," Ibid., 65-68; Robert Weatherly, "The Asotin Creek Flood of June 21, 1925," Ibid., 142-144; Robert Weatherly, "Jawbone Flat-Lewiston-Concord-Clarkston," The Best of Jawbone Flat Gazette, Vol. 3, (Clarkston: Twin City Printing, 1987), 13-14; Robert Weatherly, "Prohibition Days in Asotin County," Ibid., 111-113; Lorraine Nelson, "The River's Transition Came in with a Bang," Lewiston (ID) Tribune, June 20, 1995, p. 1-G; Keith Petersen, "Seaport in a storm," Ibid., December 12, 1999, p. 1-G; Kerri Sandiane, "Anatone will rise again", Ibid., June 26, 2003, p. 1-C; "Census 2000," website accessed February 3, 2006, (; "Asotin County Profile, September 2000," Labor Market and Economic Analysis Branch, Washington State Employment Security Department, website accessed February 3, 2006, ( uploadedPublications/382_asotin.pdf); "Governors of Washington State," website accessed February 7, 2006 (; online encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Major Flooding Strikes Asotin County on February 7, 1996" and "Asotin County Sheriff John Wormell is shot and killed by 12-year-old Herbert Niccolls on August 5, 1931" (by Phil Dougherty) (accessed February 9, 2006).

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