Inland Northwest History and Culture  >  Indian-White Encounters  >  Spokane: 1877-1890

White Men and Whiskey

Whites, Alcohol, and Indian Relations in 19th Century Spokane

By 1887, Spokane had become what many viewed as the jewel of the Inland Northwest.  The local mining industry was booming, and few businesses failed to take advantage of the opportunities associated with such economic growth.  The citizenry was proud of their little village that had grown into a prosperous town, and few could criticize their pride.  Other villages and towns looked to Spokane with a sense of awe as well.  Spokane’s success, in their eyes, was a byproduct of a progressive population.  It was a “live town, full of progressive people.”[1]  Boards of trade were created, and meetings concerning the improvement of the infrastructure were frequent.  No one, not even the oldest settlers, could cast doubt on the town’s future.[2]  Beneath this overwhelming sense of progress, however, there lurked a dark specter that most chose to ignore.  Alcohol, and its impact on both the Indian and white populace, proved to be an issue that threatened the very social fabric of late 19th century Spokane.

There were progressive attempts made to place some level of accountability on the white public when it came to Indians and alcohol, but such actions were superficial at best.  It was illegal to sell alcohol to an Indian, but those caught were only expected to pay a fine.  In fact, whiskey dealing was a notoriously lucrative business, and those individuals employed in such an occupation were expected to have large bank accounts.[3]  The laws designed to “protect” the local Indians were, in practice, nothing more than revenue generating measures.

Some “progressive” members of the community advanced such logic even further.  Those individuals involved in whiskey peddling were not to blame, they claimed, rather it was the Indians who should be held accountable.  Employing an argument based on supply and demand, some citizens declared that the demand element of the equation should be removed and placed on reservations. “The solution to the existing state of affairs is the removal of the redman away from the city.”[4]  In late February of 1887, to the delight of local citizens, three Indian Commissioners arrived in Spokane to assess the condition of local Indians and carried with them the authority to assign the Spokane Tribe to the Colville, Coeur d’Alene, or Flathead reservations.  The populace of Spokane could not have been more pleased.  “Those who have been so long annoyed by the presence of the loafing, lazy Spokanes will hope that the commission will decide to put them on the last named reservation (Flathead), that being the farthest from this city.[5]  Alcohol, they claimed, was the real culprit in regards to poor Indian behavior, and removal from the city was the only real option in limiting Indian access to liquor.  “As long as they are allowed to loaf about the city they will have whiskey, and that peculiar fluid product of the ingenuity of the white man has even a more terrible effect upon the untutored savage than on the civilized being who does not know how to use it with moderation… It would be to the advantage of the Indian himself as well as to the town if he could be put on a reservation.”[6]

Local officials did, on occasion, take a firm position in addressing the issue of alcohol distribution to Indians by white citizens.  When police responded to a complaint about drunken Indians creating a disturbance near the Monroe Street railroad crossing, they managed to apprehend the white man who reportedly furnished the alcohol.[7]  On rare occasions, whites arrested for distributing alcohol to Indians faced severe judicial penalties.  In March of 1887, one of two men arrested for selling alcohol to Indians was bound over to appear before the United States grand jury.[8]  Interestingly, mixed-blood (White/Indian) citizens became caught up in the campaign to halt the flow of alcohol to Indians.  While they could legally purchase alcohol for personal consumption, they were forbidden, like their white counterparts, from distributing acquired booze to Indians.  Mixed-blood alcohol peddlers were often vilified in the press, and not without cause.  After the arrest of a mixed-blood dealer in late March of 1887, local alcohol retailers were warned that while it was legal to sell alcohol to mixed-blood persons, they should not provide liquor to those who had been accused of turning around and selling it to Indians.[9]  The press, however, was occasionally overzealous in identifying mixed-blood dealers.  The Spokane Falls Review was forced to issue an apology after falsely accusing a mixed-blood man of dealing whiskey to Indians.  In fact, the man had informed local law enforcement personnel of the identity of the actual perpetrator.[10]

Interestingly, Spokane’s white population contributed several of its members to the ever-growing cadre of over indulgers.  Unfortunately, several of the instances involving drunken whites also included violence.  One habitual drunk, who had been arrested the previous week, attacked a police officer after the officer had responded to a report of a crazed drunk causing problems at the corner of Howard and Riverside.  A large crowd of spectators had gathered to watch the ensuing brawl, during which the officer suffered a cut cheek and bruised eye.  After the arrival of back up, several of the spectators became participants in the ruckus, which resulted in additional injuries to several parties.[11]  Local military personnel were also caught in the act of being intoxicated in public.  One apprehended soldier was so drunk that officers had to carry him to the jail, and the local press took much joy in reporting the matter.[12]

Additional reports of drunken behavior originated from the jail itself.  In one case, an unidentified individual provided alcohol to a jail prisoner by passing a bottle through the jails window, and the receiver of the spirits became so intoxicated that jail officials worried that he might never recover.[13]   Other inmates were not as lucky.  In one incident, the jail, with all of its occupants, was nearly burned to the ground after several intoxicated detainees passed out and forgot to blow out a candle.[14]  Officers were also forced to physically subdue several drunks at the jail in late February of 1887, often times with the assistance of clubs and even the jail’s stove.[15]  In late March, a notorious violent drunk attacked officers at the jail after they attempted to handcuff all of the occupants of facility for the night.  Even after the officers had managed to place the man in restraints, he continued to attack them, forcing the officers to use physical violence to subdue the man.[16]  While Spokane was suffering from its share of alcohol-inspired drama, other cities were less fortunate during this time.  In Brooklyn, “the brute who gave an elephant whiskey was nearly killed by the drunken and infuriated animal.  When he recovers he ought to be taken in hand by the law.”[17]  Thankfully for Spokane, the alcohol problem had not yet spread to the non-human citizenry.

Although most of Spokane’s white citizens were heavily critical of the Indian/alcohol issue, the glaring fact remained that whites were equally, if not more so, culpable of committing over indulgence.  In fact, the number of reports concerning intoxicated whites that committed acts of violence and debauchery outnumbered those committed by their Indian counterparts.  Equally engaging were the details and drama associated with such incidents.  Whereas the press reports of drunk Indians accounted for only a small portion of print in the local newspaper, the actions of intoxicated whites managed to take up entire columns of print.  Because of this fact, it is clearly apparent that the white population was extremely hypocritical in it’s attitude towards alcohol and Indians, and potentially could have been more proactive in dealing with the issue of alcohol had it focused its attention on the white citizens of Spokane who committed a majority of the alcohol-related offenses.



[1] “ A Great Town.”  Spokane Falls Review, Tuesday, January 18, 1887.   pg. 4.

[2] “ Great Town”, pg. 4

[3] Spokane Falls Review, Friday, January 21, 1887.  pg. 4

[4] Spokane Falls Review, Friday, January 21, 1887.   p.2

[5] “Indian Commission,”  Spokane Falls Review, February 25, 1887, page 1

[6] Spokane Falls Review, March 12, 1887, page 2

[7] Spokane Falls Review, March 13, 1887, page 4

[8] Spokane Falls Review, March 30, 1887, page 4

[9] Spokane Falls Review, March 26, 1887, page 4

[10] Spokane Falls Review, March 27, 1887, page 4

[11] Spokane Falls Review, March 1, 1887, page 4

[12] Spokane Falls Review, March 19, 1887, page 4

[13] Spokane Falls Review, February 27, 1887, page 4

[14] Spokane Falls Review, March 25, 1887, page 4

[15] Spokane Falls Review, February 23, 1887, page 4

[16] Spokane Falls Review, March 30, 1887, page 4

[17] Spokane Falls Review, February 10, 1887, page 3