First Among Equals:
Plaintiff's Win Collections Cases
By Adam Attwood
The year 1861 brought the dawn of the American Civil War and an economic readjustment. Walla Walla’s frontier economy was strained but intact. What was Walla Walla’s economy like in the 1860s? Collections cases from the time indicate that the area operated on a vibrant credit system that was regulated by the territorial courts. Business and individual defaults were symptomatic of the economic slump. Plaintiffs (nearly) always won what they requested. This helped keep the civilian economy operational because creditors knew they could count on the court and hope for market normalization.
“First Among Equals: Plaintiffs Win Collections Cases during Economic Readjustment, 1861-2.” When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the American economy entered a war-time footing that forced adjustment of the civilian market. Through court cases and newspapers and secondary source analysis, a picture of frontier Walla Walla emerges. Walla Walla County saw many collections cases during the economic shift of the 1860s. And the plaintiffs’ ubiquitous victories showed the strength of their cases and the efficient operations of the Washington Territorial Court.
Overview: Documents listed under the following four cases from frontier Walla Walla represent the extent of plaintiffs’ legal strength. The Court sided with the plaintiffs based on the evidence. But it also may have been economically logical to find in favor of most of the plaintiffs’ claims because businesses would stop lending to each other if they did not feel confident in securing their loans. If a debtor defaulted on a loan, the creditor expected the Court to back up their claim against the person or business in default. From the “Opinion of the Court” in the Brown Brothers case to the “Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment” in the Way, Bush & Co case, these court documents suggest the macroeconomic trends in the early 1860s.
Brown Brothers & Co. vs. Goodwin, White & Brothers (1862) is a complicated case. The “Opinion of the Court” filed May 9th 1862 is a representative example of the complications in many collections cases. This case is about an agricultural goods dispute between two companies. Each firm’s partners and several of their employees were questioned in order to render an appropriate judgment vis-à-vis the particulars of this case. Ultimately, the story was discovered, but some “discrepancy” of the amount of wheat delivered & owed was declared. The plaintiffs won, but still paid court costs.
H. S. Jacobs vs. Mullan Brothers (1862) [summary of claim and summary of judgement] was about H. S. Jacobs suing Mullan Brothers for failure to pay a promissory note. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and awarded a sum of $521.32. Similarly, in the Brown Brothers case (258), this was a failure to pay a credit balance. Businesses could not necessarily rely on each other’s credit history because of economic cycles.
D.M. Jesse & John J. Thompson v. John Palmer (1861), the writ/subpoena summoned Palmer to appear before the District Court of Walla Walla on the charge that he owed money to Jesse and Thompson. The debt comprised of funds owed for sundry clothing and food goods. Although the list of items appears to be from a store, the case documents were written as if the plaintiff is a two-person partnership. This case is one of the examples of the precariousness of the territorial credit system.
Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton (1862) is an example of business versus business. Plaintiffs made multiple allegations for satisfaction of debt, because many businesses had credit accounts that they would place purchases against. Eventually, during the down economy of the 1860s, some businesses defaulted on large amounts of debt.