First Among Equals:
Plaintiff's Win Collections Cases
By Adam Attwood
“First Among Equals:
Plaintiffs Win Collections Cases during Economic Readjustment, 1861-2”
By Adam Attwood
The Frontier Justice records contain a snapshot of the local economy during Washington Territory’s frontier days. Civil cases on promissory note defaults and collections provide this snapshot of the early 1860s economy in Walla Walla County. Research at the Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch yielded case numbers 258 (Brown Brothers & Co. vs. Goodwin, White & Brothers), 262 (Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton), and 268 (H. S. Jacobs vs. Mullan Bros). These cases involved businesses as the plaintiff and defendant. Case 301 (D. M. Jesse & John J. Thompson vs. John Palmer) and A.H. Whitley vs. John Monroe involved individual citizens. This cluster of records is important for acknowledgement today because this examination of frontier Walla Walla’s civil cases elucidates some of the macroeconomic themes of the 1861-2 Washington Territorial economy. Plaintiffs were usually granted their claim. And there were no exceptions to this generality during the economic undulations of the early 1860s.
The arguments between companies were indicative of the frontier. Money was not always readily available in an economy with no social safety. In Case 262, a Court document states:
“And the Plffs […] then allege they are informed and behind that the Defat. J. R. Scranton, has […] claims some interest in the lien upon this said mortgaged premises or some parts thereof which interest in lien, if any, has accrued subsequently in the lien of the said mortgage. And Plffs further allege that they have not protected, nor are they now protecting, any other action for the recovery of the said indebtedness.
The Plffs. therefore demand that the Defendants Smith & Crapper, and the Defendant J. R. Scranton – and all persons claiming under this agreement to the commencement of this action to be foreclosed. That the said premises may be decreed to be sold according to law; that the moneys arising from the sale may be brought into Courts that the Plffs. may be paid the amount due upon the said note and mortgage with interest.” (Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton 1862).
Credit played an important role in the territorial economy. Each party involved in this case was concerned for their financial bottom line. A large 17-page question and answer session revealed to the Court the exact details that were needed to make a decision. For example, one question requires the defendant to state their place of residence.
Curiously, there is a typed letter from the Court included in the file. It could have been transcribed at a much latter date, perhaps decades later. Whatever the event, the typed letter accompanies a hand-written version. The handwritten version is most likely the original, because the typewriter was not yet in general use within the territorial Court system for daily, real-time operation. The typed letter is the Court’s decision on the case. Whatever the reason for typing the decision, it alleviated any handwritten ambiguity—an innovation.
The Court’s ruling on Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton was one and half pages typed, double spaced, and issued by Associate Justice E. P. Oliphant. The Court ruled that the defendants were guilty of default and were required to pay the plaintiff $439.29 and any interest on the amount until it was paid in full.
In Brown Brothers & Co. vs. Goodwin, White & Brothers (1862), an official inventory list from Brown Bro’s & Company is included. Sundry items, from boots to tobacco, are featured in the inventory. The plaintiff sought payment for goods sold to the defendant on credit. The total amount sought by Brown & Brothers was $180.60. It all began with a one George Driggs whom the plaintiffs claimed owed them $15.00 for a coat and a “pair of drawers.” However, Driggs paid Brown Brothers for the total amount due. Therefore, the Court ordered that this amount “must be stricken from the record.” Ultimately, the story was discovered, but some “discrepancy” of the amount of wheat delivered and owed was declared. The plaintiffs won every other request, but still paid court costs.
The plaintiff in Case 268, H. S. Jacobs, sued 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. The promissory note and collections cases offer several types of information that is cogent to the Frontier Justice project.
All are representative examples of the several dozens of collections cases. These portray the territorial economy as functioning on credit. The Court settled these within a couple of years, generally, and the amounts range into the hundreds of dollars. Collections cases occurred partly because of a large economy. According to Eugene P. Moehring, in his article “The Civil War and Town Founding in the Intermountain West,” gold prospectors exponentially increased white settlement. And HistoryLink.org estimates that “By 1861 the city of Walla Walla had a population of 3,500, making it the largest community in Washington Territory at the time.” Growth status put Walla Walla on the economic map. “Walla Walla wheat” promoted the city as an “export and import” hub.
A growing economy had its litigious side not only between businesses but also between individual citizens. In 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 a debt of $157.19 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. Perhaps the plaintiff was not officially an incorporated business. In either case, the small business operation of Jesse and Thompson was on the categorical border of individual and incorporated business. The fact that there are “Bills of merchandise” noted in the court documents strongly suggests that Jess and Thompson is a business partnership. However, the lack of “Company” or similar identifier contrasts with the clearly demarcated business cases. Unlike the other cases, the defendant is undoubtedly an individual citizen.
Palmer, likely poor, was a greater flight risk, too. There were no company assets to back his debt. Likewise, in A.H. Whitley v. John Monroe (1861), Whitley sued Monroe for $180 and court costs. The allegation of failure to pay for goods was upheld despite a motion to dismiss. Monroe hired the law firm Cain, Bridges, and Gates. The firm
“move[d] the Court to dismiss the above entitled case from the Docket of said Court and to strike from the files the complaint of the Plaintiff in said action for the following reastons to wit [because] 1st That the said Complaint and action is not entitled in any Court known to the Statutes of this Territory of Washington that the same is not entitled as the law prescribes. 2nd That the said Suit and Complaint does not allege in what County or in what State or Territory the said Suit is to be tried That the Complaint is vague and uncertain.”
The motion to dismiss was not dated, but the plaintiff’s complaint was filed on August 21, 1861 and followed by a judgment in October of 1861. Therefore, the motion to dismiss was denied, and the defendant was found in default.
Many collections cases were between companies, but some were between individual citizens. The sheriff's office held public auctions to satisfy some Court judgments on collections cases. The following example is between individual citizens. According to the Washington Statesman (January 3, 1862):
“On execution issued out of the district court of Walla Walla county, [...] founded on a judgment rendered in said court [...] in favor of Christ Kirtz and against John Buseanger and Henry Brown, for the sum of twelve hundred dollars and costs, taxed at one dollar, and interest, the following property, to-wit: Lot No. seven (7) in block No. four, (4) according to the plat of survey of the town of Walla Walla, and all buildings and improvements thereon.”
This “sheriff's sale” advertisement was not uncommon. The Court ruled in favor of the creditor. This was generally followed by the not so surreptitious sheriff's sale. Personal assets were involved when the case was a business vs. individual citizen or an individual citizen vs. individual citizen. This 1862 issue announced the sale of John Buseanger's personal property after losing in Court to Christ Kirtz on December 16, 1861. The sale was “to satisfy said execution [from the Court], or so much thereof as may be necessary, and cost and interest, and all accruing interest, costs and charges.” The sale had to be public and well advertised so that the victorious plaintiff could get as much money as possible. These sales served the purpose to get maximum financial proceeds to plaintiffs, such as Kirtz.
The original amount owed by the debtor was rarely the final amount, because the plaintiff would request payment for court costs and accrued interest. Although not necessarily granted, the sale would help defray court costs. The defendant could lose everything. The creditor received payment, if not a long-term client. The boom-bust cycles of American capitalism were as much a microeconomic as a macroeconomic phenomenon.
In cases where the defendant lost, the Court ordered the sale of the defendant’s property to satisfy the debt owed to the plaintiff. The stakes were higher for individual citizens because of their personal liability. Subsequently, flight risk increased, not least because of the rarity of a successful defense in collections matters. In A. H. Whitley v. John Monroe (1861), the defendant was accused of failing to pay for goods purchased on credit. Monroe hired law firm Cain, Bridges, & Gates. They argued that the case should be dismissed from the Court Docket because of a technicality of jurisdiction, and because “the Complaint is vague and uncertain.” The Court rejected the defense’s argument and ruled in favor of the plaintiff. Once again, the plaintiff won another collections case. If the defendant did not pay according to the Court order, then he may face the loss of his personal assets, as the Washington Statesman article above suggests.
Walla Walla was part of the larger trend of Western urbanization during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Complex economies grew with towns. Cary Melvin Rader was part of the Westward urbanization phenomenon. His father moved from Indiana to Washington State in the antebellum period. Cary became a general practitioner of law in Walla Walla after fighting in the Indian wars of 1853. As a general practitioner, he specialized in corporate law.
The fact that there were practicing corporate lawyers in Walla Walla in the mid to late 1800s indicates the business boom in the region vis-à-vis urbanization. According to Moehring, the Civil War period saw expanded town formation in a beltway from Arizona to central Washington. Settlers from East of the Mississippi River moved to the West, some fought in the Indian wars, mined for gold, and settled into towns. They all seemed to have a common purpose in wanting to make money and this made Walla Walla a burgeoning trading town. According to historian Alexander C. McGregor, even Kootenay County began relying on the growing trading hub to the south. The Mullan Road was a key route for the transport of gold from mines in Montana and Idaho, because it was the major road that passed through the mining areas. As the terminus town on the Mullan Road, Walla Walla grew as a holding area for metals as they were transported to Wallula and along the Columbia River.
Despite the population boom in Washington and the West in general, the underlying economic situation was weak because of the Civil War. The war depressed the consumer goods economy while simultaneously increasing what Moehring called the “feverish, wartime speculation in precious metals.” The war materiel business was doing well, but Walla Walla was far away from Civil War battlefronts. The town was notable for its general stores than its frontline materiel supplies. Armies do not produce goods; therefore, war has historically been known to cause inflation because of the disruption to the civilian market economy. The Kondratieff Wave theory has shown that although the civilian economy expanded in the far West, including Walla Walla, it contracted east of the Mississippi in the early 1860s. Four large inflationary spikes since the early 1800s to 2000 all occurred during wartime. People migrated to where they could most likely profit. One of the “troughs” during the “second long wave” occurred during (and partly because of) the American Civil War.
Walla Walla is one example of white urbanization. Moehring notes that on former “Indian lands[,] This resulted in the formation of numerous communities, linked together by roads and commercial relationships into urban networks.” The settlers all seemed to have a common purpose in wanting to be profitably employed on new terms. Walla Walla’s growing businesses in the 1860s created demand for corporate (or business) lawyers, not least because of credit defaults.
If the Kondratieff “trough” appeared less dire in the West than in the East, then many people became de facto entrepreneurs and moved to where they could start anew. But money was scarce, so credit took the place of the previous cash-in-hand system. Carville Earle notes in The American Way: “entrepreneurs vastly extended the tissue of credit in ways that provided market access to ceramics, household fineries, and tropical exotica.” As seen in cases such as Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton (1862), credit was unstable. Consumer demand prompted production of goods that were charged on credit. This system was strained by wartime pressure. Some Walla Walla companies could barely rely on each other to pay their debts on time during the tumultuous Civil War recession. Money’s value was based on what Bruce Carruthers and Sarah Babb called the “taken-for-granted” system. The government declared paper to be of relative value vis-à-vis gold bullion. However, the credit system was based even more on the taken-for-granted system because credit was the absence of money altogether. The value relied on the debtor’s promise to pay for goods received. H. S. Jacobs vs. Mullan Bros was a civil case that exemplified the “promissory” note default. Having failed to pay, Mullan Brothers Company was sued by the creditor, H. S. Jacobs. Goods were given with the understanding that payment would eventually be received. Without the credit system, Walla Walla (and the West in general) would not have economically expanded as much as it did.
The agricultural market did not escape the economic readjustment of the early 1860s. Brown Brothers & Co. vs. Goodwin, White & Brothers (1862) is representative of the complications involved in a collections case. The Court did not completely side with the plaintiff—a rare situation in collections cases. One of the individual defendants, George Driggs, finally paid for the goods received just after the claim was filed; therefore, the Court eliminated the claim against him from the account receivable. But the claim against Good, White & Brothers was upheld. Apparently, the weather was a part of the reason for breach of contract on the amount of wheat actually delivered relative to the amount agreed upon for delivery. Despite disagreements between the parties on the number of bushels of wheat delivered, the Court ruled that eighty bushels had been completed. Therefore, the final judgment was that the corporate defendant must pay the corporate plaintiff a total of $85.60, or nearly half what the plaintiff had originally claimed. So although Brown Brothers did not get everything it wanted, it still won the case overall.
The Walla Walla collections cases portray a county with a complex economy. The vast majority of collections cases appear to have been between businesses, but some were between a business and an individual citizen. The territorial court appeared to have ruled in favor of the plaintiff in the vast majority of the cases. The random sampling of five cases all feature rulings in favor of the plaintiff. John Monroe, defendant in A.H. Whitley v. John Monroe, came closest to a successful defense. Businesses were not always paying their bills to each other, and the court almost always ruled in favor of the business if an individual citizen was the defendant. Collections cases emerged from a tenuously regulated economy based on a credit complex.
A.H. Whitley vs. John Monroe (1861). Frontier Justice Records. Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch, Cheney, WA.
Brown Brothers & Co. vs. Goodwin, White & Brothers (1862). Case 258. Frontier Justice Records. Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch, Cheney, WA.
D. M. Jesse & John J. Thompson vs. John Palmer (1861). Case 301. Frontier Justice Records. Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch, Cheney, WA.
H. S. Jacobs vs. Mullan Brothers (1862). Case 268. Frontier Justice Records. Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch, Cheney, WA.
Way, Bush & Co. vs. Smith & Crapper and J. R. Scranton (1862). Case 262. Frontier Justice Records. Washington State Archives-Eastern Branch, Cheney, WA.
Books and Newspapers
Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County: Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties, vol. II (Chicago, IL: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1918), 20-21.
Washington Statesman, 1862. Washington Secretary of State.
Carruthers, Bruce G. and Sarah Babb, “The Color of Money and the Nature of Value: Greenbacks and Gold in Postbellum America,” American Journal of Sociology 101, no. 6 (May 1996): 1556-91.
McGregor, Alexander C. "The Economic Impact of the Mullan Road on Walla Walla, 1860-1883," Pacific Northwest Quarterly 65, no. 3 (July 1974), 121.
Moehring, Eugene P. “The Civil War and Town Founding in the Intermountain West,” The Western Historical Quarterly 28, no. 3 (Autumn 1997): 317-41.
Earle, Carville. The American Way: A Geographical History of Crisis and Recovery. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
McCormick, Brian Joseph. The World Economy: Patterns of Growth and Change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988.
Murphy, John J. Intermarket Analysis: Profiting from Global Market Relationships. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2004.
“Lesson Thirteen: Cities and Hinterlands: The Modern Northwest,” HSTAA 432 History of Washington State and the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington, accessed October 29, 2008, http://www.washington.edu/uwired/outreach/cspn/Website/
“Walla Walla County – Thumbnail History,” HistoryLink.org, accessed October 23, 2008, http://www.historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&File_Id=7679