Idaho corruption in high places

History Corner

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Sometimes crime pays. It did for Caleb Lyon, Idaho's second territorial governor who thought nothing of cheating the Nez Perce Indians out of money rightfully theirs, and getting away with it.

President Lincoln appointed him in 1864. That was a mistake.

Lyon spread the word that a prospector found diamonds near Ruby City, Idaho. Hundreds filed claims hoping to strike it rich but found almost nothing. Not an auspicious prelude to Idaho becoming the Gem State.

Geologists agree that Idaho is not a good source for diamonds, though a 19 1/2-carat diamond was found between McCall and New Meadows.

But the pea-sized piece of quartz the governor was showing around looked real to the gullible. By the time wide-eyed prospectors found out they'd been conned, the governor had already skipped the state and was back in New York.

When Lyon ended his term and left, territorial officials soon discovered that some money was missing. A $46,148.40 discrepancy was unaccounted for of the $50,000 Congress told Lyon to disburse to the Indians, in his secondary capacity as federal superintendent of Indian affairs.

When confronted, the former governor admitted having the money but lamely claimed that it was stolen from under his pillow when he was on a train headed for Washington, D.C., stating he intended to return the funds to the federal treasury.

Fortunately for the government, the money was bonded so they didn't lose anything. Neither did Lyon, who was never charged.

"Idaho's territorial governors were for the most part an odd lot of scheming or incompetent carpetbag politicians who seemed to serve the territory best by leaving it, or by not arriving at all," wrote chronicler Carlos A. Schwantes.

It was easy to play fast and loose with government funds. In those days, the governor, secretaries, Supreme Court justices and other territorial officials were appointed by the president, confirmed by the U.S. Senate and paid by the Feds.

Being in Idaho and so far from congressional oversight and law and order, the appointees had free rein.

Once Caleb Lyon arrived in 1864 and set up office in Lewiston - then the capital - it didn't take long for him get into trouble with the locals.

Believing it's best to have the capital in a big city, he pushed for it to be transferred to Boise. He succeeded but the people in Lewiston and North Idaho were furious. A judge issued a temporary order not to move the archives and territorial seal to Boise, and the sheriff set up an armed guard to prevent it.

Lyon was summoned to appear in court but snuck out under the guise of duck-hunting on the Snake River. Safe across the border into neighboring Washington, he took off for the nation's capital and Idaho had no governor for 11 months.

Meanwhile, Clinton DeWitt Smith, the newest Territorial Secretary - who took eight months to arrive in the state from New York via Panama - named himself acting governor and took matters into his own hands.

With a contingent of soldiers he broke into the state capital building in Lewiston and absconded with the state seal and other government documents.

Stuffing everything into saddlebags, he headed back to Boise, the trip taking 16 days due to bad weather.

"Grand theft," screamed the folks up north, threatening to leave Idaho and join Washington.

Seven months later, Clinton DeWitt Smith died, but not before his treasurer stole $4,000 in territory funds on his watch. Conflicting accounts say Smith died while playing chess on an inspection trip to quartz mines at Rocky Bar; others that he drank himself to death.

His obituary in the Walla Walla Statesman reported he was buried on the spot, "with the usual manifestation of mourning."

Horace C. Gilson, Smith's replacement and next de facto governor, was a thief who quietly looted the entire territorial treasury of $41,062, before absconding to Hong Kong and Paris. He was caught but never tried.

Grim times in Idaho.

Had President Lincoln vetted Caleb Lyon better, he probably would not have given him the Idaho appointment.

Lyon was born in 1822 in Lyonsdale, New York - founded by his father who built a bridge and a gristmill there - and served in the state legislature and senate before being elected to Congress. That was his crowning achievement in life. Virtually everything else he did made him more notorious than noteworthy.

In 1847, President James K. Polk appointed him U.S. Consul to Shanghai, but shortly after arriving in China he left the post in charge of his deputy and returned to San Francisco via South America and Panama.

In California, he became involved in organizing state government as a prelude to statehood. He was paid $1,000 for designing the state seal, though actual credit should have gone to Robert S. Garnett. Then he returned to New York to begin his career in public office.

During the Civil War, Lyon had a military task of confiscating Robert E. Lee's estate in Arlington for the Smithsonian. One report claims many of Lee's best objets d'art ended up in Lyon's library.

Then Lincoln sent him to Idaho Territory.

Two sources describe the peripatetic New Yorker as ill-suited to administer government on the frontier:

One writer said, "Because he insisted on styling himself as 'Caleb Lyon of Lyonsdale' (in his correspondence and elsewhere), Idaho pioneers twitted him as 'Cale in the Dale.' It is said of Lyon that he came into office in a storm and left in a cyclone."

Another said Lyon "had a reputation as a New York art and literature critic. Being somewhat of a dandy, he never fit in with the rough-and-tumble miners of Idaho and was ill-suited to govern the new territory."

That was not always the case. Before he disappeared to the East Coast, miners in Owyhee County were taking up a collection to buy him a silver brick as a token of appreciation for moving the capitol to Boise.

When the phantom governor suddenly returned "with fanfare, flourish and flowery rhetoric," after an 11-month absence, he brought good news: "The authority to make binding treaties with hostile Indians, pledges of substantial federal government assistance to the impoverished territory, and fifty thousand dollars in cash to disburse among the natives."

All was forgiven and the miners restarted fund-raising for the silver brick, only to be one-upped by miners in Rocky Bar collecting for a gold brick for the governor. Elsewhere, merchants were eager to help the Indians spend the money.

That was the money that was "stolen" from under the governor's pillow. Of the lost money, $18,631 was to go to the Nez Perce Indians for relinquishing some of their land.

Lyon did make treaties with the Shoshone Bruneau, Bannock, Boise and Nez Perce Indians of some benefit, but the U.S. Senate never ratified any of them.

To his credit however, Lyon encouraged a peaceful relationship between the Indians and settlers and denounced those who were calling for attacks on Indian settlements.

He also designed the Idaho Territorial Seal, which was used until statehood.

Nevertheless, the Idaho Statesman remained unappreciative, stating that only a "military escort could prevent him from violence or death."

Caleb Lyon was also known as a poet. But even that got him into strife. Rev. Henry Budge of Lewis County, N.Y., was charged with murdering his wife but was acquitted. It was one of those cases in which everyone had an opinion as to innocence or guilt.

The ex-governor "published doggerel verses reiterating the charge of murder and imputing against Budge unchastity with a governess residing in the family of an elder brother, Hon. Lyman R. Lyon."

Rev. Budge sued for libel seeking $20,000 and won the case, but Lyon walked away having to pay only a nominal $100 judgment.

Caleb Lyon died at his home on Staten Island in 1875 at age 52.

He and his wife Mary Ann Springsteen (1823-1881) had a son Caleb and daughter Henrietta Frederica.

One writer summed up Lyon as "a conceited, peculiar man, who made many enemies and misappropriated much of the public funds." He wasn't the only one.

Stability didn't come to Idaho until it achieved statehood in 1890.

Perhaps Caleb Lyon was just a product of his times.

Syd Albright is a writer/journalist/biographer living in Post Falls. He is chairman of the Kootenai County Historic Preservation Commission. Contact him at

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