Monday, May 19, 2014

Sidney Edgerton

Helena City Commissioners have proclaimed the week of May 17, 2014, Sidney Edgerton Week in tribute to the man who helped create Montana Territory and for whom Lewis and Clark County was originally named. Sidney Edgerton’s contributions to Montana’s earliest history have been largely forgotten. Appointed chief justice of the supreme court of Idaho Territory, he arrived at Bannack in September, too late to cross the Continental Divide. He soon learned that Idaho’s governor had snubbed him by assigning him to the territory’s most remote district area east of the Divide. Edgerton became committed to the creation a new territory to include the recently discovered gold fields in what became Montana. He traveled to Washington carrying two thousand dollars’ worth of gold dust sewn into his clothing to plead the case.

Sidney Edgerton, Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives, 942-074
The new territory was already under consideration, and on May 26, 1864, Congress created Montana Territory. President Lincoln appointed Sidney Edgerton the territory’s first governor. On February 2, 1865, the territorial legislature established Edgerton County as one of Montana’s original nine counties with Silver City as its county seat. Helena residents, however, had quickly garnered more population than any other community in the county and wanted to claim that designation for itself. Legend has it that attorney Wilbur Fisk Sanders, Governor Edgerton’s nephew, rode to Silver City and stole the scant county documents. With the papers in his saddlebags, he rode to Helena and thus unofficially transferred the county seat. Politics were fickle, however, and Edgerton County’s name changed to Lewis and Clarke County in December 1867 with a legislative vote of 7 to 0. Civil War rivalries were vicious. Montana had some radical Republicans like Sanders and Edgerton, but by now Democrats outnumbered them. Republican Judge Hezekiah Hosmer noted in the December 28 Montana Post that the change came about only because of “partisan spleen.”  The change underscored bitter territorial politics.

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