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Landmarks: Clagett practiced law across the Inland Northwest

The grave of William Horace Clagett is seen on Tuesday at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)
The grave of William Horace Clagett is seen on Tuesday at Greenwood Memorial Terrace in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Many of the headstones in the cemeteries of Spokane stand as monuments, large and small, marking the final resting place of Inland Northwest pioneers, men and woman who shaped the region’s development. Some headstones, however, stand above the graves of people whose final years were spent here but whose impact in life was largely elsewhere. They, too, have worthwhile stories to tell.

For example, William Horace Clagett (1838-1901), who lies at rest at Greenwood Memorial Terrace, was an individual with such a story.

Clagett was born in Maryland and moved to Keokuk, Iowa, as a boy. He studied law in Keokuk and Albany, N.Y., and began a law practice in Keokuk. He moved west and practiced law in Humboldt and Carson City, Nev.; Helena and Deer Lodge, Mont.; Deadwood, Colo.; Portland; Coeur d’Alene; and finally in Spokane. He had a lifetime fascination with prospecting and mining investments, both of which he pursued while practicing law, and also spent some time in political office.

That’s the official record, inside of which are two particularly noteworthy occurrences. The first was that while studying law in Iowa, he became friends with a young man named Samuel Clemens, later to be known as Mark Twain. After marrying Mary Hart, Clagett headed west to practice law in Nevada and in 1861 joined his friend Clemens’ prospecting expedition to Humboldt, where he stayed on as a notary public.

According to R. Kent Rasmussen’s “Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work,” Clagett purchased a horse from Clemens that may have been the “Genuine Mexican Plug” described in Mark Twain’s 1871 “Roughing It.” It is also noted that Clagett’s wife traveled to Nevada from Iowa along with Clemens’ wife, Mollie.

Clagett served in both houses of the Nevada Legislature and was a delegate to Congress (1871-73) in Montana before that territory became a state. He was known as an especially engaging speaker and dubbed “the silver tongued orator of the West.”

In 1873 he served a one-year post as U.S. Special Counsel to investigate possible fraud in the Office of Indian Affairs for Montana. He was not able to achieve much in that position, with newspaper accounts suggesting that backroom politics got in his way. It was said that friends and foes believed him too uncompromising to succeed in politics.

He was president of the Idaho constitutional convention in 1889. He was unsuccessful in two bids for U.S. Senate from Idaho, first in 1891, then in 1895.

However, what he did while serving two years as a Congressional delegate from Montana was unquestionably the most significant thing he did during his life in politics. He became acquainted with Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden and the results of the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, the first federally funded geological survey that explored and provided detailed documentation of the features of a vast region in Wyoming and a portion of Montana.

The result was that Clagett introduced the Act of Dedication bill into the House. That bill eventually led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park, a monumental achievement in an otherwise quiet political career.

Toward the end of his years, following political disappointments and declining health, William Clagett moved from his home in Coeur d’Alene to Spokane in the late 1890s to enjoy a more comfortable life. And of course to practice law. He died in Spokane in 1901.

But there was an epilogue yet to come. An isolated summit at Yellowstone, about two miles west of Mammoth Hot Springs, stands at 8,041 feet. It had been called Temple Mountain and Signal Butte, but it had never been officially named – that is, not until 1926 when it was christened Clagett Butte.