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The History of Idaho
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 1

Historical Review 1.16   
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Idaho's Native Americans

          Idaho's Native American history is very extensive. The land that would become Idaho remained untouched by white men until 1805 and was not settled by Americans until the late 19th century. Idaho's Indians were able to live without interruption for much longer than their counterparts in the eastern part of the United States.

          Idaho's prehistoric Native Americans are separated into three groups. These tribes existed between 15,000 B.C. and A.D. 1800, before the arrival of white people to the area. The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805 brought the first white men to the area and signalled the onset of a new period for the Native Americans that included influences from Americans and Europeans.

          The first Native Americans in Idaho are identified as Big-Game Hunters. The period that they lived in lasted from about 15,000 B.C. to 6,000 B.C.(1) This group received its name from the large game, such as the mastodon, that they hunted for food. Along with hunting large animals, the Big-Game Hunters fished and gathered wild plants. They lived a nomadic life and followed the migratory patterns of the animals they hunted. They used bones, wood, and stone to create weapons and tools including knives, scrapers, and axes. This tool-making ability evolved throughout the period. They learned from neighboring Plains People how to make the Clovis spear point, crucial in hunting large animals. As the numbers of large mammals decreased, the native lifestyle would evolve into a small-game hunting society.

          During the Archaic Period (6,000 B.C. - A.D. 500), Idaho experienced a dramatic climate change that affected the land and its people dramatically. During this time, the entire planet experienced a warming trend that lasted for nearly 2,000 years. Large mammals, such as the woolly mammoth and the mastodon, became extinct. The ice in the mountains melted, making the rivers of the area much larger. Rivers became increasingly important in the lives of the Archaic People as their diet staples shifted to fish and mussels. These people also hunted animals and gathered wild plants. There is also evidence that the people of this era traded with nearby tribes. They lived in small, self-sufficient family units where men and women had specific duties. Women traditionally did the cooking and gathering of roots, seeds, and berries. Men were responsible for hunting and making tools. The Archaic People had not yet learned how to grow crops, so they depended entirely on their hunting, fishing, and gathering skills to survive.

          The last prehistoric period in the history of Idaho's natives is the Late Period (A.D. 500 - 1805). Being descendants of the earlier Archaic tribes, these natives who mixed with the in-migration of desert people during this time form what is known as the modern tribes of Idaho. These people are ancestors of the tribes that existed at the time of Lewis and Clark's journey through Idaho in 1805. As the drought that began with the climate change in the Archaic Period continued, many natives moved into the Snake River Plain. These people hunted, gathered, and fished for food. The descendents of the Archaic People in southern Idaho became the Shoshone, the Cascade group of the Archaic Indians became the Nez Perce, and the Desert People became the Western Shoshone and the Northern Paiute.

          In 1805, the estimated Native population of Idaho was between 6,000 and 10,000.(2) In the north lived the Kootenai, Pend d'Oreille, Coeur d'Alene, and Nez Perce tribes. The Kootenai were the northernmost and smallest tribe in Idaho. They are linguistically distinct from all other Idaho tribes. The Pend d'Oreille tribe lived south of the Kootenai and ranged into Montana, Washington, and Canada. They belonged to the Kalispel linguistic group. Below the Pend d'Oreille lived the Coeur d'Alene. This tribe was related to the Flat Heads of Montana and the Spokane of Washington. They lived in an area that spanned four million acres between Washington and Montana. The southernmost northern tribe was the Nez Perce. They lived between the Bitterroot and the Blue Mountains.

          Because of shared climate and natural resources, the northern Native American tribes maintained similar living conditions. During the summer they fished for salmon, steelhead, trout, and sturgeon. They would dry the salmon and save it for the winter months. Tribesmen migrated to Montana to participate in communal bison hunts. They also hunted bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goat, bears, moose, elk, deer, caribou, and small game. Fowl were also an import part of their diet. The northern tribes to supplement their diet gathered roots, huckleberries, chokecherries, serviceberries, blackberries, and wild rhubarb. These northern tribes lived in small, individualistic bands, lead by a headman. Later, after the introduction of the horse in the 1850s, the family and clan dynamics changed significantly. Groups were organized under the leadership of powerful chiefs and they adapted to following herds of buffalo.

          The southern tribes, which included the Shoshone, Northern Paiute, and the Bannock, also shared similar characteristics. The climate was much more arid than in the northern region of Idaho, forcing the southern tribes to be frugal and resourceful. They lived much differently than the northern tribes. They dwelled in grass huts instead of houses, made pottery instead of weaving baskets, and used a grinding stone instead of a mortar. For food, southern tribes fished for salmon, gathered roots, nuts and seeds, hunted small game, and ate insects. After the introduction of the horse in the mid-18th century, they began to hunt bison in the Great Plains, as well as other large game such as deer and bear. Unlike other southern tribes, the Northern Paiute did not ride horses. Their environment was so arid that they ate the occasional horse that came into their territory. They were forced to hunt small game, such as rabbits, gophers, mink, squirrel, and birds. Insects were also part of their diet.

          Idaho was home to an expansive Native American population that had evolved in the region over thousands of years. The encroachment and settlement of Americans decimated the native way of life. By the end of the 19th century, all of Idaho's Indian population had been forced onto reservations.

Early Explorers

          The exploration of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark are synonymous with American western history. Their journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean was one of the country's most important expeditions. It marked the beginning of the westward movement that successfully populated the continental United States by the end of the century. It was on this expedition that Lewis and Clark became the first white men to see and set foot in what would later become the state of Idaho. The Lewis and Clark expedition included 27 soldiers, a half-Indian interpreter named George Drouilliard, and Clark's black slave York. A corporal, five privates, and several French boatmen accompanied the party for the first season of the journey, leaving early to bring back specimens and information. They left St. Louis on May 21, 1804. They reached the villages of the Mandan and Minnetree Indians of the Dakotas in October where they stayed for the winter. They continued their journey the following April. Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, and their baby son Jean Baptiste accompanied the expedition to act as guides and interpreters. They arrived in what is now Dillon, Montana on August 8, 1805. From there, Lewis and three men split from the main group and reached the Continental Divide on August 12. They became the first white men to set eyes on Idaho. The party traveled into Idaho and camped with the Shoshone, rejoining their party on the 16th of August and going on to meet the Nez Perce near the Clearwater River. After a brief stay with the Nez Perce, they traveled to the junction of the Clearwater and the Snake Rivers, and left Idaho. However, they would returned to Idaho on their way back to the east the following spring. On May 5, 1806 they arrived at the mouth of Colter Creek, in present-day Potlatch, Idaho. Again they stayed with the Nez Perce for brief period before departing Idaho on the Lolo Trail in June 1806. Idaho provided a number of "firsts" for Lewis and Clark; they became the first white men to set foot in Idaho, they were the first to cross the Lemhi and Lolo passes and the Bitterroot Valley, and the first to contact the Shoshone and Nez Perce in their homelands. The Lewis and Clark expedition became the first of many journeys through Idaho during the early 19th century.

          The burgeoning fur trading business in the west was responsible for bringing other white people into Idaho during the early 19th century. The first fur trader to enter Idaho was David Thompson. He arrived in Idaho just two years after Lewis and Clark, and built the first house used by white men in 1809. He surveyed and mapped the region and made contact with the Pend d'Oreille, and Kootenai tribes. Thompson continued to travel through northern Idaho along Lake Pend d'Oreille, Sandpoint, and Coeur d'Alene, and created the first map of Idaho. The second fur trading post in Idaho was built on the Snake River in 1810, marking the beginning of the fur trade in southern Idaho. During the next year, an agent of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Trading Company, Wilson Price Hunt, led a fur trapping expedition into Idaho. Frenchmen in his group named the Teton Mountains in southeastern Idaho.(3) During the 1820s many fur traders traveled through and trapped in Idaho, including the infamous mountain-man Jedediah Smith. Many of these trappers and traders met at the annual rendezvous in southern Idaho to trade fur and information.

          Missionaries joined the early explorers and fur trappers in Idaho beginning in the 1830s. The Northwest Company sent Christianized Iroquois to introduce Idaho tribes to Christianity. The Nez Perce, impressed with the reading and writing skills offered at a British mission school in Spokane, asked the Americans to send teachers. Americans in St. Louis misinterpreted the request and thought that they wanted to convert. This led to the assignment of two New England Methodists, Jason and Daniel Lee, to the Nez Perce in 1834. Jason Lee became the first American to conduct church service in Idaho. The following year, two Presbyterian couples, the Whitmans and the Spaldings, were sent to the west by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The Whitmans went to Oregon and the Spaldings went to Idaho to set up a mission for the Nez Perce, settling near Lewiston at Lapwai. The Spaldings taught the Nez Perce how to read and write in their own language and how to farm. Catholic missionaries also came to Idaho in hopes of converting the Indians. Pierre Jean De Smet, of Belgium, was sent by the Jesuit order to the Flathead country of Montana. De Smet established St. Mary's Mission in the Bitterroot Valley in 1841, which was the first Catholic mission in the Pacific Northwest. De Smet went on to establish three more missions, one of which was in Idaho. Father Nicolas Point, co-founder of St. Mary's, established the Mission of the Sacred Heart on the north bank of the St. Joe River in order to convert the Coeur d'Alene Indians. The Catholics proved much more successful in converting and retaining Native Americans. By 1873, the Catholics had retained 107,000 Pacific Northwest Indians; the Protestants only 15,000.(4)

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(1) Leonard J. Arrington, History of Idaho, Volume 1, (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1994), 26.
(2) Arrington, 37.
(3) Arrington, 91.
(4) Arrington, 134.

By Rickie Lazzerini

BA History
University of California, Santa Barbara

Index of Historical Reviews

2006 Rickie Lazzerini, All Rights Reserved
This page may be freely linked to but may not be reproduced
in any form without prior written consent from the author.

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