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The History of Idaho
© 2005 Rickie Lazzerini

Page 2

Historical Review 1.16   
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Idaho Trails

          During the 1840s and 1850s, Idaho was not yet a destination for settlers. Instead, many were traveling to California to mine for gold, or to settle in the fertile Willamette Valley of Oregon. Although groups were not yet settling in Idaho, thousands of people crossed through her on the California and Oregon trails making their way to the Pacific states. The first group of settlers to Oregon passed through the state in 1841. This group was followed by more groups in 1842, but the numbers would rise dramatically after 1843 with the commencement of the "Great Migration" to Oregon. California also received thousands of migrants after gold was discovered in 1848. Between 1849 and 1860, an estimated 41,550 people crossed Idaho on route to Oregon and 200,000 people for California.(5) The Oregon and California trails, which passed through southern Idaho, were historically most important, but the Mullan Road in the north became significant as well. This government-funded road connected the end of the navigated portion of the Missouri River with the Columbia. Although this trail was not typically used by migrants, it was very useful to the army. It would also become a highly trafficked route used by gold rushers in the 1860s and by cattlemen driving herds from the upper Columbia to mines in Montana.

Eureka! Idaho's Gold Rush

           With the exception of the Mormon migration to southern Idaho, Idaho's white settlement would be stimulated by the discovery of gold. When the California gold rush began to decline, miners sought gold in other places, including Colorado, Nevada, Montana, and Idaho. Elias Davidson Pierce is credited with discovering gold in Idaho. Pierce first traveled through Idaho, specifically Nez Perce territory, in 1852. He believed that there could be gold in the area, so he returned in 1857 to prospect, but conflict with the Nez Perce was too great for him to stay. However, the United States Army would defeat the Nez Perce soon after forcing them onto a reservation and making the territory safe for American travelers. Pierce returned to the area in 1860 and asked the Nez Perce for permission to prospect a mine on their reservation. His request was denied. Instead of trying to negotiate, Pierce gathered a group of miners together and snuck onto the land. Pierce and his team built a mining camp in the north fork of the Clearwater River where they quickly and easily found gold. The news about their discovery spread quickly, and by May of 1861, there were 1,000 miners in the newly founded Pierce City.(6) Gold would also be discovered in other locations in Idaho, such as Florence, Boise Basin, and near the Salmon River. In June of 1861, the town of Lewiston was founded with an initial population of 3,000. By the end of 1863, Boise Basin had a population of 16,000 miners.(7) The discovery of silver, lead, and quartz continued to draw miners until the end of the century. Mining in Idaho developed into big business that earned millions of dollars and employed thousands people. Discoveries of quartz, lead, and silver created rushes into the panhandle and the southeastern regions of Idaho. The mining rush in Coeur d'Alene increased the population from 7,000 in 1880, to 25,000 in 1890.(8) The discovery of gold, lead, and silver quickly populated Idaho and sparked the movement toward independence from Washington Territory.

Table 1: Idaho Mining Rushes(9)
Boise Basin
Gold, Silver
Wood River
Gold, Silver, Lead
Coeur d' Alene
Gold, Silver, Lead

          By 1861, miners were becoming agitated over the fact that Washington had not set up any type of government or law enforcement in the mining areas. At this time, Idaho was part of Washington Territory, but was so far away from the capital (Olympia) that it did not receive much attention. The miners took matters into their own hands and held a meeting to elect officials and create Shoshone County. It became apparent that Idaho was too isolated for Washington to govern properly, so Idaho became its own territory on March 4, 1863 with President Lincoln's signing of the Organic Act.

Table 2: Idaho's Boundary History
Transformation of Idaho
Part of Columbia River Country
Part of Oregon Country
Congress splits Oregon and Washington Territory; northern Idaho becomes part of Washington Territory, southern Idaho becomes part of Oregon Territory
Oregon becomes a state, all of Idaho becomes part of Washington Territory
Idaho Territory established
State of Idaho established

Natives vs. Americans: Idaho's Indian Removal

          The history of violence between whites and Native Americans in Idaho dates back to the earliest instances of white settlement. White settlement threatened the Native Americans' way of life, causing much tension between the two groups. In 1847, missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, and twelve others were murdered at their mission by Cayuse Indians. The Whitman Massacre prompted the Spaldings to leave Idaho for Oregon. Clashes between travelers and Indians along the trails were not uncommon. Eventually the United States Army would become involved, forcing Idaho's Native population onto reservations. It took wars with the Coeur d'Alenes, Shoshone, Northern Paiutes, and Nez Perce to successfully move them onto reservations.

          The first of these wars took place in 1858 between American forces and the Coeur d'Alene, Yakima, and Spokane Indians. The tribes defeated the Americans near Rosalia, Washington, but were later put down and forced onto reservations by American troops under the command of Colonel George Wright.

          In the early 1860s, the Bannock and Shoshone Indians in southern Idaho were becoming increasingly aggressive toward passing wagon trains. Travelers reported instances of thievery and attacks. Major Edward McGarry was sent to investigate, and reportedly executed Shoshone for their actions. McGarry's executions angered the Shoshone even more, prompting them to threaten to kill any white person they found above the Bear River. American forces, led by Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, were sent to confront the Shoshone, but their encounter turned into a massacre that left many Shoshone dead. This incident quelled the attacks for a short period of time, but it would take nearly a decade to negotiate the Shoshone onto a reservation.

          The attempt made by the western Shoshone and the Northern Paiutes to drive out the whites in their area became known as the Snake War (1866-1868). The Indians interrupted mail service and attacked miners, farmers, and soldiers. The attacks came to an end after General George Crook negotiated a treaty that placed the Indians on the Idaho-Nevada Duck Valley Reservation.(10)

          The most famous of Idaho's Indian wars was the Nez Perce War. In 1876, because of Americans' desperation for land, it was declared that all remaining Nez Perce had to relocate to the Lapwai Reservation. The leader of the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph, attempted to negotiate with the Americans, iterating that they did not want to leave their land. Chief Joseph's pleas proved unsuccessful and the Nez Perce were given until June 14, 1877 to relocate to Lapwai. It was on the journey to the reservation where war broke out when a group of Nez Perce killed four men in the Salmon River Valley. A cavalry of 100 men were sent in retaliation. The battle resulted in 34 cavalrymen dead, and only two Nez Perce wounded. The Nez Perce did not want more violence, and continued on their journey. Minor skirmishes along the way prompted the military to react as if at war. The army caught up with the Nez Perce on the banks of the Clearwater River and attacked, but the battle ended in a draw. The Indians would continue over the Lolo Trail into Montana to hunt buffalo. Here, they were attacked again in Montana's Big Hole Basin, resulting in major casualties. More than eighty Nez Perce were killed, including over fifty women and children. There was one last battle in October of 1877, resulting in the surrender of the Nez Perce. The Nez Perce were taken to a reservation in Oklahoma, instead of the Lapwai Reservation as agreed upon. It took Chief Joseph eight years to get the government to move the Nez Perce to either the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho or the Colville Reservation in Washington. By 1880, Idaho's Native American population had been subdued onto reservations, making the land clear for white settlement.

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(5) Arrington, 134.
(6) Arrington, 188.
(7) Arrington, 196.
(8) Arrington, 360.
(9) Arrington, 185.
(10) F. Ross Peterson, Idaho, a Bicentennial History, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.,1976), 75.

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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