Idaho Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Idaho’s history is marked by its frontier origins. The state was settled later than neighboring Washington and Oregon, as pioneers passed through in the 1840’s without stopping to settle until valuable gold strikes brought miners in significant numbers.

History of Idaho

Idaho’s history is marked by its frontier origins. The state was settled later than neighboring Washington and Oregon, as pioneers passed through in the 1840’s without stopping to settle until valuable gold strikes brought miners in significant numbers. The rough character of Idaho’s early days was reflected in the violence of its first decades as a state, which came to a close only around the time of the U.S. entrance into World War I. This background is sometimes still apparent in extremist political groups, some of which are racist or anarchist.

Early History

Idaho was first inhabited by various American Indian tribes, such as the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Pend d’Oreille, Kutenai, Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock. The origins of the indigenous inhabitants extend back around fourteen thousand years. Other ancient cultures flourished from eight thousand years ago until about the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, Shoshone bands (fragments of tribes) had obtained horses from European contacts, but these contacts decimated them by spreading smallpox among the Indians.

No whites are known to have explored Idaho before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led their famous expedition through Lemhi Pass in Idaho in 1805. Traveling through the Bitterroot Mountains, the explorers built canoes with the assistance of the Shoshone and Nez Perce and floated down the Clearwater and Snake Rivers to the Columbia. Four years later, Canadian explorer David Thompson built Kullyspell House, known as the first non-native house in the Pacific Northwest, near Pend Oreille Lake. Decades later, in the 1830’s, Forts Hall and Boise, site of the future state’s capital, were founded.

Presettlement Decades

Missionaries, a constant feature of the early days of the Pacific Northwest, soon made their appearance in Idaho, bringing Christianity and–in their eyes–civilization to the native tribes. Henry Spalding arrived in 1836 and established the state’s first school. He also created its first irrigation system and planted its first potatoes, both of which were to play significant roles in Idaho’s later economic development.

The 1840’s saw the arrival of the wagon trains headed west on the Oregon Trail. The steady stream of humanity became a flood in 1849, as twenty thousand forty-niners came through on their way to California’s gold fields. Continuing heavy traffic led to the establishment of the U.S. military post Cantonment Loring near Fort Hall. There were still no settlers, however, even after French Canadians discovered gold on the Pend Oreille River in 1852, the year before a large piece of Oregon Territory broke off to form Washington Territory, of which Idaho was a part. The first permanent community had not even been founded when Oregon was admitted to the Union at the end of the decade. Mormon missionaries had established the Salmon River Mission (Fort Lemhi) in mid-decade, but it was not a success and was abandoned in 1858.

From Territory to State

Only in 1860, when much of the rest of the nation was gearing up for a bloody civil war, were roots for the first town put down, when Franklin, just over the Utah border, was founded by Mormons. The next several years, however, were to change Idaho’s sparsely populated character, as major mining strikes were made in Pierce, Florence, Idaho City, and Silver City. Just two years after the first town was settled, the new community of Lewiston saw the region’s first newspaper, the Golden Age. By 1863, the region east of Washington and Oregon was ready to take a giant step to statehood when it became a territory, with Lewiston as its capital.

This rapid invasion by European settlers was viewed with great alarm by the Native Americans. American Indian wars followed until the end of the 1870’s, as Nez Perce, Bannock, and Sheepeater Indian wars followed in successive years. Thus, in 1877, after years of abuse by settlers, the Nez Perce resisted efforts to send them from Oregon to Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. In June, they crushed U.S. Army troops and settler volunteers at White Bird Canyon, in north-central Idaho. Forced to retreat after federal reinforcements arrived, the Nez Perce surrendered in Montana in October.

Other American Indians, in accordance with federal policy, were also settled on reservations provided by treaties. Conditions on reservations were in some cases so poor that rebellions took place. Thus, the Bannock Indians rebelled in 1878, when food on their reservation became inadequate and settlers objected to their foraging on cattle grazing land. However, they too were defeated by federal troops.

Economic Development and Statehood

In the meantime, other events were unfolding that foretold the new territory’s social and economic future. The first wave of modern technology made its appearance in 1866, as the first telegraph service reached the territory. A harbinger of modern social conflict arrived the next year, when the Owyhee Miners’ League, Idaho’s first labor union, made its appearance. Early in the following decade the first U.S. assay office and Idaho’s first prison were built. Soon after, railroad service came to Franklin, and the way was open for even greater emigration fromthe restless east. By the next century these immigrants included English, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, French Canadian, German, Mexican, and Scandinavian settlers.

From the 1880’s on, technological developments and their economic consequences followed with stunning speed for a region that was so recently an untamed wilderness. In the early 1880’s electric light was introduced, and telephone service followed in 1883. The following year, an enormous silver strike, eventually recognized as the nation’s largest, was registered in the Coeur d’Alene mining district, and more settlers arrived. By the close of the decade, Idaho was ready to trade its position as territory for the status of state. In 1889 a constitutional convention convened on Independence Day to institute a new frame of government. The next year Idaho was admitted to the Union.

Government and Social Conflict

Government under the new state constitution, as in neighboring Washington, reflected the frontier distrust of power in the form of a powerful state governor. Accordingly, executive control was divided into a number of elective offices in which the secretary of state, state controller, state treasurer, attorney general, and superintendent of public instruction are separately elected rather than appointed by the governor. The governor is also denied the power of pardoning criminals. The state constitution underlines a commitment to liberal democracy. It opens with a declaration of the “inalienable rights of man” and a detailed enumeration of individual rights, the central idea of classical liberalism. Immediately following is the forthright statement that “All political power is inherent in the people,” the key democratic idea of popular sovereignty. In keeping with a strong tradition of frontier democracy, voters have the rights of initiative, referendum, and recall.

While a framework for orderly government was in place, Idaho’s rough-and-ready frontier origins could hardly disappear overnight. This became evident in the 1890’s as serious violence broke out between union miners and mine owners. In 1892 the Coeur d’Alene mining area was the scene of dynamiting and shootings. More violence broke out when a new strike occurred in 1899. The strike was broken when the governor, Frank Steunenberg, called out federal troops.

Much bitterness remained, however. In 1905 former governor Steunenberg was murdered by a bomb. The perpetrator, a member of the Western Federation of Miners, an organization of the militant Marxist International Workers of the World (IWW), confessed but implicated three union officials. When a sensational trial was held in 1907, renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow gained acquittals of two officials, and charges against the third were dropped. The prosecutor, William E. Borah, nevertheless won national fame and was elected six times to the U.S. Senate, where he became a stalwart foreign policy isolationist.

Two World Wars and Depression

Before World War I, the state’s economy benefited from irrigation projects. A dam on the Snake River completed in 1906, for example, opened more than 100,000 acres of land for agriculture. The war created an agricultural boom when wartime food shortages brought demand for farm products. The end of the war, however, brought an economic downturn, whose effects were felt into the 1920’s. Matters were worse in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, when many banks collapsed. Federal spending helped to a degree through a highway construction program and employment in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

World War II brought renewed prosperity, as with the rest of the nation, with massive federal spending for war needs. Japanese who were relocated from western portions of Oregon and Washington, went to work in agriculture, where conscription had made labor scarce. Wartime industry made a lasting change in the economy, since in the postwar period manufacturing begun by defense needs continued, resulting in increased urbanization. By 1960, half of the population lived in cities or towns.

Postwar Economy and Society

As in neighboring states, postwar economic growth was also stimulated by development of cheap hydroelectric power. A series of dams was built in the 1950’s, and projects continued in the 1960’s. In 1976 one of the dams collapsed, and several rural communities were inundated, causing loss of life and considerable damage. In the 1970’s, the state’s prosperity brought rapid increase in population, which rose nearly one-third between 1970 and 1980.

By the 1990’s, Idaho’s economy was balanced between agriculture, mining, and nonagricultural industries. Various high-tech industries moved to the Boise area; food processing and wood products remained important. A tourist industry that, led by development of winter sports in Sun Valley, had grown up beginning in the 1950’s was also important. Politically, the state was divided between conservationists and their opponents, and outsiders frequently noted the activity of unsavory fringe political groups, such as anarchists and neo-Nazis. Observers noted that the wise and efficient use of the state’s natural resources would principally determine its future prosperity.

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