Idaho History and Heritage

Idaho History

Humans have lived in the Idaho region for more than 10,000 years. Ruins and remains from ancient Native American cultures have been discovered in hundreds of locations across the state. Many locations in Idaho still carry Indian names. When the Europeans first arrived, there were seven main Native American tribes in the area: the two largest were the Nez Perce and the Shoshone, the others were the Coeur d'Alene, Pend d'Oreille, Paiute, Bannock, and Kootenai.

The Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 were the first recorded white men to enter Idaho. They came out of Montana across the Bitterroot Range. Then, with some help from the Shoshone and Nez Perce, they built canoes and worked their way down the Clearwater River to the Snake River to the Columbia River.

In 1809, a Canadian explorer named David Thompson arrived and built a fur-trading outpost at Lake Pend d'Oreille. He pretty much had all the business to himself until 1834. That year saw Nathaniel Wyeth build Fort Hall and Thomas McKay (of the British Hudson's Bay Company) build Fort Boise. Two years later, a Presbyterian missionary couple arrived and established the Lapwai Mission Station near today's Lewiston.

A band of Mormons built Fort Lemhi in eastern Idaho in 1855 and began farming. They also started Idaho's first irrigation projects. But it was in 1860 that another group of Mormons founded Franklin, Idaho's first permanent settlement. It was in that same year that E. D. Pierce found gold in Orofino Creek. In 1862, in the Boise Basin, George Grimes hit another rich gold strike. The news of these two strikes (and others) brought gold miners pouring into Idaho. It was the pressure from all these white settlers moving into former Native American homelands that brought about the Bear River Massacre, near what is now Preston in southeastern Idaho.

On March 4, 1863, the Idaho Territory was established with Lewiston as the capital. Idaho, Montana and nearly all of Wyoming were included in the Territory. The capital was moved to Boise in 1864, the same year Montana became a separate territory. Idaho and Wyoming were separated in 1868.

In 1874, the Utah Northern Railroad arrived at Franklin. The Northern Pacific and Great Northern worked their ways across the northern panhandle and by 1884, the Oregon Short Line Railroad was carrying materials into Oregon from Hailey and the Big Wood River.

Of course, with this increase in white settlements, conflicts arose with the Native Americans. Under white pressure, the US Army tried to move the Nez Perce Indians from Oregon to the Lapwai Reservation in Idaho. The tribe resisted and on June 17 of that year in White Bird Canyon (north-central Idaho), they crushed the Army in battle. But Army reinforcements kept coming and coming and coming. The Nez Perce ran for Canadian safety but in October, 1877, they were forced to surrender in Montana, still about 40 miles south of the border. From there they were transported back to Lapwai and confined to the reservation.

The Bannock Indians had been confined to a reservation that didn't include their traditional hunting grounds. In 1878 they rebelled because of the lack of food (that they had been promised by the US Government) and because of other problems on their reservation: they were starving and some tried to dig camas roots (for food) out on the prairie, but the white settlers objected because the prairies were for grazing white-owned cattle, not for feeding a bunch of destitute and starving Indians. The tribe rebelled under the leadership of Chief Buffalo Horn but he was shortly killed by the Army. After his death, the tribe split into several groups which were then easily defeated.

George Shoup, a Republican, became Idaho's first governor on July 3, 1890, the day Idaho entered the Union as the 43rd state. In 1892, a shooting and dynamiting war broke out around Coeur d'Alene as the Western Federation of Miners engaged non-union men and mine owners in a violent strike. Frank Steunenberg, governor at the time, called in federal troops to stop the violence. In 1899, he had to declare martial law and bring in the troops again when a second violent strike broke out. Retired, in 1905 the former governor opened the front gate to his house and was killed by a bomb attached to the latch. Harry Orchard, a member of the Western Federation of Miners, confessed to the crime and then implicated three other union officials. Held in 1907, that trial attracted worldwide attention. The prosecutor was US Senator William E. Borah. Attorney for the defense was the famous Clarence Darrow. Darrow got William D. "Big Bill" Haywood (the union leader) and the second official freed almost immediately. Shortly after that, the charges against the third union official were dropped. For his efforts, Mr. Orchard was convicted and spent the rest of his life in prison.

In the early 1900's, several large irrigation projects began to deliver water to Idaho's southern desert and that brought in a wave of farmers. Idaho was prosperous during the days of American involvement in World War I but times got hard when the war ended. Then things got much worse in the 1930's with the Great Depression. If it wasn't for the Civilian Conservation Corps, many folks would have probably either starved or froze to death. The CCC put a lot of people to work (and housed and fed them) and got a lot of public-minded projects done.

With World War II, the farm economy got back on track. Shortly after the US entered the war, a relocation camp was built at Camp Minidoka (near Twin Falls) and a lot of Japanese-Americans from Oregon and Washington were moved in. They worked on the potato and sugar beet farms in the area, filling in the shortage of local farm workers caused by the war.

In 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission started building what is now the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory northwest of Idaho Falls. They built and tested numerous designs for nuclear reactors. They finally generated their first electric power in 1951. Their progress was fast enough that on June 17, 1955, they ran a test, giving the town of Arco its full power supply from nuclear energy for one hour. By the mid-1960's, the AEC had built an extensive collection of working and non-working nuclear reactors at the Idaho Falls area Lab.

The 1950's and 60's also saw the construction of three major hydro-electric dams on the Snake River. An underground fire in the Sunshine silver mine killed 91 miners in 1972. 1976 saw the collapse of the Teton Dam on the Teton River, pouring billions of gallons of water into Rexburg, Sugar City and several other farming communities along the upper Snake River, doing $400 million in damage and killing 11 people.

Idaho has had some good and bad times since then. In the 1970's, the population and job growth boomed, straining schools and other services. The 1980's saw big declines in the lumber and mining industries, and a drop in population growth, too. Then with Bill Clinton in the White House (cleaning up the mess left by a Bush), the population and job growth took off again. Then we suffered through eight more years of another Bush, and the mess left after that just isn't cleaning up... (In light of what's going on in America in 2008-2011, I couldn't resist, I just had to throw that in... ;-)
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