Idaho History

Historic Facts & Overview of Idaho History

Take a peek at Idaho history. Discover an overview of Idaho's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

Idaho, the 43rd state, joined the U.S. in 1890. The state is appropriately shaped like a logger's boot, and logging as well as mining are big industries in the state. But the state is probably best known for its potatoes. The state's name is thought to be an Indian name, Ee-dah-hoe, which means "gem of the mountains." Idaho has a rugged landscape with some of the largest unspoiled natural areas in the country. Boise is the capital and the state flower is the syringa.

Overview of Idaho History and Heritage

Native people have lived in Idaho for more than 14,000 years. The earliest evidence of their existence is in the bows, arrows and pottery they crafted about 1,500 years ago.

In 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the Oregon Country, which included parts of Idaho. There they found the land too dry to farm, but many animals that could be hunted for furs. In 1809, the British opened the first trading post in Idaho. Kullyspell House, the first non-native establishment in the Northwest, was built in 1809 near Lake Pend Oreille, followed by Fort Henry near St. Anthony in eastern Idaho. In 1830 Captain Bonneville escorted the first wagon train across southern Idaho and in 1834 Fort Hall and Fort Boise were established. Soon afterwards fur traders came from all over to trade with the Indians for furs.

 In 1846, the United States signed an agreement with Great Britain for part of the Oregon Country. This land included the territory now known as Idaho is an 83,557 square mile expanse of forest land, prairies, mountains and deep canyons along the Snake and Salmon rivers. In 1836 Henry Spalding established a mission near Lapwai and opened Idaho's first school, created the first irrigation system, printed the first book in the Northwest and grew the first Idaho potato. By 1843 the Oregon Trail migration had begun but most emigrants bypassed Idaho for milder climates in Oregon. That trend would soon change as French Canadians discovered gold on the Pend Oreille River in 1852.

Farmers in 1860 began to irrigate the land and plant potatoes. Members of the Mormon religion founded Idaho's first permanent settlement, Franklin. That same year miners found gold on the Clearwater River in 1860, on the Salmon in 1861, in the Boise River basin in 1862, and gold and silver were found in the Owyhee River country in 1863. The usual rush of settlers followed, along with the spectacular but ephemeral growth of towns. Most of these settlements are only ghost towns now, but the many settlers who poured in during the gold rush - mainly from Washington, Oregon, and California, with smaller numbers from the east - formed a population large enough to demand new government administration, and Idaho Territory and Congress created the Idaho Territory in 1863.

The United States government forced Native Americans to move into reservations. Some went peacefully, but others such as the Paiute fought for many years against the army for their homeland. Native Americans, mostly Kootenai, Nez PercÚ, Western Shoshone, Bannock, Coeur d'Alene, and Pend d'Oreille, became upset by the incursion of settlers and some resisted violently. The Federal government had subdued many of these groups by 1858, placing them on reservations. The Bannock were defeated in 1863 and again in 1878. In 1876-77 the Nez PercÚ, led by Chief Joseph, made their heroic but unsuccessful attempt to flee to Canada while being pursued by US troops. By the 1880s, all Native Americans in Idaho were living on reservations.

Railroads were extending across Idaho Territory during the late 1800s. Now the minerals, the mines were producing could be shipped to other states. Many people arrived on the railroads looking for work. Electricity came to Idaho in 1882 when the first electric light was turned on near the mining town of Ketchum. Telephone service soon followed in 1883 in nearby Hailey. In 1884, silver was discovered in the Coeur d'Alene area which would prove to be the nation's richest deposit.

By 1890, almost 90,000 people lived in Idaho. In 1889, the Idaho Territory had adopted a constitution. Idaho was granted statehood as the 43rd state in the Union with Governor George Shoup serving as the state's first governor.on July 3, 1890, with Boise as the state capital.

During the 1890s, poor working conditions encouraged miners to join unions, the largest of these being the Western Federation of Miners. In 1892, violence broke out between union miners and nonunion men and the mine owners. When a second strike broke out in 1899, Governor Frank Steunenberg declared martial law and federal troops were called in to regulate the situation. That same year, a miner rigged a bomb that murdered Governor Steunenberg. The murder trial, held in 1907, attracted worldwide attention. Over time, miners gained better pay and working conditions. Butch Cassidy and his Hole in the Wall gang made headlines by robbing a bank in Montpelier in 1896. In 1900, Idaho's population approached 162,000.

After the turn of the century, commerce exploded as the Milner Dam brought valuable irrigation water south of the Snake River near Twin Falls and the largest sawmill in the country opened at Potlatch. Idaho became a major logging state in the early 1900s. By 1910 Idaho had grown to over 325,000 people. Tragedy struck in 1910 when a huge fire raged through Idaho's forests, killing about 85 people. Historic Wallace, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was burned down and rebuilt in the ensuing years. Idahoans elected Moses Alexander the first Jewish governor in the United States in 1914 and the Capitol Building was completed in 1920. During this time, plans were established to irrigate land for farming. In 1905, water was diverted from the Snake River to irrigate 60,000 acres of land. The Minidoka Dam was completed in 1906 and the Arrowrock Dam was completed in 1915. Today, only three states have more irrigated land than Idaho.

World War I (1914-1918) brought prosperity to Idaho's farmlands. But, as the war ended, Idaho's economy dropped. During the Great Depression (1929-1939), Idaho farmers, loggers, and miners suffered greatly. The federal government set up programs to help people survive the depression. The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to farms. The Civil Conservation Corps worked to conserve Idaho's forests. Many other jobs were created building bridges, roads, and recreational facilities.

World War II (1939-1945) helped Idaho's economy out of the depression as food, metals, and soldiers were sent to help win the war. After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US government was afraid that Japanese-Americans would help Japan. They forced many into relocation camps. About 10,000 from Washington and Oregon were held in Minidoka Camp, located near Minidoka, Idaho. These people worked in potato and sugar beet farms.

Idaho's population grew from almost 525,000 in 1940 to over 588,000 by 1950 and over 667,000 by 1960. A National Reactor Testing Station was established in the desert west of Idaho Falls in 1949 and by 1951 it was the first place to use nuclear fission to generate electricity. Experimental Breeder Reactor No. 1 would later be designated a national landmark and still stands today between Arco and Idaho Falls.

After the war, Idaho's economy began to shift from mostly agriculture to one that included food processing and manufacturing. In 1949, the National Reactor Testing Station (now Idaho National Engineering Laboratory) opened near Idaho Falls. Scientists created, tested, and operated nuclear reactors and related devices there. In Dec. 1951, the testing station generated electricity from nuclear energy for the first time in history. In 1955, Arco became the world's first town lighted by nuclear energy.

Idaho's farms decreased in number and increased in size during the 1950s. Many farm workers were replaced by large machinery. By 1960, half of Idaho's population lived in cities and towns. The increase in agricultural production and industry required more hydroelectric power. In 1955, the Idaho Power Company began construction of three dams along the Snake River. Brownlee Dam was completed in 1959, the Oxbow Dam in 1961, and the Hells Canyon Dam in 1968. In 1965, the state parks department, water resource board, and personnel system were created. That same year, the Nez PercÚ National Historic Park was established in north-central Idaho.

Writer Ernest Hemingway died in his home in Ketchum in 1961. Idaho's population swelled to over 713,000 by 1970. More disasters would occur during the 1970's as a fire in the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg killed 91 miners in 1972, and the new Teton Dam collapsed in Eastern Idaho in 1976, killing 11 and forcing thousands to flee. In 1980, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington State left Northern Idaho covered in ash. An earthquake near Challis measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale killed two children and caused millions of dollars of damage in 1983.

Idaho experienced rapid growth during the 1970s. State legislature strove to improve water pollution. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area opened in 1972. However, the 1970s are known for two major disasters in Idaho. One of the worst mining accidents in US history happened at the Sunshine Silver Mine near Kellogg in 1972. Fire killed 91 people. In 1976, the Teton Dam burst. It created a massive flood resulting in 11 deaths and over $500 million in damage.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, drought and grasshopper infestation killed crops and hurt the farm economy in Idaho. Many lost their farms. In 1983, an earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale killed two children and caused over 4 million in damage. The quake, centered in the Lost River Valley, was the largest in the continental US in 24 years and created a 10-foot high, 15-mile shear in the earth.

During the 1990s, many small industries diversified Idaho's economy from its dependence of agriculture. Large construction, food processing, lumber, and computer companies established their headquarters in Idaho. The city of Boise grew at an amazing rate. The harsh drought ended in 1992. However other disasters brought attention to the state. In 1992, fire on the State Capitol caused 3.2 million in damage and Idaho experienced its worst forest fire season in the state's recorded history. And in 1996, major flooding encouraged a visit from US President Clinton.

Today, Idaho is expanding its tourism industry. State leaders are working to clean both air and water pollution throughout Idaho. They are also striving to solve conflicts between those who wish to conserve Idaho's natural resources and those who want to develop them.

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