Feature July 9, 2023

Shaping Idaho

Celebrating the 160th Anniversary of the Gem State’s Inception to The Union


It’s hard to imagine the drastic change in our society in 2023, but celebrating the past reminds us that sweeping change was, at one time, as constant as a flowing river.

This year we celebrated Idaho’s inception as a territory 160 years ago. But it almost didn’t happen.

President Abraham Lincoln officially created the Idaho Territory when the United States was embroiled in the Civil War. The area had numerous resources that the president knew were vital to the Union, especially gold, discovered in Idaho by Captain Elias Davidson Pierce.

Disguising himself as an Indian trader because he was trespassing on the federally established Nez Perce reservation, Pierce successfully panned for gold on February 20, 1860, on the North Fork of the Clearwater River. Pierce returned with a group of 12 prospectors in August but met with limited success until the fall of that year.

Captain Pierce said, “We moved down and camped on the stream. Here we found better prospects than further up the stream where we first made the discovery, which was a sufficient guarantee that we had a rich and extensive mining camp, and organized a new mining district, and gave its boundaries, drafted a code of mining laws, to govern our new mining district.”

A historical marker on Idaho State Highway 11 in Pierce, Idaho, in Clearwater

The Lewiston Executive Building from the 1860s still stands. / Photo Courtesy of Cosmos Mariner

County, commemorates the event: “The famous gold rush days of Idaho began on September 30, 1860, when WF Bassett struck gold just about here. E.D. Pierce, who knew the country, had led 12 prospectors, including Bassett, out from Walla Walla in August. After news of the strike spread, about 60 men came in and wintered nearby in spite of snow and Indians. Next spring, the stampede was on and by that July, this six-month-old county cast the largest vote in Washington Territory.”

By the following summer, several thousand men had set up tents along the banks of the Clearwater and into the adjacent hills. Men and supplies came from The Dalles up the Columbia River by steamboat, and pack trains left daily for the mines. They quickly established a townsite called Lewiston to honor Meriwether Lewis, who had explored the area with the Corps of Discovery in 1805.

In the early morning of March 4, 1863, Lincoln signed the act creating Idaho Territory to strengthen the Union cause. The new territory had 20,000 people and many valuable resources, especially gold.

Originally Idaho Territory included all of Montana and practically all of Wyoming.

Mountain ranges formed a natural divide between three different populations. Miners east of the Bitterroot Mountains agitated for the partition of Idaho Territory during the winter of 1863-64. They were far removed from Lewiston and wanted to form a new territory. Idaho’s first chief justice, Sidney Edgerton, who had influence with Lincoln and members of Congress, was chosen to represent their cause in Washington, D.C.

In May 1864, Congress created the new territory
of Montana, which included the northeastern part of Idaho. Most of Idaho Territory’s modern-day Wyoming land was reassigned to the Dakota Territory.

Two sections of Idaho were still separated by a difficult mountain barrier.

The legacy of differences between the opposing sides in the Civil War continued in Idaho as the territory dealt with factions allied with either the North or South.

A historical marker at Notus City Park in Canyon County reads, “Confederate refugees from Missouri started farming in this area in 1863 and 1864 when gold and silver mining camps created a great demand for flour and cattle. Driven out from their Missouri River homes below Kansas City by extremely bitter Civil War border warfare, they got a new start by digging riverside canals and planting crops. They helped make Idaho an overwhelmingly southern Democratic territory from 1864 to 1880. Settlements from Caldwell to Notus were known as Dixie, and those farther west were called Lower Boise.”

Boise State historian Todd Shallat said that establishing Idaho as a northern stronghold was a key part of Lincoln’s war strategy. “The Civil War [was] fought in the West over capitalist expansion. There were different ideas about how to do that, and the Lincoln Republicans, pro-capitalistic, pro-railroad, homesteader coalition is still very, very powerful.”

There was another conflict between the North and South in Idaho. The North wanted the state’s capitol building to be located in Lewiston, and many contended that the Southern Idahoans “stole” the capital.

William Wallace, Idaho’s first territorial governor, selected Lewiston as the capital city since it was the largest town in the new territory and was the closest to Wallace’s residence in Steilacoom in Washington Territory.

However, when the second legislature met, most of the mining activity and population shifted to the southern part of the territory in 1864. Delegates of the new counties wanted the capitol building in Boise.

“The Boise faction mustered enough votes to … change the capital city from Lewiston to Boise. The Lewiston delegates were furious and pulled out all the legal stops to enjoin the South from moving the territorial seal and archives,” writes Betty Derig in her book Roadside History of Idaho.

The construction of the capitol building in Boise / Photo Courtesy of Idaho State Historical Society Archives

In March 1865, Clinton Dewitt Smith, territorial secretary and acting governor, broke into the executive office building in Lewiston and took custody of important documents and the territorial seal with the help of cavalry soldiers from Fort Lapwai. With the military escort, Smith took control of the Clearwater River ferry and crossed the Snake River into Washington Territory. Smith’s group reached Boise with the territorial archives and seal on April 14, 1865, one day before Lincoln’s assassination.

Alonzo Leland used his promotional skills as a journalist to publicize Idaho’s mines, and after the capital was moved to Boise, he used his personal persuasion skills and editorial writing to propose creating a new territory that would include northern Idaho, eastern Washington and western Montana.

As Fred T. Dubois writes in The Making of a State, “The members of the legislature from these northern counties…felt North Idaho was almost solidly in favor of annexation, and their reasons for it were logical and appealing … There was very little communication between the North and South, and it was no wonder they desired to be separated.”

The state of Nevada had been losing population and was looking at annexing southern Idaho. In 1887, the U.S. Senate and House approved legislation to cede part of Idaho to create the new Nevada territory.

President Grover Cleveland appointed Idaho resident Edward Stevenson as the first territorial governor. Like Cleveland, Stevenson was a Democrat and was from one of America’s great political families. Stevenson sent a strongly worded telegraph urging the president not to sign the bill to create the new territory, saving Idaho from absorption by other states and territories.

The bill reached Cleveland, but he didn’t sign it, effectively vetoing it. After rescuing Idaho Territory from annexation, Stevenson advocated for Idaho statehood. Stevenson was aided by Fred T. Dubois, whose father was a close friend of Abraham Lincoln and who accompanied the Lincolns to the president’s inauguration.

Dubois was a Republican and got himself elected as a territorial delegate to Congress. In 1889, when Republican Benjamin Harrison became president, Dubois was able to exert his influence and pushed for Idaho’s statehood. Dubois witnessed President Benjamin Harrison signing the Idaho statehood bill on July 3, 1890, making Idaho the 43rd state in the Union.

State borders in the mountain west are still at issue today. Eleven counties in eastern Oregon have voted to join the sstate of Idaho, moving the Oregon-Idaho border west to the Cascade Mountain range. Matt McCaw, a spokesperson for the Greater Idaho effort, stated, “We could move that border and get the people in Eastern Oregon governance that … matches their values. It makes far more sense for them to get government from Idaho because they’re socially, culturally, economically, politically, much more aligned with Idahoans than they are with Western Oregonians.”

The shape of Idaho and its borders may change again from what was established by Congress in 1868.

Idaho Senator Rick Just noted that the southern border of Idaho was established in a treaty negotiated by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in February 1819, which stated that “Spain would give up Florida, but also that the two countries would settle on the 42nd Parallel west to the Pacific Ocean as the boundary between their territories.”

Senator Just might get a chance to vote to change the shape. In February 2023, the Idaho House of Representatives voted to approve a resolution authorizing talks about annexing eastern Oregon. It goes to the Senate next.

“The proposal to move state boundaries is virtually impossible to execute,” notes Rep. Ned Burns. “In each state, it would take a concurrent resolution passed by two-thirds of each body, then a vote of the citizens, then an amendment to the state constitutions, and finally an act of Congress signed by the president.”

Idaho’s long tradition of boundary disputes and shifting borders seems likely to continue. ï

This article appears in the Summer 2023 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.