Idaho State History

Idaho State collage of images.

Select a topic
General State History
Historic Figures

General Idaho State History

Prior to the arrival of European and Mexican explorers, roughly 8,000 Native Americans representing two distinct groups inhabited Idaho: the Great Basin Shoshone and Bannock tribes of the Shoshone-Bannock and the Shoshone. Paiute and the Plateau tribes of the Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce and Kootenai. Today, Idaho's Native American heritage, their tribes and their chiefs are reflected in county names like Nez Perce, Benewah Shoshone, Bannock and Kootenai counties and the communities of Shoshone, Pocatello, Blackfoot, Nezperce, White Bird, Kamiah, Lapwai, Weippe, Kooskia, Picabo and Tendoy.

Spanish explorers made trips to the Northwest beginning in 1592. Spaniards introduced pigs, horses, domestic fowl, tomatoes, beans, corn and garlic to the Native Americans of the Northwest. Lewis and Clark were the first Euro-Americans to set foot on what is now known as Idaho. They encountered Spanish-speaking Native Americans as well as those who spoke their tribal language. They were followed by French-Canadian fur trappers; resulting in names of communities like Coeur d'Alene (French for "heart of an awl") and Boise (Le Bois-French for "the trees").

Even the impact of Hawaiian Islanders employed as laborers in the Northwest fur trade received recognition through the naming of Owyhee County. Almost the entire staff of Fort Boise from 1834-1844 were from the Hawaiian Islands.

Mountain men, including some Spaniards and Mexicans, lived off the land as trappers and hunters. In the 1860's, there were a number of Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) living in the Treasure Valley. By 1863, Mexicans were mining at Spanishtown, a camp near Rocky Bar. Jesus Urquirdes, one of several successful Mexican business people, came to Boise in 1863, became a prominent Pacific Northwest packer and built the Spanish Village in 1870s to house his Mexican packers. The 1870 census included 60 Mexican-born individuals.

York, William Clark's African-American servant, traveled though what is now Idaho in 1805 with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Respected by the Indians, York today is credited as being of great value to the success of the trip. Some of the fur trappers, traders and miners who followed were African-American, including one who helped build the first mission in the Northwest. Until after the Civil War, only free Black or escaped slaves came West unless brought by their owners. The entry of the railroad though southern Idaho starting in the 1880s resulted in a number of African-Americans settling in Pocatello. Four companies of troops from the 24th Regiment (an African American unit) were sent to Idaho in 1899 to maintain order during the Coeur d'Alene mining strikes. The 1900 Idaho census listed 940 African Americans.

At one time, during the Gold Rush of the early 1800s, Idaho's population was one-quarter Chinese. By 1870, a majority of all Idaho miners were Chinese.

In the mid-1800s, as with other western states, most early Idaho settlers fled the East to escape what they saw as officially sanctioned harassment of individuals for their beliefs. This was true of the Mormons fleeing persecution and Union and Rebel supporters desperately seeking to flee the Civil War. During the 1890s, there were several thousand Japanese laborers constructing the railroad through Idaho. In 1896, Idaho became the fourth state in the nation to give women the right to vote. The territorial legislature had come close to giving women the right to vote as early as 1869. The territorial legislature in 1867 passed a statute making Idaho a community property state. It was not until the turn of the century that women in more than a handful of states had equal right to the family assets. In 1972, Idaho became the first state in the Nation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.

Between 1900 and 1920, a large number of Basque immigrants came to Idaho from the Pyrenees to work as sheepherders. Today, Boise, Idaho's capital, has the largest Basque community in the United States. Idaho was the first state in the nation to elect a Jewish governor. Moses Alexander was elected in 1914 and re-elected in 1916.

In 1990, Larry Echohawk was the first Native American to be elected attorney general.

Idaho Historic Figures

Ezra Taft Benson
1899-1994: Government official and religious leader, born in Whitney, Idaho, USA. He was President Eisenhower's secretary of agriculture (1953-1961). He became president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) in 1985.


Gutzon Borglum
1867-1941: Sculptor, born near Bear Lake, Idaho Territory, USA. Child of Danish immigrants, he was raised throughout the West; after college he moved to California (1884) where he studied art and took up painting portraits. He met Jesse Benton Fremont, who sponsored his studies in Paris and Spain (1890--9). After working in California and London (England), he settled in New York City (1901). By then he had switched to sculpture; his Mares of Diomedes won a gold medal at the St Louis Exposition in 1904 and was the first American sculpture acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was soon winning commissions, including The Twelve Apostles for the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York City. Asked by the Daughters of the Confederacy to sculpt the head of Robert E Lee on Stone Mountain, Georgia, he designed an ambitious ensemble portraying Confederate leaders and hundreds of soldiers; a disagreement led to his quitting in 1924 with only a few figures finished. (The project was revived in 1960.) He had already been asked by South Dakota to carve a "shrine of democracy' there and he chose Mt Rushmore. He began in 1927 and had finished the 60-foot head of George Washington by 1930, by which time the US Congress had authorized funds. An opinionated man, he feuded with the National Parks Service over money and procedures, but no one questioned his patriotism or energy. He had practically finished the other three heads by his death (and his son, Lincoln Borglum, completed some details shortly thereafter).


Ezra Pound
1885-1972: Poet, writer; born in Hailey, Ida. Brought up in Pennsylvania, he studied at Hamilton College, N.Y. (B.Ph. 1905), and the University of Pennsylvania (M.A. 1906). He taught at Wabash College, Ind. (1906), traveled in Europe (1906--07), then lived in London (1908-20), Paris (1920-24), and Italy (1924-45). He was arrested and jailed for treason by the United States (1945) because he had made public broadcasts in Italy during World War II supporting anti-Semitism and Fascism. Judged insane, he was committed to St. Elizabeth's Hospital, Washington, D.C., and was released in 1958. He then returned to Italy. He was a founder of the imagist poetry movement, and was editor of several intellectual periodicals, such as Poetry (1912-19), The Little Review (1917--19), and The Exile(1927--28). A prolific translator, literary critic, and poet, both as an editor and mentor he helped shape the poetry of the 20th century - playing a major role, for instance, in the final version of T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland." Of his own work, he is most apt to be remembered for Hugh Selwyn Mauberly (1920) and for his Cantos, a series of poems written from 1917 to 1970.


Sacagawea
Unknown-1812: Shoshone interpreter/guide; born in present-day central Idaho or western Montana. Captured as a young girl by enemy Indians, she was sold to a French-Canadian trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, who married her in 1804. The only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, she served as an invaluable intermediary between the whites and local Indians. After accompanying the expedition to the West Coast, she and her husband settled in North Dakota.


Chief Joseph
1835-1904: Nez Perce chief; born in the Wallowa Valley of present-day Oregon. A peaceful leader of a peaceful tribe, he was forced into a state of war in 1877 and helped lead 750 of his people on a 1,500-mile flight to Canada. Within 40 miles of the border, his people starving and freezing, he surrendered in October 1877, delivering an oft-quoted speech at the event. After being held in Oklahoma, he returned to the northwest (1885), where he encouraged his people to get an education and to abstain from drinking and gambling.