The history of the state of Idaho, reaching back to the days even before it became a United States territory, is one filled with stories and events typical of what one could consider “The West”. From frontiersman to pioneers to natural wonders, the history of the Gem state is replete with colorful tales and inspiring stories. Many people, even before the United States acquired the land that would eventually become Idaho, as well as many other states, had been privileged to call this great state home for many generations, but it was one event that put Idaho on the map forever: The discovery of gold on Orofino Creek.
Orofino Creek, located in present-day Clearwater County, is a tributary of the Clearwater River, one of the major waterways in the Northwestern United States and is one of the waterways Lewis and Clark used on their expedition to the West Coast. During Lewis and Clark’s time, the land around Orofino Creek was occupied by the Nez Perce tribe and was similarly so occupied by the time Captain E.D. Pierce discovered gold at Orofino Creek. In the latter part of the year 1860, Captain Pierce had heard rumors of gold on Clearwater River, and in October of 1860, he and a group of eleven men struck pay-dirt at Canal Gulch, part of Orofino Creek, so much that Pierce was recorded to say, “they found gold in every place in the stream, in the flats and banks…” Pierce was also recorded to have said, “ I never saw a party of men so much excited. They made the hills and mountains ring with shouts of joy.”
Shortly thereafter, as the news spread of the discovery of gold in the then-Washington territory, two successive treaties shrunk the Nez Perce holdings on the land around Orofino Creek, and in January of 1861, the Orofino Mining District was established. In quick succession, prospectors from around the Northwest, and particularly from areas of California where the gold rush was beginning to die down, came and laid claims to parts of the Clearwater River, and further south along the Salmon River. Soon, there were thousands of newcomers plying the rivers and basins of what would become Northern Idaho, all in search for gold.
The growth was so large, and so sudden, that the Territorial Government of Washington began to be concerned, with large amounts of voting-age men occupying the eastern fringes of the territory. In response to this, it was determined to draw a line between the far eastern parts of the Washington Territory and the west part of the territory, with enough land to support future Washington statehood. Thus, on March 4, 1863, the Idaho Territory was created, with the border of Washington and Idaho running just west of modern-day Lewiston, close to the nascent mining districts of the time.
Originally, Idaho Territory included all of present-day Idaho, Montana and large parts of Wyoming, due in part to the discovery of gold in present-day western Montana around the same time that gold had been discovered in parts of Idaho. In area, Idaho Territory was larger than the state of Texas, and when a census of the new territory was completed, the territory boasted a population of around thirty-two thousand, twenty thousand of which lived on land that would become modern-day Idaho. The gold rush of Idaho, as it would later be termed, had brought thousands of people to the state in a relatively short amount of time, and would continue to entice more and more people to the territory. This, paired with the sheer size of the territory at its inception, prompted the United States government to separate Idaho Territory from what would become Montana Territory, with the Bitterroot mountain range as part of the legal dividing line between the two states rather than the continental divide (supposedly due to intoxicated surveyors).
It was also during this time that areas of what would become some of Idaho’s prominent cities would be discovered. As part of this Idaho “gold rush”, a party led by George Grimes would discover gold in the Boise Basin, along the northern forks of the Boise River. The discovery and continued finding of gold in this part of the territory would remain steady for the next ninety years, while many of the original finds in the northern part of the territory would rapidly decline, all but evaporating in a short amount of time. It was this steadiness, as well as the comparatively moderate climate in the southern parts of the territory, that prompted settlers and prospectors alike to throw down roots in the areas that would become Bannock (later renamed Idaho City) and present-day Boise. It was also during this time that silver began to be found, most famously around the area of the present-day ghost town of Silver City.
Boise would continue to grow as more prospectors and settlers flooded to the Boise Basin. Originally the village of Boise City, Boise began as a staging area for people traveling between the mines of Idaho City and the mines of the Owyhee Mountains (Silver City), with a fort erected there some years earlier to protect travelers on their way along the Oregon Trail. As the balance of population shifted from the northern parts of the territory to the southern parts of the territory, in a controversial vote– a one-vote majority — the Territorial Capital was moved from Lewiston to Boise, culminating late in the year of 1864. The population of that part of the Territory, later the State, of Idaho would fluctuate, as it would throughout the entirety of the state. As mineral resources played out and as ranchers and other settlers would come and go, Boise would remain the state capital, and to this day much of Boise’s history and landmarks can be traced to those infant days of exploration and discovery.
The Territory of Idaho would officially join the Union on July 3, 1890, becoming the 43rd state. Over one hundred years later, the Gem State is one of the finest states in the country, with a rapidly growing population due to its economy, the availability of land, and many other factors that make the state a wonderful place to live. All around us, even as new subdivisions and new faces gather around us so frequently, there is still evidence of Idaho’s distant past, and the luster that ushered in its inception can still be found in the character of its people.