Biography of John M. Silcott

John M. Silcott
John M. Silcott

Almost forty years have passed since John M. Silcott took up his residence in Idaho, and he is therefore one of the oldest and most widely known pioneers of the state. He came in the spring of 1860 to establish the government Indian agency at Lapwai, and has since been identified with the growth and development of this section. He is a Virginian, his birth having occurred in Loudoun County, of the Old Dominion, January 14, 1824. His French and Scotch ancestors were early settlers there, and during the Revolution and the war of 18 12 representatives of the family loyally served their country on the field of battle. William Silcott, the father of our subject, married Sarah Violet, a lady of Scotch ancestry, and about 1828 they removed with the family to Zanesville, Ohio, where the father engaged in business as a contractor and builder. He was liberal in his religious views, and his wife held the faith of the Presbyterian Church. His political support was given the Whig party and the principles advocated by Henry Clay. Only two children of the family of five are now living, the sister being Sarah T., who married Captain Abrams, of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Mrs. Abrams now makes her home in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1845 the family removed to St. Louis, where both the parents died.

Mr. Silcott received a common-school education in Zanesville, Ohio, and one of his school-mates was “Sunset” Cox, afterward distinguished in the United States congress. In his early life our subject learned the carpenter’s and boat-builder’s trades, which knowledge afterward proved of great practical benefit to him in his pioneer life in the west. He began to earn his own living when only thirteen years of age, by working on a flatboat and as cabin boy on a steamboat plying the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. In 1847 he entered the employ of the government and was sent to Brazos, Santiago, which was then occupied by General Taylor as a base of supplies for the American army, then engaged in war with Mexico. The news of the great gold discoveries in California in 1849 decided him to make the voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco, where he found immediate employment at his trade, wages being very high and mechanics in great demand. He also worked at his trade in Sacramento, both cities being then in the first stages of their great growth, which was to make them the metropolitan centers of the Pacific coast. Later, with three others, Mr. Silcott went to Yreka, where they acquired placer claims and took out on an average of one hundred dollars per day. They bought a wagon, made a cart of it and hauled the dirt to the creek, where they washed it and secured the gold. They very successfully continued their labors until the summer, when the creek dried up and they were obliged to abandon work.

Mr. Silcott then engaged in prospecting on Scott River, and assisted in building Fort Simqua. In 1850 the Rogue River excitement caused him to make the voyage to Portland, Oregon, on the steamship named for that state, this being her first trip from San Francisco to Astoria, at which time she carried the news of the admission of California to the Union. After prospecting in Oregon for some time without success Mr. Silcott returned to Sacramento and worked at his trade. In 1858 he made his way to the Fraser River, in British Columbia, attracted by the gold discoveries in that region, and underwent many hardships there, having to fight Indians much of the time. There again he was unsuccessful in his mining ventures, and he sold his outfit in order to get money to take him back to California. His bacon sold for one dollar per pound, but on reaching Portland he again found himself without money and was obliged to borrow eighty dollars from a friend. He then made his way to Fort Walla Walla, arriving there about the time General Harney proclaimed the country open for settlement. Mr. Silcott engaged in building and selling shacks and remained there until 1860, making money rapidly. It was in that year that he came to Lapwai and established the Indian agency, having charge of the same for a year. In the fall of 1861 he went to the Snake River six miles below Lewiston, and out of whip-sawed lumber built one of the first ferries across the Snake River. The gold discoveries in this vicinity brought many hundreds to the neighborhood, and Mr. Silcott accordingly did a large business, taking in as high as four hundred dollars per day. The rate for ferrying a horse and wagon was five dollars, and for each additional team fifty cents; a man unmounted paid fifty cents; for animals with packs a dollar and a half was paid; for horses and cattle fifty cents each; hogs and sheep twenty-five cents each. Large flocks and droves were frequently taken over, and in consequence the ferryman made money rapidly. In 1862 he established the ferry across Clearwater River at Lewiston, and has since conducted the business. As time has passed the ferry fare has been gradually reduced until the rate is now very moderate, a farmer with a team, crossing to Lewiston to trade, being ferried across and back for twenty-five cents.

In 1862 Mr. Silcott aided in platting Lewiston and became the possessor of a large amount of property there. Many of his lots were “jumped” by the new comers, but he raised no objection, as he did not consider the land of much value, but with the passing years and the increase of population it has become very valuable and desirable. There is probably no resident of this part of the state more widely known than Mr. Silcott. As ferryman he formed the acquaintance of all who came to the region, and his identification with the growth and progress of the city has also made him widely known.

In those early days there were few white women in the country, and Mr. Silcott selected for his wife a beautiful Indian girl, the daughter of Timothy, the Christian Nez Percé chief, a life-long friend of the Rev. Mr. Spalding and the white settlers. Mr. Silcott’s wife was baptized by Mr. Spalding with the Christian name of Jane. She was a true, good wife and faithful companion, and together they traveled life’s journey until 1895, when they were separated by death. Mrs. Silcott was called to the home beyond and her last resting place, on the Silcott homestead, is marked by a marble monument.

In his political affiliations Mr. Silcott was originally a Whig, but later became a Democrat and was a delegate to both of the national conventions which nominated Grover Cleveland for the presidency. He was also a member of the committee of notification, but aside from this he has always declined office, nor has he identified him-self with any society. He is a genial, cordial man, kind-hearted and charitable, and a citizen of the utmost worth and integrity. In 1874 he erected a pleasant home on the banks of the beautiful Clearwater, near the boat landing, and there resides, the good genius of the ferry which he has now operated for thirty-eight years. He is one of Idaho’s honored pioneers, and the history of the state would be incomplete without the record of his life.



Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

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