Map of Idaho, 1863

Idaho Geology

The territory of Idaho was set off by congress March 3, 1863. It was erected out of the eastern portion of Washington with portions of Dakotah and Nebraska, and contained 326,373 square miles, lying between the 104th and 117th meridians of longitude, and the 42d and 49th parallels of latitude. It embraced the country east of the summits of the Rocky Mountains to within fifty miles of the great bend of the Missouri below the mouth of the Yellowstone, including the Milk River, White Earth, Big Horn, Powder River, and a portion of the Platte region on the North Fork and Sweetwater. Taken all together, it is the most grand, wonderful, romantic, and mysterious part of the domain enclosed within the federal union.

Within its boundaries fell the Black Hills, Fort Laramie, Long’s Peak, the South Pass, Green River, Fort Hall, Fort Boise, with all that wearisome stretch of road along Snake River made by the annual trains of Pacific-bound immigrants since 1843, and earlier. Beyond these well-known stations and landmarks no information had been furnished to the public concerning that vast wilderness of mountains interspersed with apparently sterile sand deserts, and remarkable, so far as understood, only for the strangeness of its rugged scenery, which no one seemed curious to explore.

The Snake River, 1 the principal feature known to travelers, is a sullen stream, generally impracticable, and here and there wild and swift, navigable only for short distances, above the mouth of the Clearwater, broken by rapids and falls, or coursing dark and dangerous between high walls of rock. Four times between Fort Hall and the mouth of the Bruneau, a distance of 150 miles, the steady flow of water is broken by falls. The first plunge at American Falls, 2 twenty-five miles from Fort Hall, is over a precipice 60 feet or more in height, after which it flows between walls of trap-rock for a distance of 70 miles, when it enters a deeper canon several miles in length and from 800 to 1,000 feet in width, emerging from which it divides and passes around a lofty pinnacle of rock standing in the bed of the stream, the main por-tion of the river rushing over a ledge and falling 180 feet without a break, while the smaller stream descends by successive plunges in a series of rapids for some distance before it takes its final leap to the pool below. These are called the Twin Falls, and sometimes the Little Falls to distinguish them from the Great Shoshone Falls, four miles below, where the entire volume of water plunges down 210 feet after a preliminary descent of 30 feet by rapids. Forty miles west, at the Salmon or Fishing falls, the river makes its last great downward jump of forty feet, after which it flows, With frequent rapids and canons, onward to the Columbia, 3 in some places bright, pure, and sparkling with imprisoned sunshine, in others noiseless, cold, and dark, eddying like a brown serpent among fringes of willows, or hiding itself in shadowy ravines untrodden by the footsteps of the all dominating white man.

Map of Idaho, 1863
Map of Idaho, 1863

This 500 feet of descent by cataracts is made on the lower levels of the great basin, where the altitude above the sea is from 2,130 feet, at the mouth of the Owyhee, to 4,240 at the American Falls. The descent of 2,110 feet in a distance of 250 miles is sufficient explanation of the un-navigable character of the Serpent River. Other altitudes furnish the key to the characteristics of the Snake Basin. The eastern gate-way to this region, the South Pass, is nearly 7,500 feet high, and the mountain peaks in the Rocky range from 10,000 to 13,570 feet, the height of Fremont Peak. The pass to the north through the Blackfoot country is 6,000 feet above the sea, which is the general level of that region, 4 while various peaks in the Bitter Root Range rise to elevations between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. Florence mines, where the discoverers were rash enough to winter, has an altitude of 8,000 feet, while Fort Boise is 6,000 feet lower, being in the lowest part of the valley of Snake River. Yet within a day’s travel on horseback are rugged mountains where the snow lies until late in the spring, topped by others where it never melts, as the miners soon ascertained by actual experience. The largest body of level land furnished with grass instead of artemesia is Big Camas prairie, on the head waters of Malade or Wood River, containing about 200 square miles, but at an altitude of 4,700 feet, which seemed to render it unfit for any agricultural purposes, although it was the summer paradise of the United States cavalry for a time, and of horse and cattle owners.

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There are valleys on the Payette, Clearwater, lower Snake, Boise, Weiser, Blackfoot, Malade, and Bear Rivers, besides several smaller ones. They range in size from twenty to a hundred miles in length, and from one to twenty miles in width, and with other patches of fertile land aggregate ten millions of acres in that part of the new territory whose altered boundaries now constitute Idaho, all of which became known to be well adapted to farming and fruit-raising, although few persons were found at first to risk the experiment of sowing and planting in a country which was esteemed as the peculiar home of the mineralogist and miner.

In a country like this men looked for unusual things, for strange phenomena, and they found them. A volcano was discovered about the head waters of the Boise, which on many occasions sent up smoke and columns of molten lava 5 in 1866, and in August 1881 another outburst of lava was witnessed in the mountains east of Camas prairie, while at the same time an earthquake shock was felt. In 1864 the Salmon River suddenly rose and fell several feet, rising a second time higher than before, being warm and muddy. 6

Notwithstanding the evidences of volcanic eruptions, and the great extent of lava overflow along Snake River, the country between Reynolds Creek in Owyhee and Bruneau River was one vast bed of organic remains, where the bones of extinct species of animals were found 7 , and also parts of the human skeleton of a size which seemed to point to a prehistoric race of men as well. This portion of the ancient lakebed seemed to have received, from its lower position, the richest deposit of fossils, although they were found in higher localities. All the streams emptying into Snake River at some distance below the Shoshone or Great falls sink before reaching it, and flow beneath the lava, shooting out of the sides of the canon with beautiful effect, and forming a variety of cascades. 8 “Salmon River,” said one of the mining pioneers, “almost cuts the earth in two, the banks being 4,000 feet perpendicular for miles, and backed by rugged mountains that show evidences of having been rent by the most violent convulsions 9 Godin 10 or Lost River is a considerable stream rising among the Wood River Mountains and disappearing near Three Buttes – hence the name – though coming to the surface afterward. Journeying to Fort Hall by the way of Big Camas prairie, 11 after reaching the lava-field you pass along the base of mountains whose tops glisten with perpetual snow. Stretching southward is a sea of cinder, wavy, scaly, sometimes cracked and abysmal. Bruneau River and the Owyhee drain the southern and western side. Curious mineral springs have been discovered in various parts, the most famous of which are the soda springs in the Bear River region, of which thousands have tasted on their journey across the continent. Around the springs are circular embankments of pure snow-white soda several feet in height and twenty to thirty feet in diameter. You may count fifty mineral springs within a square mile in Bear River Valley, some of pure soda, some mingled with sulphur, and others impregnated with iron; some warm, some cold, some placid, others bubbling and noisy as steam, the waters of which could be analyzed, but could not be reproduced. 12

It was the common judgment of the first explorers that there was more of strange and awful in the scenery and topography of Idaho than of the pleasing and attractive. A more intimate acquaintance with the loss conspicuous features of the country revealed many beauties. The climate of the valleys was found to be far milder than from their elevation could have been expected. Picturesque lakes were discovered nestled among the mountains, or furnishing in some instances navigable waters. 13 Fish and game abounded. Fine forests of pine and fir covered the mountain slopes except in the lava region; and nature, even in this phenomenal part of her domain, had not forgotten to prepare the earth for the occupation of man, nor neglected to give him a wondrously warm and fertile soil to compensate for the labor of subduing the savagery of her apparently waste places. 14

What has been said of the Snake Basin and Salmon and Clearwater regions leaves untouched the wonderland lying at the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains on the upper waters of the Yellowstone River, and all the imposing scenery of the upper Missouri and the Clarke branch of the Columbia – the magnificent mountains, and grand forests, the rich if elevated valleys, and the romantic solitudes of that more northern division of Idaho as first organized under a temporary government, which was soon after cut off and erected into a separate territory. Once it had all been Oregon west of the Rocky Mountains; then it was all Washington north and cast of Snake River; now all east of that stream bore another name, a Sho-shone word, signifying “gem of the mountains,” or more strictly, “diadem of the mountains,” referring to the lustrous rim shown by the snowy peaks as the sun rises behind and over them. 15

The natural food resources of Idaho were not those of a desert country. Sturgeon of immense size were found in the Snake River as high up as Old’s ferry. Salmon crowded that stream and its tributaries at certain seasons. The small rivers abounded in salmon-trout. The lakes were filled with fish of a delightful flavor. One species, for which no name has yet been found, belonged especially to the Payette lakes, of a bright vermilion color, except the fins, which are dark green. They probably belonged to the salmon family, as their habit in respect of ascending to the head waters of the river to spawn and die are the same as the Columbia salmon. 16

The mountains, plains, and valleys abounded with deer, bear, antelope, elk, and mountain sheep. 17 The buffalo which once grazed on the Snake River plains had long been driven east of the Rocky Mountains. Partridge, quail, grouse, swan, and wild duck were plentiful on the plains and about the lakes. Fur bearing animals, once hunted out of the mountains and streams by the fur companies, had again become numerous. The industrious beaver cut down the young Cottonwood trees as fast as they grew in the Bruneau Valley, depriving future settlers of timber, but preserving for them the richest soil. The wolf, red and silver-gray fox, marten, and muskrat inhabited the mountains and streams.

Grapes, cherries, blackberries, gooseberries, whortleberries, strawberries, and salmon-berries, of the wild varieties, had their special localities. Blackberries and grapes were abundant, but, owing to the dry climate, not of the size of these wild fruits in the middle states. Camas root, in the commissary department of the natives, occupied a place similar to bread, or between wheat and potatoes, in the diet of agricultural nations. It resembled an onion, being bulbous, while in taste it was a little like a yam. The qullah, another root, smaller and of a disagreeable flavor, was eaten by the Indians when cooked. In taste it resembled tobacco, and was poisonous eaten raw. The botany of the country did not differ greatly from some parts of Oregon, either in the floral or the arboreous productions. The most useful kinds of trees were the yellow pine, sugar pine, silver pine, white fir, yellow fir, red fir, white cedar, hemlock, yew, white oak, live oak, cottonwood, poplar, mountain mahogany, and madrono. The great variety of shrubby growths are about the same as in southwestern Oregon.

Two years previous to the passage of the organic act of Idaho there had been but two or three settlements made within its limits, if the missions of the Jesuits are excepted. It was not regarded with favor by any class of men, not even the most earth-hungry. Over its arid plains and among its fantastic upheavals of volcanic rocks roamed savage tribes. Of the climate little was known, and that little was unfavorable, from the circumstance that the fur companies, who spent the winters in certain localities in the mountains, regarded all others as inhospitable, and the immigrant judged of it by the heat and drought of midsummer.

But early in 1854 a small colony of Mormon men was sent to found a settlement on Salmon River among the buffalo-hunting Nez Percé, who erected a fort, which they named Lemhi. In the following year they were re-enforced by others, with their families, horses, cattle, seeds, and farming implements; and in 1857 Brigham Young visited this colony, attended by a numerous retinue. He found the people prosperous, their crops abundant, the river abounding in fish, and the evidences present of mineral wealth. When he returned to Salt Lake the pioneers returned with him to fetch their wives and children. The Nez Percé, however, became jealous of these settlers, knowing that the government was opposed to the Mormon occupation of Utah, and fearing lest they should be driven out to overrun the Flathead country if they were permitted to retain a footing there. 18 The colony finally returned to Salt Lake, driven out, it was said, by the Indians, with a loss of three men killed, and all their crops destroyed. 19 The other settlements were a few farms of French Canadians in the Coeur d’Alene country, the Jesuit missions, and Fort Owen, the latter east of the Bitter Root Mountains, in the valley of the St Mary branch of Bitter Root River.

The county of Shoshone was set off from Walla Walla County by the legislature of Washington as early as January 29, 1858, comprising all the country north of Snake River lying east of the Columbia and west of the Rocky Mountains, with the county seat “on the land claim of Angus McDonald.” 20 This was subdivided by legislative acts in 1860-1 and 1861-2, as the requirements of the shifting mining population, of which I have given some account in the History of Washington, demanded.

This mining population, as I have there stated, first overran the Clearwater region, discovering and opening between the autumn of 1800 and the spring of 1863 the placers of Oro Fino Creek, North Fork and South Fork of the Clearwater, Salmon River and its tributaries, and finally the Boise basin; at which point, being nearly coincident with the date of the territorial act, I will take up the separate history of Idaho. 21



Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890.

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