The First Settlements the March of Progress

Last Updated on June 30, 2013 by

The first settlements made by whites with-in the present boundaries of Idaho were effected by Jesuit missionaries, as is true throughout the Pacific coast region; and previously to 1863, the beginning of a new era in this region, there were but two or three settlements made by others. In the primeval stage the country was not at all inviting to civilized people. The almost omnipresence of red savages precluded all thoughts of prospecting in the mountains for valuable minerals, while the valleys seemed to be only arid deserts absolutely irreclaimable for agricultural purposes. In the outside world ideas as to the climate were de-rived only from hunters and trappers, who spent only the winters here, in the mountains, where the cold was intense and snow abundant, and from emigrants, who passed through here only during hot weather, when the valleys they traversed seemed to deserve connection with what was known as “the Great American desert.”

One authority states that the first permanent settlement in Idaho was made at Mount Idaho, the present County seat of Idaho County. Probably the first permanent settlement, however, was made in 1834 in which year Nathaniel J. Wyeth, with a party of sixty men, started across the continent and established Fort Hall as a trading post near Snake River. This fort was the most important point between the Missouri River and Salt Lake to most of the early transcontinental emigrants. It was at the crossing of the Missouri-Oregon and Utah-Canada trails.

On the 11th of June 1834, Wyeth and his party encamped on a branch of the Blackfoot, near Port Neuf; the 12th on Ross’ Fork, and the 14th on Snake River. The fort was permanently located on the east bank of the Snake River, a little north of the Port Neuf. The post became famous and performed good service during the several great overland emigrations. The emigrant trail was made to pass by it: it was near to the Great Salt Lake; was central and valuable in scores of ways. From this point in time radiated roads in every direction, to Missouri, to California, to Utah, to Oregon, and to British Columbia. In 1865 Angus McDonald valued the fort and lands belonging to it at one million dollars. It was near the old war ground of the Blackfeet, Snake, and Crows, and prevented many a massacre. It was several times attacked and nearly burned, but stood to its duty nobly. Wyeth and his party crossed the Snake on the 6th of August and explored the region for miles around. Crossing the mountains, they encamped on Malade River. On the 13th Camas prairie was reached. Two days later they reached Boise River, “crammed with salmon.” On the 23d they crossed Snake River, leaving Idaho behind them, camping on the rich plains of Malheur.

In 1836 Wyeth was forced to sell Fort Hall to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The latter company had already erected, probably in 1835, what is known as old Fort Boise, near the mouth of the Boise River. The original structure fell down about 1847, but was rebuilt a short distance north. The new building continued to be occupied by the Hudson’s Bay Company until the United States acquired undisputed title to the land.

According to the published account by Mr. W. H. Gray, the first mission in Idaho was established in 1836 at Lapwai, twelve miles from the present town of Lewiston. A printing press with type was presented, in 1839, by the missionaries of the Sandwich Islands to the Presbyterian missionaries of Oregon, and it reached Lapwai that year, where E. O. Hall put it in operation to print books in the Nez Perce language. Messrs. Rogers and Spalding soon learned to set type, and they printed small books in the Nez Perce language that were used in their school. That old press and type are now stored in the state capitol of Oregon, and the building used for that primitive printing office is yet standing, though somewhat modernized, near the Lapwai Mission in Idaho. This was the first printing office on the Pacific coast of America north of Mexico. Thus Idaho has the honor of having the first printing press on the coast.

The Roman Catholic missionaries seem to have been in the main more successful with the Indians than the Protestants, and in some instances have sustained their missions to the present day. Father De Smet in his Letters, published at Philadelphia in 1843, is responsible for the following statement: “The Jesuits De Smet, Mengarini. Point, and others had since 1840 made several missionary tours through the Columbia countries, in the course of which they baptized some thousands of Indians; they also erected a church at a place near the Kallerspelm lake (Pend d’Oreille), on Clarke’s River, where the Blessed Virgin appeared in person to a little Indian boy, whose youth, piety, and sincerity, say the good fathers, joined to the nature of the fact which he related, forbade us to doubt the truth of his statement.”

Early in 1854 a small colony of men of the Mormon Church was sent here to form the nucleus of a settlement on Salmon River, among the buffalo-hunting Nez Percé. They erected a fort, which they named Lemhi, after an illustrious name in their sacred scriptures commonly known as the “Mormon Bible.” The next year others joined them, with their families, horses, cattle, seeds and farming implements. In 1857 Brigham Young visited this colony, attended by a great retinue, and found the people prosperous, their crops abundant and the country giving promise of considerable wealth. As this colony continued to grow, the Nez Percé Indians became suspicious and jealous, knowing that our government had not given them permission thus to squat upon these lands, and, making an attack upon them, drove them out, killing three of their men and destroying their crops. The other settlements at this time were a few French Canadians cultivating farms in the Coeur d’Alene country, the Jesuit missions, and. east of the Bitter Root Mountains. Fort Owen, in the valley of the St. Clary’s branch of Bitter Root River.

The County of Shoshone was set off from Walla Walla County by the legislature of Wash-ington 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,” and this was subdivided by legislative acts in 1860-1 and 1861-2, according to the requirements of the shifting mining population. This population first overran the Clearwater region, discovering and opening, between the autumn of 1860 and the spring of 1863 the placers on Oro Fino creek, North Fork and South Fork of the Clearwater, Salmon River and its tributaries, and finally the Boise basin.

We might say that the first distinctive settlement of Idaho began in August 1862, when the Boise mines were discovered by George Grimes, of Oregon City, John Reynolds. Joseph Branstetter, D. H. Fogus. Jacob Westenfelten. Moses Splane. Wilson Miller, two Portuguese called Antoine and Phillipi, and a man whose name is unknown. Previously to this time the movement proposed for the organization of Idaho territory met with but little favor. By the spring of 1863 there were four County organizations and ten mining towns, and the total population in this section was probably about twenty thousand. There had been a large immigration the preceding year, owing to the civil war and the fame of the Salmon River mines. Some of the immigrations of that year halted on the eastern flank of the Rocky range, in what is now Montana, and others went to eastern Oregon; but none succeeded in reaching Salmon River that year excepting those who took the Missouri River route. Four steamers from St. Louis, Missouri, ascended to Fort Benton, whence three hundred and fifty emigrants came by the Mullan road to the mines on Salmon River. Those who attempted to get through the mountains between Fort Hall and Salmon River failed, some losing their lives and the rest, returning to some distance, went on to Powder River.

Grimes creek was named in commemoration of George Grimes, the leader of the Boise expedition already mentioned, who was killed by the Indians while prospecting for gold on that stream. After that event his party retreated to Walla Walla, where a company of fifty-four men was raised to return and hold the ground. They arrived at Grimes creek October 7th and founded Pioneer City. Others quickly followed, and in November Centerville was started a few miles south on the same stream. Placerville, at the head of Granite creek, contained three hundred houses. Buena Vista, on Elk creek, and Bannack City, on Moore creek, also sprang up this season, in December, and before the first of January between two and three thousand persons were on the ground ready for the opening of spring. Up to this time the weather had been mild, allowing wagons to cross the Blue Mountains, usually impassable in winter.

Companies of fifty and over, well armed to protect themselves against the Indians, who were at this time actively engaged in hostilities, were frequent along the route mostly traveled, and supplies for these people poured rapidly into their settlements. During the first ten days of November twenty thousand dollars’ worth of goods went out of the little frontier trading post at Walla Walla for the Boise country. Utah also contributed a pack train loaded with provisions, which the miners found cheaper than those from the Willamette valley, as the latter had to be trans-ported a long distance up swift-running Rivers and pass through the hands of numerous middlemen. The latter, in order to ascertain the navigability of Snake River and the practicability of delivering their goods at less cost, dispatched a party to old Fort Boise to examine the character of Snake River in this regard. After waiting till the River had arrived at its lowest stage for the season, this party descended to Lewiston on a raft constructed by them for the purpose; but subsequent surveys and attempts evolved the fact that Lewiston was hopelessly cut off from Salt Lake City so far as navigation was concerned.

The people of Boise were equally interested in means of travel and transportation, and there was great cause for disappointment when they found that only wagons and pack trams could be relied on to convey their freight from Umatilla landing on the Columbia River, three hundred miles distant. By this time Umatilla had supplanted Walla Walla in this trade.

It will be interesting, in this connection, to quote the language of a prospector, Sherlock Bristol: “In December, 1862, I prospected the country and finally settled down for the balance of the winter and spring on Moore creek (the origin of Idaho City). There we built twenty log houses, mine, William Richie’s and I. Henry’s being among the twenty. We made snowshoes and traversed the valleys and gulches prospecting. As the snow was deep and it was some distance to the creek, some one proposed that we should dig a well, centrally located, to accommodate all our settlement. One day, when I was absent prospecting, the well digger struck bedrock down about eighteen feet, but found no water; but in the dirt he detected particles of gold. A bucketful panned out two dollars and seventy-five cents. When I returned at night I could not have bought the claim on which my house was built for ten thousand dollars: it proved to be worth three hundred thousand dollars. The whole bench was rich in like manner. My next-door neighbors the three brothers named White for nearly a year cleaned up fifteen hundred dollars daily, their expenses not exceeding three hundred dollars. Bushels of gold were taken out from the gravel beds where Idaho City now stands.”

During the winter of 1862-3 and the following spring the miners were busy developing and working in preparation for further developing. Eighteen dollars a day was ordinary wages, and eighty dollars to the pan was the average taken out on Grimes creek. Water and timber were abundant, which made life much easier here than at many other points. On Granite creek, the headwaters of Placer and Grimes creeks, from ten to fifty dollars, and often two and even three hundred dollars a day were panned out. In the dry gulches from ten to fifty dollars a day were obtained to the man.

During the winter B. L. Warriner erected, on Grimes creek, a sawmill, which was ready to run as soon as the melting snows of spring should furnish the water power, and early in the spring a second mill was erected, near Centerville, by Daily and Robbins, and in May a third was erected. The first steam sawmill was running in July, being built in Idaho City by two men, each known as Major Taylor! This mill cut from ten to fifteen thousand feet in ten hours.

The killing of Grimes and other white immigrants, with depredations of various sorts, by the Shoshones, led to the organization of a volunteer company of the Placerville miners in March, this year (1863), whose captain was James Standifer, a man noted for his energy and daring. He was six feet in height, with broad, square shoulders, fine features, black hair and eyes and moustache, and as brave as any Norseman. Standifer and his men pursued the Indians as far as Salmon falls, killed fifteen of the savages and wounded about as many more. Returning from this expedition about the last of the month, Standifer raised another company, of two hundred men, who made a reconnaissance until they came upon the Indians, fortified at Malheur, where, by artifice, they gained entrance to their camp and killed all the adult Indians and even the children, excepting three boys. One of these, four years old, was afterward adopted by John Kelly, a violinist of Idaho City, who taught him to play the violin and to perform feats of tumbling. He was after-ward taken to London, where he drew great houses, and then to Australia, where he continued on exhibition.

In order to protect themselves against the hostile Indians in Idaho, Fort Boise was established, July 1, 1863, by P. Lugenbeel, with two companies of Washington infantry in the regular service. It was situated on the Boise River about forty miles above the old fort of the Hudson’s Bay Company, near the site of the present Boise City. The structure was erected out of brown sandstone and was a good building. The reservation was one mile wide and two miles long.

At this period mine discoveries and developments in Idaho began to attract more of the public attention. Claims in the Beaverhead country, on the headwaters of the Jefferson fork of the Missouri River, were held as high as ten to fifteen thousand dollars. Also claims wonder-fully rich were reported on Stinking Water creek, and in many other parts. Bannack City, on the Beaverhead, and Virginia City, on a tributary of Jefferson fork, sprang into existence, simultaneously with settlements and towns in the Boise basin. In the spring of 1863 a bateau-load of miners left the northern part of the territory with a hundred and fifty pounds of gold dust.

In the northern part of the territory, however, there was an almost insurmountable obstacle to immigration, namely, the hostility of the Blackfoot Indians, who, despite their treaty, robbed or murdered wherever they could find white men. Sometimes whole parties were killed and whole pack trains were seized. The immigration of 1863 was not so large as that of the preceding year. The three principal streams of humanity westward were one for southern Idaho and eastern Oregon, one for California and one for the Beaverhead mines. The latter party, however, had headed for the Salmon River country, furnished by the government with a separate escort under Fisk, and changed their intention before reaching their destination and stopped in the Beaverhead country. Four steamers left St. Louis for Idaho and vicinity, but were unable to reach Fort Benton, disembarking their passengers and freight two to eight hundred miles below. The emigrants had to make their way to various points as well as they could on horse-back and on foot through a wild and inhospitable country; and, returning east, many miners had gathered at Fort Benton, expecting to take steamers down to St. Louis, but were disappointed, by reason of the failure of the boats above mentioned to arrive at the fort, and the miners, with their gold and provisions, etc., had to go all the way to Salt Lake City and take stages. In anticipation of these steamers, too, one hundred and fifty wagons had gone to Fort Benton, to be ready to convey passengers and freight to their respective destinations.

Although these drawbacks were so numerous and heavy, as many as twenty-five or thirty thou-sand people, of whom nearly two thousand were women and children, succeeded in settling in the Boise region. Improvements were rapid and prices high. One importer said. “I sold shovels at twelve dollars apiece as fast as I could count them out, on one occasion.” A wagonload of cats and chickens arrived in August, which sold readily, the cats at ten dollars apiece and the chickens at five dollars! But in the line of woolen socks, in the following winter, the market was for once overstocked, some of the stock being used for cleaning guns and some even left to de-cay in the cellars of the merchants. In July and August ten or more pack trains arrived daily in the Boise country. Horses proved better than cattle for use on the roads, as their noses were higher above the ground and they were not so much affected by the alkaline dust.


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

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