History

tipisThe history of Idaho can be divided into three somewhat overlapping periods. The first lasted about 12,000 years and included the long period of Native American Indian presence in the area. This period ended after the Indians realized too late that Euro-American visitors were going to remain in Idaho permanently and that their settlement was going to destroy Indian lifeways and resources. Grazing cattle, for example, ruined camas root collecting fields.

The event in Idaho most symbolic of the end of Indian resistance occurred in 1877 when the U.S. Army defeated the Nez Perce Indians in the Nez Perce War. Chief Joseph decided that the survival of his people was better than probable annihilation and said at the treaty-making, "I will fight no more forever." The army scattered Nez Perce horses, a major source of wealth for the Nez Perce people.

1800s hydraulic miningThe second period was considerably shorter in duration than the first and involved the removal of natural resources from the state. Early trappers collected beaver to serve the men's fashion market in Europe. The ambition of gold-rush miners who flooded into Idaho after 1860 was to find and remove gold and, later, silver. For a few years in the 1880s, the "cattle kingdom" reigned in southern Idaho. Cattle and sheep by the hundreds of thousands fattened on virgin grasslands and were driven to rail heads for shipping to east or west coast markets.

After the large timber companies in Minnesota and Wisconsin had depleted the forests in that region, they came to Idaho and discovered its vast white pine and other conifer forests. The towns that grew up around logging operations and mills lasted as long as the timber and then became ghost towns.

small container of gold flakesResource industries gave Idaho history all of the excitement and color that goes with "boom and bust" economic activity. The books tell of lucky strikes, mining camp lore, vigilante justice, hard winters, back-breaking work, and heart-breaking shifts of fortune. Chinese miners were among those seeking to find gold and return home wealthy, so the books also detail their special fortitude in the face of social and political intolerance.

Agriculture developed in Idaho to support the thousands of people working the mines all over the state. In southeast Idaho, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints--the Mormons--sent pioneers to extend its earthly kingdom of God northward from Utah. Regardless of religion, farming was a family-based industry, requiring the partnership of women with men in order to succeed. Children were necessary contributors to the labor of a farm. When women came to Idaho, they came to stay. Women inspired much of the community-building that accounts for the organization of schools, libraries, hospitals, charitable organizations, and parks found in Idaho's small towns.

irrigated farm cropsBy the time the placer gold deposits played out, the railroads had come to Idaho, connecting farmers and ranchers to markets far beyond the mining camps. Agriculture thus continued to grow. When the federal government enacted the Carey Act in 1894 and then the Reclamation Act in 1902, it made possible a significant expansion in agriculture. These acts resulted in large, complex irrigation projects--impossible without federal financing--that removed water from rivers and delivered it to rich desert soils. Cities and towns grew apace with the increase in the number of farms and ranches, shifting their support function from mining and logging to agriculture.

In addition to being rich in natural resources, Idaho proved to be energy rich as well. Its rivers, particularly the Snake River and its tributaries in southern Idaho, became the "central stations" generating hydroelectric power used to pump water onto desert soils where gravity flow systems could not. Electrically supported agriculture became a major Idaho "growth machine" from 1900 through the 1960s.

When combining the soil and water resources of Idaho with a benign climate, federal irrigation investments, and hydroelectric power, the industrious settlers created a powerful agricultural industry. Idaho shipped wheat, potatoes, peas, dry beans, sugar (from beets), apples, cherries, peaches, mint, onions, and many other products to markets all over the world. Due chiefly to the marketing genius of certain potato growers in the early 1900s, the "Idaho" potato became an identifiable product controlled by Idaho interests rather than commodity brokers in Chicago and other market centers.

The large-scale extraction of Idaho resources has led some historians to inquire into the structure and political impact of the resource-based industries. "Outside capital" was an essential element in the development of roads, railways, hard-rock mines, and huge lumber mills. Was Idaho a "colonial" state whose destiny was more in the hands of eastern entrepreneurs than those of Idaho residents?

This second period of Idaho's history did not entirely close. Natural resources continue to be removed and sent out of state. But the most concentrated reserves of minerals have been discovered and removed. Remaining ores are more difficult to mine profitably. Timber remains an asset, but the cost of managing it as a renewable resource is far higher than earlier "cut and run" practices. Cattle continue to graze in Idaho, but the rangelands are not as rich as they once were.

sawtooth mountainsMore than sixty percent of the land in Idaho is owned and managed by the federal government. This is the land that was too high, too dry, too steep, or too remote to have attracted settlers during the optimistic drive westward to make the United States' destiny manifest. All resource industries using this land must contend with federal laws aimed at preventing the excessive environmental degradation typical of the early years.

Perhaps the election of Cecil D. Andrus as governor of Idaho in 1970 could symbolize the end of the state's domination by the "extraction" industries. The big election issue that year was whether the ASARCO mining company would be permitted to develop a molybdenum mine in the White Cloud mountains of central Idaho. The incumbent governor had said, "The good Lord never intended us to lock up our resources." But Andrus felt that it made no sense to "destroy a beautiful area that was still pristine--just the way God created it--for a mineral that was in surplus worldwide."

The people elected Andrus, effectively shutting ASARCO out of the White Clouds. If Idaho ever had been a "colonial" region, it had declared its independence. The next thirty years seem to open a third period of Idaho history--a period of increasing diversity of all kinds. Within the state, the hundred-year-old consensus--nearly unanimous up to that point--that the expansion of agriculture and the exploitation of natural resources was the only way for the state to prosper began to break down.

The environmental movement of the 1970s brought many of the new ideas, new people, and new challenges to the status-quo. A group of citizen rate-payers challenged the Idaho Power Company, which had been supplying ever-growing amounts of electricity for agricultural expansion at the expense of urban and other rate payers. They won their point in Idaho's courts, effectively creating a limit to agricultural expansion in southern Idaho.

aerial view of boiseThe modern electronic industry has been footloose enough to find Idaho. The 1970s saw the arrival of a large Hewlett-Packard manufacturing plant in Boise and the sprouting of Micron, a home-grown company that makes dynamic random access memory chips and other products. Similar businesses landed in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho Falls, and other Idaho cities.

Between 1980 and 1990, Idaho's population reached and surpassed one million. The cities are growing, mostly due to in-migration; rural areas on the fringe of such urban growth are growing more than those that are not. The complexion of the Idaho legislature changes slightly each time the decennial census requires redistricting, becoming more "urban."

The current period of Idaho's history has the excitement and color brought to it by the growing complexity of the people now living here. Many of its new settlers have come to retire, while others are intent on building new enterprises and new wealth. Religious and racial diversity continue to grow. Idaho cities have mosques and Buddhist temples. Consensus on public issues is harder to obtain as newcomers scrap with "fifth generation" Idahoans about what is important and what is not. Working out a new consensus for Idaho's future is the stuff that will fill tomorrow's history books.

Geology | People | History


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