Idaho History


Idaho (ī´dəhō), one of the Rocky Mt. states in the NW United States. It is bordered by Montana and Wyoming (E), Utah and Nevada (S), Oregon and Washington (W), and the Canadian province of British Columbia (N).

Facts and Figures

Area, 83,557 sq mi (216,413 sq km). Pop. (2010) 1,567,582, a 21.1% increase since the 2000 census. Capital and largest city, Boise. Statehood, July 3, 1890 (43d state). Highest pt., Borah Peak, 12,662 ft (3,862 m); lowest pt., Snake River, 710 ft (217 m). Nickname, Gem State. Motto,Esto Perpetua [It Is Perpetual]. State bird, mountain bluebird. State flower, syringa. State tree, white pine. Abbr., ID


Much of Idaho has an unspoiled beauty, with rugged slopes and towering peaks, a vast expanse of timberland, scenic lakes, wild rivers, cascades, and spectacular gorges. From the northern Panhandle, where Idaho is about 45 mi (72 km) wide, the state broadens south of the Bitterroot Range to 310 mi (499 km) in width. The Snake River flows in a great arc across S Idaho; with its tributaries the river has been harnessed to produce hydroelectric power and to reclaim vast areas of dry but fertile land. To the north of the Snake River valley, in central and north central Idaho, are the massive Sawtooth Mts. and the Salmon River Mts., which shelter magnificent wilderness areas, including the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness Area, and the Idaho Primitive Area.

In the central and north central regions and in the Panhandle there are tremendous expanses of national forests covering approximately two fifths of the state and constituting one of the largest areas of national forests in the nation. Idaho's jagged granite peaks include Mt. Borah, which is 12,662 ft (3,859 m) high. Hells Canyon, which at one point is 7,900 ft (2408 m) below the mountaintops, is the deepest gorge in North America. The state also contains Craters of the Moon National Monument and a protected grove of ancient cedars at Upper Priest Lake.

Rushing rivers such as the Salmon and the Clearwater, and many lakes, notably Lake Pend Oreille, Lake Coeur d'Alene (often described as one of the world's loveliest), and Priest Lake, as well as the state's mountain areas, make Idaho a superb fish and game preserve and vacation land. The state is especially inviting to campers, anglers, and hunters (Idaho has one of the largest elk herds in the nation). The state's climate ranges from hot summers in the arid southern basins to cold, snowy winters in the high wilderness areas of central and northern Idaho. The capital and largest city is Boise; other cities of importance are Pocatello and Idaho Falls.


Manufacturing has recently supplanted agriculture as the most important sector of Idaho's economy. Cattle and dairy goods are among the leading agricultural products. Idaho's chief crops are potatoes (for which the state, easily the nation's largest producer, is famous), hay, wheat, peas, beans, and sugar beets. Electronic and computer equipment, processed foods, lumber, and chemicals are the major manufactured items.

The unspoiled quality of much of Idaho's land has nourished one of the youngest of Idaho's businesses—the tourist trade. Sun Valley, one of the nation's best-known year-round vacation spots, is an example of the development of resorts in Idaho. Mining, once the major source of income, and still economically important, produces phosphates, gold, silver, molybdenum, antimony, lead, zinc, and other minerals.

Government, Politics, and Higher Education

Idaho's constitution, adopted in 1889, became effective in 1890 upon statehood. The state's chief executive is a governor elected for a term of four years. The legislature consists of a 42-member senate and an 84-member house of representatives. The state also elects two representatives and two senators to the U.S. Congress and has four electoral votes.

Idaho is a Republican state in national politics but had Democratic governors from 1970 to 1994. Cecil D. Andrus, elected governor in 1970 and reelected in 1974, served as secretary of the interior during the Carter administration; he was elected governor again in 1986 and 1990. Republican Phil Batt, elected governor in 1994, was succeeded by Republican Dirk Kempthorne, elected in 1998 and reelected in 2002. Kempthorne was appointed secretary of the interior in 2006. He was succeeded as governor by Lt. Gov. James E. Risch, also a Republican. Republican Butch Otter was elected to the post later in the year and was reelected in 2010 and 2014.

Outstanding among Idaho's institutions of higher learning are the Univ. of Idaho, at Moscow; Idaho State Univ., at Pocatello; and Boise State Univ., at Boise.


Early Explorers and Fur Traders

Probably the first nonnatives to enter the area that is now Idaho were members of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. They were not far ahead of the fur traders who came to the region shortly thereafter. A Canadian, David Thompson of the North West Company, established the first trading post in Idaho in 1809. The next year traders from St. Louis penetrated the mountains, and Andrew Henry of the Missouri Fur Company established a post near present-day Rexburg, the first American trading post established in the area.

In this period the fortunes of the Idaho region were wrapped up with those of the Columbia River region, and the area encompassed by what is now the state of Idaho was part of Oregon country, held jointly by the United States and Great Britain from 1818 to 1846. Fur traders in an expedition sent out by John Jacob Astor came to the Snake River region to trap for furs after having established (1811) a trading post at Astoria on the Columbia River. In 1821 two British trading companies operating in the Idaho region, the North West Company and the Hudson's Bay Company, were joined together as the Hudson's Bay Company which, after 1824, came into competition with American mountain men also trapping in the area. By the 1840s the two groups had severely depleted the region's fur supply.

Gold, Settlement, and Resistance

In 1846 the United States gained sole claim to Oregon country south of the 49th parallel by the Oregon Treaty with Great Britain. The area was established as a territory in 1848. Idaho still had no permanent settlement when Oregon Territory became a state in 1859 and the eastern part of Idaho was added to Washington Territory. A Mormon outpost founded at Franklin in 1860 is considered the first permanent settlement, but it was not until the discovery of gold that settlers poured into Idaho.

Gold was discovered on the Clearwater River in 1860, on the Salmon in 1861, in the Boise River basin in 1862, and gold and silver were found in the Owyhee River country in 1863. The usual rush of settlers followed, along with the spectacular but ephemeral growth of towns. Most of these settlements are only ghost towns now, but the many settlers who poured in during the gold rush—mainly from Washington, Oregon, and California, with smaller numbers from the east—formed a population large enough to demand new government administration, and Idaho Territory was set up in 1863.

Native Americans, mostly Kootenai, Nez Percé, Western Shoshone, Bannock, Coeur d'Alene, and Pend d'Oreille, became upset by the incursion of settlers and some resisted violently. The federal government had subdued many of these groups by 1858, placing them on reservations. The Bannock were defeated in 1863 and again in 1878. In 1876–77 the Nez Percé, led by Chief Joseph, made their heroic but unsuccessful attempt to flee to Canada while being pursued by U.S. troops.

Development and Disputes

A new mining boom started in 1882 with the discovery of gold in the Coeur d'Alene, and although the gold strike ended in disappointment, it prefaced the discovery there of some of the richest silver mines in the world. Coeur d'Alene and Kellogg became notable mining centers, and the Bunker Hill and Sullivan (a lead mine) became extremely famous mines. Severe labor troubles in the mines at the end of the century led to political uprisings. Frank Steunenberg, who as governor had used federal troops to put down the uprisings, was assassinated in 1905. The trial of William Haywood and others accused of involvement in the murder drew national attention and marked the beginning of the long career of William E. Borah (who had prosecuted the mine leaders) as an outstanding Republican party leader in the state and nation.

The late 19th cent. also witnessed the growth of cattle and sheep ranching, along with the strife that developed between the two groups of ranchers over grazing areas. The coming of the railroads (notably the Northern Pacific) through Idaho in the 1880s and 90s brought new settlers and aided in the founding of such cities as Idaho Falls, Pocatello, and American Falls.

Putting Water and the Atom to Work

Expanding Idaho farming led to private irrigation projects. Some of these aroused public opposition, which led to establishment of state irrigation districts under the Carey Land Act of 1894. The Reclamation Act of 1902 brought direct federal aid. Notable among public reclamation works are the Boise and Minidoka projects. Both public and private, these have also helped to increase the development of Idaho's enormous hydroelectric potential. Further private hydroelectric projects along the Snake River were put into operation between 1959 and 1968.

In 1949 the Atomic Energy Commission built the National Reactor Testing Station in SE Idaho. Now known as the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, the facility in 1955 provided energy for nearby Arco, the first American town to be lighted by electricity from a nuclear power plant.

Idaho suffered during the recession of the early 1980s but rebounded later in the decade by attracting new business, including high-technology firms. The growth of the winter sports industry has helped make Idaho a leading tourist state. These improvements in its economy made Idaho one of the nation's fastest-growing states in population between 1990 and 2000.


See Federal Writers' Project, Idaho (1938, rev. ed. 1950); M. W. Wells, Idaho: An Illustated History (1980).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Idaho History: Selected full-text books and articles

In Mountain Shadows: A History of Idaho By Carlos A. Schwantes University of Nebraska Press, 1996
The Pacific Northwest: An Interpretive History By Carlos Arnaldo Schwantes University of Nebraska Press, 1996 (Revised edition)
The Indian Tribes of North America By John R. Swanton U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952
Librarian's tip: "Idaho" begins on p. 398
The Saloon on the Rocky Mountain Mining Frontier By Elliott West University of Nebraska Press, 1979
The Bonanza Trail: Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of the West By Muriel Sibell Wolle Indiana University Press, 1953
Librarian's tip: Chap. 6 "Idaho: From Boise Basin to the Coeur d'Alenes"
Heritage of Conflict: Labor Relations in the Nonferrous Metals Industry up to 1930 By Vernon H. Jensen Cornell University, 1950
Librarian's tip: Chap. XII "The Idaho Trials"
Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935 By Donald J. Pisani University of California Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Case Studies in Irrigation and Community: Twin Falls and Rupert"
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