Prior to the arrival of European and Mexican explorers, roughly 8,000 American Indians, representing two distinct groups, inhabited Idaho: the Great Basin Shoshone and Bannock tribes of the Shoshone-Bannock, the Shoshone Paiute and the Plateau tribes of the Coeur d'Alene, Nez Perce and Kootenai. Today, Idaho's American Indian heritage, their tribes and chiefs are reflected in county names like Nez Perce, Benewah, Shoshone, Bannock and Kootenai counties and the communities of Shoshone, Pocatello, Blackfoot, Nezperce, White Bird, Kamiah, Lapwai, Weippe, Kooskia, Picabo and Tendoy.
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Spanish explorers made trips west beginning in 1592. Spaniards introduced pigs, horses, domestic fowl, tomatoes, beans, corn and garlic to the American Indians of the Northwest. Lewis and Clark were the first Euro-Americans to set foot on what is now known as Idaho. They encountered Spanish-speaking American Indians as well as those who spoke their tribal language. The expedition was followed by French-Canadian fur trappers resulting in names of communities like Coeur d'Alene (French for "heart of the awl") and Boise (Le Bois-French for "the trees").
Even the impact of Hawaiian Islanders employed as laborers in the Northwest fur trade received recognition through the naming of Owyhee County. Almost the entire staff of Fort Boise from 1834-1844 were from the Hawaiian Islands.
Mountain men, including Spaniards and Mexicans, lived off the land as trappers and hunters. In the 1860s, there were a number of Mexican vaqueros (cowboys) living in the Treasure Valley. By 1863 Mexicans were mining at Spanishtown, a camp near Rocky Bar. Jesus Urquides, one of several successful Mexican businesspeople, came to Boise in 1863, became a prominent Pacific Northwest packer and built the Spanish Village in 1870s to house his Mexican packers. The 1870 census included 60 Mexican-born individuals.
York, William Clark's African American servant, traveled through what is now Idaho in 1805 with the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Respected then by the Indians, today York is credited as being of great value to the trip’s success. Some fur trappers, traders and miners who followed were African American, including one who helped build the first mission in the Northwest. Until after the Civil War, only free Black or escaped slaves came West unless brought by their owners. The entry of the railroad through southern Idaho starting in the 1880s resulted in a number of African Americans settling in Pocatello. Four companies of troops from the 24th Regiment (an African American unit) were sent to Idaho 1899 to maintain order during the Coeur d'Alene mining strikes. The 1900 Idaho census listed 940 African Americans.
At one time, during the Gold Rush of the early 1800s, Idaho's population was one-quarter Chinese. By 1870, a majority of all Idaho miners were Chinese.
In the mid-1800s, as with other western states, most early Idaho settlers fled the East to escape what they saw as officially-sanctioned harassment of individuals for their beliefs. This was true of Mormons fleeing persecution and Union and Rebel supporters desperately seeking to flee the Civil War.
During the 1890s, there were several thousand Japanese laborers constructing the railroad through Idaho.
In 1896, Idaho became the fourth state in the nation to give women the right to vote. The territorial legislature had come close to giving women the right to vote as early as 1869. In 1867, the territorial legislature passed a statute making Idaho a community property state. It was not until the turn of the century that women in more than a handful of states had equal rights to family assets. In 1972, Idaho became the first state in the nation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Between 1900 and 1920 a large number of Basque immigrants came to Idaho from the Pyrenees to work as sheepherders. Today, Boise has the largest Basque community in the United States.