Idaho - History and Heritage

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.

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.

Idaho was the first state in the nation to elect a Jewish governor. Moses Alexander was elected in 1914 and re-elected in 1916.

In 1990, Larry EchoHawk was the first Native American to be elected attorney general of any state in the United States.

Idaho’s American Indian Communities

Coeur d’Alene Tribe
Translated from French, the name "Coeur d’Alene" came from the French fur traders and trappers who first encountered the Schitsu'umish Indians. The term actually means "heart of the awl" referring to the sharpness of tribal member trading skills exhibited in their dealings with fur traders. The nickname stuck. One Frenchman even described the tribe as "the greatest traders in the world."

The Coeur d’Alene’s tribal homeland includes almost five million acres of what are now northern Idaho, eastern Washington and western Montana. Unlike the tribes of the plains, the Coeur d'Alenes were not nomadic. Coeur d'Alene Indian villages were established along the Coeur d'Alene, St. Joe, Clark Fork and Spokane rivers. These tribes traded with neighboring tribes and with many tribes far away on the Pacific coast.

Ancient trade routes connected the Coeur d'Alenes with the Nez Perce, the Shoshones and the Bannocks to the south and southeast. To the east were the tribes of the Great Plains and the vast herds of buffalo. With the coming of horses, young Coeur d'Alene men journeyed east to hunt buffalo. However these journeys were not necessary for survival. They were viewed as adventures and even rites of passage for youth who would emerge into manhood and into leadership roles. All ancient tribal trade routes and paths remain today. In fact, those very same routes are still used all across the country and are called interstate highways.

Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Tribes
The Duck Valley Indian Reservation is home to approximately 900 of 1,700 tribal members of the Shoshone-Paiute. Located 96 miles north of Elko on the high desert in northeastern Nevada and southwestern Idaho, a mix of Western Shoshone, Northern and Malheur Paiute Indians represent the tribe. Total acreage includes 289,819 acres of tribal land; 144,274 acres in Elko County, Nev. and 145,545 acres in Owyhee County, Idaho. There are also 3,981.68 acres of public land at Wildhorse Reservoir.

While a large portion of land is dedicated to agriculture, the tribe's primary source of income is from the sale of fishing permits in its two large reservoirs. The operation of a marina on one of its lakes and the sale of grazing permits for its 260,000 acres of range land provide additional income for the tribe. Other limited employment available for residents can be found at several small, tribal-owned businesses including a laundromat, general store, café and gas station.

Nez Perce Tribe
Nez Perce is a misnomer given to the tribe by French-Canadian fur trappers. The French translate it as "pierced nose." Even though the Nez Perce didn't pierce their noses, the name remained and today it is pronounced "Nezz Purse". Ni Mii Pu (Ni-MEE-Poo) is what tribal members call themselves. It means "The People."

When the weary and hungry Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered the Nez Perce on the Weippe Prairie in 1805, the Ni Mii Pu chose to help the explorers survive. They fed and refreshed them, helped build canoes and provided directions to the Pacific Ocean.

Today the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho totals about 138,000 acres. Approximately 1,800 of the 3,100 enrolled tribal members live on the reservation itself. The nine-member Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee is the governing body for the reservation.

Shoshone and Bannock Tribe
In eastern Idaho along Interstate 1-15 and 1-86 lies the 544,000-acre Fort Hall Indian Reservation on a small part of the land that the Shoshone and Bannock Indians have lived on for more than 10,000 years.

Before recorded history, the Shoshone and Bannock originally roamed the areas of what are now the states of Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Idaho. In their search for food they hunted, gathered and fished for salmon. Horses introduced in the early 1700s allowed some groups to travel great distances in pursuit of buffalo.

A Presidential Executive Order established the 1.8 million acre reservation in 1867 but a survey error reduced the size of the Reservation to 1.2 million acres in 1872. Later, encroachments reduced the reservation to its present size.

The first white men to explore the West were the trappers and explorers. Sacajawea, a Lemhi Shoshone, accompanied Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Ocean in 1805 and back in 1806. Visit the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Education Center in Salmon and the Fort Hall Museum in Fort Hall, ID.

Salish Tribe
The Flathead Indian Reservation (1,244,000 acres) is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. In this confederation the Salish and Pend d'Oreilles members formed one tribe and the Kootenai another. The tribal headquarters are in Pablo, Mont.

The traditional Salish and Kootenai hunted buffalo on the Great Plains as well as deer, elk and other wild game in western Mont. A variety of plant foods such as bitterroot, camas, moss, wild onions, Indian potatoes and serviceberries were gathered during their seasons and preserved for later use.

North Central Idaho
Idaho’s history is deeply intertwined with the American Indians who first inhabited this land. Experience the history of Idaho’s American Indians by visiting the Nez Perce National Historical Park and Trail. The historical park and museum pays tribute to the lives and legacy of the people of the Nez Perce Tribe. Originally developed as a Nez Perce mission location, two years after missionaries Henry and Eliza Spalding settled on Lapwai Creek in 1836, today this site serves as National Park Service headquarters and contains a major interpretive center to explain Nez Perce history. The park consists of 38 sites scattered across four states and is the only national park that celebrates a people instead of a place. It contains over 5,000 historic photographs and 24 historic sites that tell the story of the Nez Perce people. Visitors can also view a movie about the Nez Perce culture and history.

For a truly all-encompassing history of Idaho, stop along the Lewis and Clark Trail. Relive the steps of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition with the Riverside Tepee and Canoe Camp where you will enjoy Lewis and Clark history, Native American historical and cultural activities, expedition re-enactments, special events and hands-on activities with American Indian staff. Experience longboat river tours, guided fishing trips, kayaks and canoes.

Silver Valley Mining History
Northern Idaho is filled with history and stories from the days of the big mining era. Experience this look back in time with a trip to the Silver Valley including Wallace, Murray, Prichard and Kellogg.

Until recently, mining was the lifeblood of Wallace. Established in 1892 Wallace served as supply center for one of the largest silver producing areas in the world in the late 1800s. Today the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Northern Pacific Depot - an architectural gem - and the Coeur d'Alene District Mining Museum serve as interpretive centers for regional history. The Oasis Bordello Museum provides a more "colorful perspective" of the town's past and the Sierra Silver Mine gives a good feel for the life of an underground miner.

Located near Wallace in the Idaho Panhandle, Murray and Prichard also feature the history of the early mines that put Idaho on the map. Travel to Murray to see the famous Spragpole Museum Restaurant & Bar along with the Bedroom Gold Mine Bar.

Next, travel southwest to Kellogg where kids will enjoy panning for their own gold on the Crystal Gold Mine Tour. This 30-minute tour takes visitors deep inside this old mine which, after miner Tom Irwin blasted the mountain away to hide the mine’s entrance in 1882, lay hidden to the world for more than 100 years. Visitors experience a time gone by witnessing Tom’s old mine car and tools inside. Paved walking paths make it easy for all ages to get around.

Southeastern Idaho
For a history trip the kids will not forget, a tour of southeastern Idaho is a must. Start out at Fort Hall in Pocatello, a replica of the historic facility that served pioneer travelers along the Oregon Trail. Enter the massive wooden gates and wander through Company Hall, Frontier Room, Indian Room, Blacksmith, and Carpenter's Room. A covered wagon and tepee enhance the outdoor exhibit. Web: or 208-234-1795.

If the kids are ready for a break, travel southeast to Lava Hot Springs. For centuries many Indian tribes called these natural hot water springs "healing waters." Geologists theorize the water has been a consistent 110 degrees for at least 50 million years. Today the State of Idaho maintains this world-famous resort complex year-round, offering hot mineral baths at 110 degrees Fahrenheit that are sulfur and odor-free. In addition to the hot pools there is a free form Olympic-size swimming and diving pool for summer fun.

Continuing southeast to Montpelier, stop at The National Oregon/California Trail Center which offers an excellent, structured educational experience about the largest mass migration in American history, the Oregon Trail. Ride in a computer-controlled covered wagon. Journey the trails with experienced guides in period costumes.

Finally if your family is a Napoleon Dynamite fan, visit the movie location site in Preston and check out specific places and items such as Napoleon’s house, Preston High School and Uncle Rico’s van.

Sacajawea Heritage Days celebrates the assistance Sacajawea, a native of the Lemhi valley, gave to the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it passed through the Lemhi Valley. The event features the annual Great Salmon Valley Balloonfest with hot air balloons, arts and crafts reminiscent of the period, breakfast, cattlemen's barbeque, a concert, talent stage, Lewis & Clark artifact replicas, tribal dancing and an ice cream social.

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