If you lived in Boise City, Idaho Territory, in the summer of 1864, you were witness to the greatest mass migration in American history. Every day a steady stream of covered wagons rolled down Main Street, and the towns newly established Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman newspaper reported on the spectacle.
On Aug. 2: Main Street was yesterday crowded with immigrants wagons, farmers with loads of hay and other produce, long lines of ox teams loaded with lumber and others with goods from Salt Lake and the Columbia River. It looked very much like people were busy.
On Aug. 16: The tide of emigration still flows in. Trains are passing through every hour of the day bound for the valleys below many however spreading their tents in the suburbs of town to recruit up and look about them for homes in our own beautiful and fertile valley.
In an article headed A Word to Immigrants, the Statesman urged settling in Idaho. Yesterday the streets were fuller than usual of wagons and stock. Many are stopping in the city and valley to engage in almost every branch of industry. Many more would finally determine to settle here did they not hurry through without getting acquainted with the country. A man can seldom see a chance to make money or start in business the first or second day he stops in a new place. There is no branch of business but needs more laborers. The business of merchandising alone is full; that is generally crowded. There are about three now selling goods in Boise country where there ought to be but two. That is not so with mining, farming, and mechanical pursuits.
The article concludes with this: If you want to practice law or physic (medicine), dont stop, for we have more than enough of both. If you want to get into office and dabble in politics, for Heavens sake move on to some other country. We have a large population of that sort that we would be glad to export.
The little town of Boise City, with 1,658 people in 1864, had seven lawyers, seven doctors, and 10 saloon keepers.
The sheer volume of Oregon Trail traffic passing through Boise is revealed by this item of Aug. 23, 1864: It is estimated that about one hundred emigrant wagons arrived in town during yesterday and the day before.
The summer emigration of 1865 was reported by the Statesman in similar fashion: Still they come. From forty to fifty emigrant teams continue to pass through our city daily, bound for Oregon. Nearly every team hauls a large family of children. They look well and seem to be comfortably provided with everything necessary for so long and tedious a journey. Their teams are in good condition, and in most cases as complete as when they started. Two or three yoke of oxen and one of cows compose a team; also one or two span of horses or mules. They are about equally divided as to cattle and horses and drive some loose stock. The emigration is mostly from Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin, but mostly from Iowa. They have been well-to-do people in those states, and we believe they will make a fruitful and healthy addition to the state of Oregon, whither they are all bound. The poorer emigration is always late, and we may expect some of them to stop with us over the winter.
We learn from later Statesman items that many of these families were literally penniless when they arrived in Boise, after three months on the trail. The women were reduced to going from door to door offering to do laundry or any other household chores that were needed. Their husbands also took whatever jobs they could find, but it was a long, hard winter for families living in tents or their own covered wagons.
A little-known part of the Oregon Trail story is that of the families that passed through Boise headed back to former homes in the Midwest. Well describe that counter-migration next week.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.