From its beginning, Idaho has had a rich ethnic and cultural diversity. If we could visit Owyhee and Boise counties as they were in 1870, the sounds and sights we encountered would make that diversity strikingly evident. For the historian of 19th century Idaho, what drives that time machine is the U.S. census.
Although the language you would hear spoken most often as you walked along the streets of Silver City or Idaho City was English, even that was not without touches of the exotic. Nearly a hundred of Silver Citys residents in 1870 were natives of England, and there were 64 in the Boise Basin. They spoke their native tongue in a variety of dialects, including some now rarely heard.
Among the American-born speakers of English you also would hear many dialects, reflecting the New England, Southern or Midwestern origins of the speakers. There were 46 natives of Maine in Boise County alone in 1870 who spoke a distinctly different English than that spoken by their neighbors from the deep South.
Irish immigrants far outnumbered all others in Idaho in 1870, and they spoke English with a delightful brogue that was distinctively their own. Second only to the Irish in numbers were Germans, and you would hear that language often at one of the several businesses run by Germans. Although most Germans, like all other immigrants in Owyhee County, worked in the mines, other occupations listed by the census takers included 12 merchants, three blacksmiths, three brewers, two boot-and-shoe makers, two bakers, two carpenters and two hotelkeepers. There also was an assayer, an engineer, a banker, a dentist, a butcher, a saloon keeper and a confectioner.
There were many dialects among the German-speakers as well, for in 1870 the German states had not yet been consolidated into the German Empire. The people did not list their places of birth as Germany but as Prussia, Bavaria, Hesse, Saxony, Baden, Hanover, Hamburg or Wurttemburg. Nevertheless, German speakers on the Idaho frontier strongly supported the Prussians in their 1870 war with France. In August, a relief fund was organized in Idaho City for the aid of the wounded soldiers, widows and orphans in the old country. In September, the Idaho World reported that news had been received that the French army had surrendered. The enthusiasm of our citizens of Prussian birth and of German sympathizers was demonstrated in a lively manner. Considerable champagne was indulged in.
Silver Citys small Chinese population included seven cooks, six house servants, five miners and a farm worker. We know from other sources that there also were Chinese who did laundry for a living. Boise Countys much larger Chinese population included hundreds of placer miners and nine cooks.
Portuguese was another language that was spoken by more than 70 Boise Basin miners and none of them were from Portugal. They were natives of the Azores Islands, a land where a population explosion and too little farmland forced a mass migration to the American West.
Other languages you might have heard in Silver City or Idaho City were Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, French, Italian, Dutch and Spanish.
Nearly all of the pack strings that carried supplies into Idahos mining camps were operated by Mexicans such as Boises noted Jesus Urquides, a native of Sonora. He ran mule strings out of a base on east Main Street known locally for two generations as Spanish Village. The name Urquides, like many in Mexico, is of Basque origin, but Jesus probably didnt speak the Basque language. That tongue and culture would enrich Idaho a few years later.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.