Idaho, like the United States of America, has had a rich ethnic diversity since its earliest days. People from all over the world have come here seeking a better life, and they are still coming. As we observe the 150th birthday of Idaho Territory, and of Boise City, it seems appropriate to recognize and appreciate the contributions of these many nationalities and races, and some remarkable individuals.
The territory was founded on March 4, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of the bloody Civil War, signed the act creating Idaho Territory out of the eastern part of Washington Territory. Idaho was then a giant square on the map, bigger than Texas, that included all of Montana, most of Wyoming and the Dakotas. The gold rush to the mountains of what would became Idaho brought more people here than then lived on the west side of the Cascades. The votes of these prospectors and miners threatened Olympia's position as the capital of Washington and led its Legislature to support the creation of the new territory of Idaho.
The 1870 census clearly revealed the ethnic diversity of Idaho Territory. Out of a total of 14,999 people counted by the enumerators, more than half were foreign-born. Chinese alone numbered 4,268, and even though their history in Idaho was marked by persecution by whites, they did receive equal protection under the law, as is shown by the court records of a number of cases.
Chinese scholar Liping Zhu argues in his book "A Chinaman's Chance" that nearly all who came here did have a chance to do far better for themselves than they could have had they stayed at home as peasant farmers on the Pearl River delta. Most, through the Chinese companies that brought them here, were able to help their impoverished families in China by sending home part of what they earned each month, and most eventually did fulfill their dream of returning to their native land, marrying and raising families.
That most foreign-born Idahoans were judged on their personal merits and not on their nationality, is demonstrated by their success in politics. H.E. Prickett, Boise's first mayor, was an Englishman. John Lemp, a German brewer who came to Idaho virtually penniless, was elected mayor in 1875 and had become the wealthiest man in Ada County by the early 20th century. Moses Alexander, a German-born Jewish clothing merchant who had served as mayor of Chillicothe, Mo., before coming to Boise in 1890 and opening the first of what would become a chain of stores, was elected to the first of two terms as mayor in 1897. He would be elected governor in 1915. The Idaho Legislature at the time of Alexander's first term as mayor included only one member who was born in Idaho. There were, however, three natives of England, two from Canada, two from Wales, a Scot and a Dane. Natives of Illinois numbered 9, California 6, and Utah 6; there were four from Pennsylvania and three each from Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and Tennessee. The 1910 census revealed that Idaho had nearly 100,000 foreign-born citizens from more than two dozen countries.
The first Jesuit missionaries sent to Idaho to convert Indians to Christianity were all Europeans. The first to arrive in what would become Idaho was Father Jean Paul De Smet, a Belgian, who conducted a worship service for members of the Flathead and Pend d'Oreille tribes on July 23, 1840. He supervised construction of the first Catholic church in Idaho, a primitive log cabin succeeded by the much grander structures designed by Italian-born Father Antonio Ravalli, the Mission of the Sacred Heart to the Coeur d'Alene Indians.
This multitalented priest furnished the impressive interior with his own paintings, sculpture and woodwork. The first services were held there in 1853. This oldest building in Idaho is located near Cataldo, a town that takes its name from Joseph M. Cataldo, another priest who served there. He was a native of Sicily.
French priests who pioneered the work of the church in Idaho include Frenchmen Toussaint Mesplie and Nicolas Point. Francis Hartlieb was born in Saxony and Louis Verhaag in Holland.
Alphonse J. Glorieux, bishop of Idaho, a native of West Flanders, Belgium, was well known in Boise, where he lived from 1885 until 1917.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.