Top 50 Stories: 1890 — Statehood: 'The star of Idaho'

Why do we celebrate statehood on July 3? Because of the momentous answer a young delegate gave to President Harrison.

bmanny@idahostatesman.comJuly 3, 2014 


    Any idea was happened to Dubois' statehood pen? If you have information that might help locate it, call or email Rachelle Littau at the Idaho Historical Museum:, 334-2120 Ext. 15.


    The Idaho Territory was originally a big square. And Idaho might have been a much different shape than it is today if other states had had their way: At different times, parts of Idaho were proposed for addition to Washington or Nevada. And at another time, the mining country of Montana was proposed to be added to Idaho - which would have shaped Idaho as a rectangle and Montana like another Wyoming.

    Idaho was part of the Oregon Territory until 1853. When Oregon became a state in 1859, Idaho and the leftovers became the Washington Territory. Sparsely populated Idaho was expected to remain essentially unsettled for another 50 years; discovery of gold in Pierce in 1860 changed that.

    Idaho's mining wealth and growing population now threatened the Washington establishment. The politicians in Olympia, Washington's territorial capital, wanted to make sure they prevailed against upstart Walla Walla, which wanted to include Idaho's mining country into a Washington with Walla Walla as its center and capital. In 1863, the Washington Territory was separated from Idaho.

    With all of Montana and almost all of Wyoming, territorial Idaho was too big; its pockets of people were separated by impassable mountain ranges. In 1864, Montana was carved out of the northeast Idaho Territory. (A paper by the Idaho State Historical Society debunks the legends that Idaho's jagged northeast border was the result of a survey party that was drunk, misguided, lost or bribed by Montana interests. In fact, Congress specified that boundary.)

    When Wyoming was carved from the Idaho Territory in 1868, the future boundaries of all three states were set.


    Although presented as a Shoshone word for "gem of the mountains," there's no evidence for that. In fact, the name was apparently born in Washington, D.C.

    Congress was prepared to designate the Colorado Territory "Idaho" until the Senate learned that the word was not an Indian word at all. It was quickly discarded and the Colorado Territory created and named in 1860. In later years, George M. Willing, the name's fast-talking lobbyist-advocate, claimed to have fabricated the Indian-word origins.

    The discredited name might have been expected to fade, but it didn't. A steamboat on the Columbia River was named Idaho. When gold was discovered in the Clearwater and Salmon river areas, they became known as the Idaho mines. Idaho County was created in 1860. In 1863, Congress gave the name to the new Idaho Territory, with little debate.

Gold rush-era Idaho was growing so fast before Congress made it a territory, some thought it might go straight to statehood and bypass the interim step entirely. Not to be. The Idaho Territory, created in 1863, lasted 27 years.

Statehood was largely out of Idaho's hands. The timing and shape of the state were dictated by regional and national politics, driven by whether admission of the mining- and Republican-dominated territory would benefit the factions in power. By 1890, the Republicans in power in Congress could benefit from adding Idaho's votes. The statehood bill rushed to passage on July 2.

Territorial Delegate Fred T. Dubois went to the White House the next day and found President Benjamin Harrison in a welcoming mood. Dubois asked the president to wait until July 4 to sign the act, so Idaho could celebrate its birthday with the nation on Independence Day. But Harrison presented Dubois with a dilemma: Stars are added to the flag on July 4 for all states admitted in the previous year. If Harrison signed on July 4, Idaho wouldn't get its star on the flag until 1891. What did the Idaho delegate want the president to do?

Hundreds of congratulatory telegrams had urged Dubois to arrange Idaho's birthday for July 4. Nevertheless, Dubois responded: "The responsibility is all mine and I ask you to sign the bill now. I want the star of Idaho on the flag tomorrow."

"I think you have chosen well," Harrison told him. The president signed the act of statehood and presented the 39-year-old Dubois with the pen and a gold pen holder: "There is no honor which can come to a young man greater than that of bringing your state into the Union."

Dubois later wrote that the pen was "among the Idaho relics" at the Statehouse. But no one today knows where it ended up.

On July 6, the Idaho Daily Statesman reported the signing of the Statehood Act under the headline: "The Star of Idaho."

Today: Experience statehood by reading from the time, touring the Capitol or visiting the Idaho State Historical Museum. On a trip to the Capitol, you may well rub elbows with legislators, a secretary of state or a governor. A visit to the history museum will give you a glimpse of the state's early years.

Sources: Merle Wells, Idaho Historical Society, Dubois' "Making of a State."

Bill Manny: 377-6406

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