Lafayette Cartee was one of the most remarkable men in the history of Boise and of Idaho, credited by our late State Historian Merle Wells with making “several diverse but important contributions to the physical development and beauty of Boise.” Cartee did even more for Idaho Territory by quite literally “putting Idaho on the map” after his appointment as surveyor general in 1866.
Cartee’s contributions to Boise’s beauty came chiefly through his founding of a nursery on 20 acres of land between Grove Street and Boise River, and by building one of the city’s most handsome houses near the corner of 4th and Grove streets. He built the city’s first greenhouse in 1871, and in February 1872 issued a catalog listing the fruit trees, shrubbery and other plants he had for sale. Over the next 20 years Cartee imported trees, shrubs and flowers from the eastern United States, China, India and Japan.
In the years before 1883, when the Oregon Short Line Railroad was built across Southern Idaho, his precious imported plant materials had to be hauled to Boise by freight wagon more than 250 miles across the dry sagebrush plains from Kelton, Utah, on the Union Pacific Railroad. The trip usually took a week, and little could have survived if the freighters had not soaked the crates addressed to Cartee in the few creeks along the way.
Lafayette Cartee’s achievements are especially impressive since he was largely self-taught, with little or no formal education. He was born on Dec. 2, 1823, in Syracuse, N.Y. In 1825 his father moved the family to Coudersport, Penn. A local history of that place, published in 1890, proudly listed the accomplishments of this local boy who made good. He became principal of the high school at Newport, Ky., in 1844, a position he filled for two years. In 1846 he was hired by St. John’s College in Cincinnati as professor of mathematics and civil engineering, but failing health compelled him to resign in 1848.
In November of that year he took passage on a sailing vessel bound for San Francisco, after his physicians recommended that he take a sea voyage. After seven months at sea in a trip that took him around South America and up to the Pacific Coast, Cartee reached San Francisco in June 1849, much improved in health.
He spent a few months in California, but apparently did not join the gold rush that started that year, and moved to Oregon City, Ore., where he supported himself by surveying and engineering. He was elected as a Democrat to Oregon’s first territorial legislature, and in its second term was chosen speaker of the house.
Cartee returned to Potter County, Penn., in the fall of 1855 and married Mary S. Bell. In 1858, Back in Oregon City in 1858, he built one of the town’s finest brick houses for her and the children who soon followed: Caroline (Carrie) in 1857, Ella in 1859, Ross in 1860 and Mary in 1862. Sadly, his beloved wife died in December 1862 at The Dalles, Ore., where Cartee was chief engineer for the construction of the first railroad in Oregon, a short line built to bypass the Cascades of the Columbia.
Lafayette Cartee never remarried. He raised his four small children with the help of his wife’s unmarried sister, Henrietta Bell. The 1870 census lists her as “House Keeper,” age 36, but obviously Aunt Henrietta was much more than that to the children. Her brother, Peter W. Bell, civil engineer, was also a member of the Cartee household in 1870, as was Allen M. Thompson, civil engineer, both of whom worked with Lafayette Cartee in making the first federal survey of Idaho.
The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman of Nov. 20, 1866, noted the arrival in Boise of Surveyor General Cartee and noted: “No man in the west is more capable of doing good work than Mr. Cartee. Idaho is fortunate in having so competent a man to inaugurate and manage the survey of her public lands.”
On April 4, 1867, the paper reported that “Surveyor General Cartee, with assistants, started on a tour of observation yesterday with a view to locating the base line and meridian for the public survey.” The city of Meridian would take its name from the north-south line Cartee chose.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email email@example.com.