Today, for a change, let’s step back in time for a broad overview of the human history of Southern Idaho.
Nomadic hunters from the Clovis culture — named for Clovis, N.M., where its unique fluted spear points were first found — were hunter-gatherers who roamed North America at least 13,500 years ago. The long-held belief that they were the first people to cross the Bering land bridge from Asia to North America is now disputed by some scholars, but even if they were not first, they were certainly among the first humans in Idaho. Their distinctive spear points have been found in association with the bones of long-extinct woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, ground sloths, camels and giant bison.
In historic times, American Indians of the Northern Shoshone and Paiute tribes hunted deer, elk, antelope and bison in what is now southwestern Idaho, before a gradual warming and drying change in the climate moved the great bison herds east where the grazing was better. By the 1830s there were no longer bison in Southwest Idaho.
Although Lewis and Clark had crossed North Idaho in 1805, the first white people to cross the southern part of the state were members of the Wilson Price Hunt party, sent out by John Jacob Astor in 1811 to establish a fur trading post at the mouth of the Columbia River. When disaster at Caldron Linn showed them they could not float safely down the Snake River to the Columbia, they were forced to walk most of the rest of the way. Neither they nor any other white men knew at the time that Twin Falls, Shoshone Falls and Hells Canyon still lay ahead.
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Donald Mackenzie, who was on that disastrous winter crossing of Idaho, returned to establish the fur trade in the region. In 1834, Fort Hall in Eastern Idaho and Fort Boise at the mouth of Boise River were established. The Hudson’s Bay Company and American trappers competed for the trade in beaver pelts, then much in demand in Europe. Some famous members of the fur brigades that trapped the region were Kit Carson, Jim Bridger and Peter Skene Ogden. Army Lt. John C. Fremont, sometimes called “the Pathfinder,” led a surveying and exploring expedition across the southern part of Idaho in 1843, with Carson as his scout.
John C. Fremont was the Republican nominee for president in 1856, when he was defeated by Democrat James Buchanan.
The first wheeled vehicle over what became the Oregon Trail was driven across Idaho by missionaries Marcus Whitman and Henry Harmon Spalding and their wives in 1836. Over the next century several hundred thousand people on their way to Oregon and the Puget Sound country crossed the sagebrush plains of Idaho. Nobody on their way to new farmlands in the Willamette Valley could have imagined that crops could be grown in arid Southwest Idaho, or that the rich volcanic soil needed only water and hard work to bring it to life.
With the discovery of gold in Boise Basin in August 1862 and in the Owyhee Mountains in 1863, everything changed dramatically. As Idaho City and Silver City attracted large populations, the Army saw the need to establish a military post on Boise River in July 1863, to protect both emigrants on the Oregon Trail and travelers along the roads to mining camps north and south from attacks by Indians.
The Civil War was raging in the East, and the Army had to be concerned that most of the gold seekers were sympathizers with the South who could possibly divert Idaho gold to help the Confederacy. The growing populations in the mining camps created a ready market for whatever farmers could produce, and they began diverting water from the Boise River to grow their crops.
Freight was moved at first by pack trains of horses and burros, and then by wagons after roads were built. Stage lines that carried passengers, mail and express packages prospered, despite fierce competition between Wells Fargo, Ben Holliday and our own John Hailey, first head of the Idaho State Historical Society
Next week we’ll carry our overview of Southern Idaho history into the 20th century.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.