One of the earliest descriptions of Boise Valley appears in Washington Irving’s “The Adventures of Captain Bonneville,” published in 1843: “The country about the Boise (or Woody) River is extolled by Captain Bonneville as the most enchanting he had seen in the Far West, presenting the mingled grandeur and beauty of mountain and plain, of bright running streams and vast grassy meadows waving to the breeze.”
Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, for whom so many things in the West are named — Lake Bonneville, Bonneville Dam, Bonneville County, Bonneville Peak, Bonneville Springs, Bonneville High School in Idaho Falls and even a Bonneville Crater on Mars — was born near Paris, France, on April 14, 1796. His family moved to the United States when he was 7, and in 1813 he received an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where he graduated in 1815 as a second lieutenant of artillery.
In 1831 he resigned his commission to lead an expedition to the Oregon Country to gather information on the Native Americans, and the geography, geology and climate of the Far West. It was then that he passed through Boise Valley. He planned to write a book about all he had seen, but after meeting Washington Irving at the home of John Jacob Astor, Bonneville agreed to let Irving write the book, which is now considered an American classic.
Prolific historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, writing in 1890, had a different view of Idaho’s charms: “It was the common judgment of the first explorers that there was more of strange and awful in the scenery and topography of Idaho than of the pleasing and attractive.”
On Jan. 21, 1865, the Idaho World observed, “Boise City is a striking instance of what force of character, energy and united purpose can accomplish in rearing a town, and establishing it on a prosperous basis. A year ago there was but little in the appearance of the present site of Boise City to indicate the importance which it has since assumed. It was an uninhabited plain. In a year it has become the county seat of a new county, the center of a large and widely-extended business, and the Capital of the Territory.
“All this is due to the harmonious and united feeling of those interested in the town. However divided they have been in all other matters, when the interests of Boise City were at stake, its people have stood shoulder to shoulder, husbanding their resources among themselves, aiding each other under all circumstances and presenting a united front to all the balance of the Territory. This policy has been the secret of the success and prosperity of Boise City.”
In July 1865, the World observed of Boise, “It is the center of what is considered the agricultural portion of the Boise country, but as yet nothing in the vegetable line is visible but onions at the table, onions on the side; onions on end in tumblers, onions strong enough to stand alone; in short, onions till you can’t hold your breath. If I were the Legislature, I should change the name of the place to Onionville. Withal it must be a soothing sort of place to reside, by keeping the streets well sprinkled, as the Chinook winds have free access — and ‘it is an ill wind,’ etc., you know. Being an acknowledged new center, in absence of telegraphs now, the publication of a newspaper in that place should be comparatively easy — good health would be all that could be required; and according to the philosophic (Josh) Billings ‘a good reliable set of bowels are worth any quantity of brains.’ If I had to live at any first-class cross-roads in the land, and had my choice, I should certainly live in Boise City.”
Albert D. Richardson, in his book “Beyond the Mississippi,” described Boise as it looked to him in 1865: “The broad level treeless avenues, with their low, white, verandahed warehouses, log cabins, neat cottages and ever-shifting panorama of wagons and coaches, Indians, miners, farmers and speculators remind one of a prairie town in Kansas or Iowa.”
Next week: More visitors praise Boise City and its river valley.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.