This story is part of our Curious Idaho series, where you vote on questions submitted by readers, and then we investigate the winning question for a story.
Steve Gale of Nampa asked this question: Why was the panhandle area of Idaho not made a part of Washington state or Montana?
The short answer: It’s complicated.
In the 1800s, the Idaho Panhandle became part of the Oregon and Washington territories, and Montana and part of Wyoming once were part of the Idaho Territory. So how did the Idaho panhandle, the skinny northern spoke of the state, come to be?
“It (was) all political and had nothing to do with geographical logic,” said Keith Petersen, Idaho’s foremost state historian.
Idaho’s unusual shape came about through a process of power, money and the struggle to govern vast expanses of wilderness, he said.
As western states were joining the United States, Congress sought to make borders even and straight. So, when you look at a U.S. map, you notice states such as Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, Utah and many others are near-perfect geometric shapes.
And then there’s Idaho.
Some of the state conforms to the idea of geometry. The very northern parts of the Idaho-Montana and Idaho-Washington borders are straight. So is the eastern border with Wyoming, the southwestern border with Oregon and the northern border with Canada.
But a large portion of the border with Montana is the only one in the trans-Mississippi West that follows a mountain range, in this case the Bitterroots, and part of the border with Oregon follows the Snake River.
“The lower 100 miles of the Oregon border is a straight line, a representation of Congress’ obsession with geometric symmetry,” Petersen said. “But even Congress had to admit that sometimes geographical features trumped geometry, so from the point where the Snake River turns north, that river marks the boundary between Oregon and Idaho.”
It started with a rivalry
But Idaho’s distinctive shape came out of a power struggle between explorer John Mullan and Washington’s territorial delegate to Congress, William H. Wallace.
Between 1818 and 1848, Idaho was part of a jointly occupied area between England and the U.S. in the north, land referred to as Oregon Country. The joint occupation ended when the two nations finally agreed to using the 49th parallel as the border between U.S. and Canada.
Next, Idaho became part of the Oregon Territory. When Congress created the Washington Territory in 1853, Idaho was split at the 46th parallel, and today’s panhandle fell into Washington. Oregon became a state in 1859, and all of Idaho became part of Washington.
In 1863, Washington’s population swelled because of the discovery of gold and silver in what is now Idaho. The miners petitioned Congress for their own territory. The chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Territories, James Ashley, submitted a bill based on the explorer Mullan’s suggestions. Mullan owned property in Walla Walla and wanted that city to be the new capital of Washington. For that to happen, the panhandle would need to stay part of Washington, placing Walla Walla in the center of the Washington Territory.
Olympia was farther west, and that’s where Wallace wanted Washington’s capital to remain because he owned property in Puget Sound. If the border moved toward the west, Olympia wouldn’t seem so isolated.
The Idaho Territory is born
The House of Representatives passed Mullan’s plan, which would have given the panhandle to Washington. But Wallace worked behind the scenes with the Senate, and on the last day of the 37th Congress, there was no time for a conference committee to iron out differences. The House caved to the Senate plan and passed a bill placing the Washington-Idaho border where it is today. Wallace, who was friends with President Abraham Lincoln, was appointed Idaho’s first territorial governor a few days later. Wallace named the far-west town of Lewiston the capital of the new territory.
“The new Idaho Territory was huge, encompassing all of today’s Idaho, Montana and most of Wyoming,” Petersen said.
But the treacherous journey from Montana across the Bitterroot Mountains to Lewiston caused conflicts. In an anecdote related by Idaho Sen. Brent Hill in the Idaho Statesman, one representative from what is now Montana made his way to the Pacific Coast, then took a boat up the Columbia and Snake rivers to reach the Idaho capital, rather than cross the Bitterroots.
Leaders from Montana petitioned for their own territory with a new, easier-to-access capital, and in 1864, they got it. Wallace wanted the borderline to be the Continental Divide. Montana advocated for the Bitterroots. In another smooth political move, the Montana plan was passed by Congress before Idaho legislators could object. That move effectively created the panhandle.
In 1868, Wyoming became its own territory, giving Idaho the final edge of its current border.
How Idaho kept the panhandle
“Virtually every year after the move of the capital, northern Idahoans made efforts to secede and either join Washington, or establish a new territory — sometimes called Lincoln — that would have included eastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana.
They came close. Both the House and Senate passed a bill that would have allowed the panhandle to join Washington, but President Grover Cleveland’s pocket veto stopped it.
“Two years later, the territorial legislature established the University of Idaho in Moscow,” Petersen said. “It was viewed as an ‘olive branch’ to help heal political wounds between north and south.”
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