Idaho History

Deer hunters in early Idaho killed as many as they pleased

Idaho’s pioneers regarded wildlife as a bountiful natural resource that would always be there for the taking. The notion that some game animals could become scarce and needed to be managed only gradually caught on with the public.

Early newspapers reported regularly on the successes of hunters. Idaho City’s Idaho World noted on Nov. 26, 1864, “Large Deer.—A black-tailed deer, weighing 195 pounds, was killed by Mr. Luckett, a few days ago on the creek about 10 miles from the town … Mr. Frampton has several men constantly employed on the hills in search of game, but very seldom secures anything of that size.” Deer were so plentiful that professional hunters kept the butcher shops in mining towns like Idaho City well supplied with venison. At first there were no hunting seasons nor any limit on how many deer you could shoot.

The Idaho Statesman often mentioned deer that came down from the mountains into Boise Valley in winter. In January 1874, “Four fine deer were seen a little north of Cy Jacobs’ grist mill,” and in February 1875, “A deer came out of the hills into Mr. Walling’s yard and fed with his cattle day before yesterday.” That month the Statesman reported this bit of news, surely shocking to today’s readers: “Deer. Mr. E.J. Smith of Boise Valley has the thanks of this office for a nice fat deer. Mr. Smith killed, on last Friday, near Perry Munday’s ferry on Snake River, 21 of these beauties of the mountains.”

In January 1876, “Al Marston and Jim Dunn returned on Thursday from a hunting trip near the mouth of the Weiser River. They killed 14 deer but brought back only saddles” (“saddles” are slabs of choice meat cut from the backs of the animals). The wasteful slaughter of deer continued for several years with no regulations or limits. Not until 1899 did the Idaho Legislature establish the Fish and Game Department with a state game warden in charge. The department budget was $1,500, of which $1,200 was for salaries. Deputy wardens in each county were paid one half of each fine for an offense for which they could get a conviction. Ada, Custer and Shoshone counties couldn’t get anybody to take the job with these conditions.

In January 1880, a Mr. Wilhoit killed a deer “as white as snow” along Boise River. “He will preserve the hide and head and Captain Bledsoe will stuff it and set it up.”

In November 1889, there were still no game laws: “Mr. Abercrombie brought into town yesterday a wagon load of large fat deer which he killed in the hills near the Boise River, a few miles above the city. Five of these fine game animals were killed at one standing and all within a few minutes. They are of the black tail variety, the flesh of which is generally tender and succulent.” Cy Jacobs, Boise’s notable distiller of a whiskey known as “Jacobs’ Best,” bought and shipped 150 deer skins of animals killed not far from Boise. In December 1890, a wagonload of freshly killed deer was brought into Boise and offered to the public for 7 cents pound. A year later, a man who had killed 22 deer in one month brought six of them to town and sold them for from 4 cents to 5 cents per pound.

By 1909, when this anecdote appeared in a 1909 Idaho newspaper, there were limits on the number of deer you could kill. “Game Warden: ‘How is the hunting around here?’ ‘Fine, said the hunter. I killed a fine buck, two does and a fawn yesterday. I want to get three or four more before I quit.’ Game Warden: ‘Do you know who you are talking to?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, young man, you are talking to a game warden of the state of Idaho. ‘Say, said the hunter, do you know who you are talking to?’ ‘No, I do not.’ ‘Well, my friend, you are talking to the biggest liar in the state of Idaho.”

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email