Idaho History

Idaho’s pioneers founded a historical society in 1881 but rarely held a meeting

Judge Milton Kelly, who would also become editor of the Idaho Statesman, was one of five prominent Idahoans tasked with creating a constitution and bylaws for an “Idaho Pioneer Association.”
Judge Milton Kelly, who would also become editor of the Idaho Statesman, was one of five prominent Idahoans tasked with creating a constitution and bylaws for an “Idaho Pioneer Association.” Idaho Statesman file

Idaho has a fascinating history and an outstanding State Historical Society dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting our history, but creating a professional society was a struggle that took many years.

It started in January 1881, when an Idaho Pioneer Association was created to collect material for a history of the Territory. On Feb. 7, 1881, a committee of five was formed to draw up a constitution and bylaws. Those asked to perform the task were Judge Milton Kelley, Cyrus Jacobs, James H. Hawley, Judge H.E. Prickett and Col. E.A. Stevenson. At first only 43 pioneers who had been in Idaho before July 4, 1864, were deemed eligible for membership. At a second meeting, held Feb. 9, 1881, the founders, who had paid a $5 initiation fee, asked the legislative assembly for financial support and were voted an annual appropriation of $250.

Banker C .W. Moore was elected first president of the newly incorporated Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers on Feb. 10, 1881, and the Idaho Statesman published a list of the charter members. It included J.W. Poe, of Lewiston; E.A. Stevenson, of Idaho City; and J.W. Garret, of Bellevue. All the rest were residents of Boise City.

The Statesman lamented on Jan. 30, 1883, that what had begun with such enthusiasm two years earlier had now lapsed into “a state of apathy,” since the society had not met in nearly two years.

In February 1884, two of the pioneers responded by hosting a pioneer reunion of their own. The Statesman wrote, “Mr. James H. Hart, more familiarly known as ‘Jimmy,’ of clam chowder fame, and Colonel Orlando Robbins, whom the irreverent sometimes call ‘Rube,’ gave a glorious entertainment last evening in Turn Verein Hall, to which their old-time friends were made welcome. Jimmy and Rube represent different party organizations, but this occasion was strictly non-partisan and non-sectarian. There was a goodly number of pioneers present, who did ample justice to the good things provided and all had a way up good time.” (Democrat Hart was a saloon keeper and Republican Robbins was a lawman who had been a scout for the Army in the Indian wars of the 1870s.)

By November 1884, there had still been no meeting of the Pioneer Society since its founding. The Statesman said that it had seemed to have “quietly passed from view” and that it was time to reactivate the organization. Nearly a year later, in September 1885, there still had been no meeting, and the Statesman continued to point out that as more and more of the old-timers passed away, history was being lost. At last, in March 1886, the society rented the ground floor of Boise’s Masonic Hall for an office and meeting place. At a June meeting that year the society redefined “pioneer” by voting unanimously that “persons leaving their homes in good faith to settle in Idaho prior to July 1, 1865, may be admitted as members.” Women were not eligible, no matter when they arrived.

The Statesman expressed concern that Idaho’s history was not being collected fast enough. “Every year’s delay makes the task greater and more uncertain. The object of the Pioneer Historical Society was to collect their statistics and write them up as a history of the Territory. This matter devolves upon the people of Boise City more than any other place. We cannot expect, nor can we ask to shirk this duty. It is to our shame if we neglect it any longer.”

In February 1886, a dozen notable pioneers who had not joined the society earlier were admitted: John Lemp, Jonas W. Brown, John M. Canaday, I.N. Coston, George Redway, G.T. Keys, Thomas E. Logan, Charles Himrod, Thomas Davis, Thomas S. Hart, George Ainslie and James A. Pinney.

In February 1895, Gov. William J. McConnell complained to the Statesman that the Pioneer Society had not met since Sept. 19, 1887. Society President E.A. Stevenson responded that the work of collecting Idaho history had continued throughout those years, however, and that he had about 200 pounds of manuscript material ready to be published, but not the money to proceed with the project.

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