Idaho History

Forming Idaho’s 44 counties took more than half a century

James Blaine was one person for whom an Idaho county was named.
James Blaine was one person for whom an Idaho county was named. Provided by Arthur Hart

After the Idaho Territory was created in 1863, 13 new counties were formed, and after Idaho became a state in 1890, the process continued. In 1892, the Legislature authorized a local election to see whether those affected were in favor of dividing Ada County to create a new county in the west. The desire to be as self-governing as possible would lead prominent citizens in larger Idaho towns to lobby the Legislature to allow such a vote to create a new county, with their town as county seat. Probably no new county was born with as much excitement and celebration as was Canyon County in 1892.

“The county division vote has been received from all precincts except two and show a majority of 150 in favor of division,” reported the Idaho Statesman on Nov. 9, 1892. “Caldwell is in a feverish state of excitement. Bands are out, bonfires burning and cannons booming. Such excitement and joy is seldom witnessed. When it became known division had carried, the crowds gathered around Messrs. Gwinn, Steunenberg, Coffin and Reed and carried them through the streets under the wildest excitement. As these gentlemen spared neither time nor energy in working for division, too much credit cannot be given them. No one sleeps in Caldwell tonight and it is stated that the joy is profound when it is stated that the county division carried purely on its merits.”

(Frank Steunenberg, mentioned above, was editor and publisher of the Caldwell Tribune and would be elected governor of Idaho in 1896. He was assassinated on Dec. 30, 1905, by the explosion of a bomb placed on his front gate by Harry Orchard. The trial of Western Federation of Miners officials Haywood, Moyer and Pettibone, accused of hiring Orchard to kill Steunenberg, attracted national attention, as William E. Borah for the prosecution and Clarence Darrow for the defense squared off in what came to be known as the “Trial of the Century.”)

On the day after that 1892 election, the paper reported: “County Division Celebrated: ‘Good bye, Old Ada, Good bye, We Saw the Boat come ’round the Bend, Good bye Old Ada Good bye, All loaded down with Canyon men, Good Bye Old Ada Good Bye.’ ” Another front page story from Caldwell noted that “a large delegation from Payette is here tonight wild with joy over the success of county division, and are celebrating with the Caldwell people… Excitement for the past 24 hours has not decreased.” (Payette would not have a county of its own until 1917, when it split from Canyon.)

Bannock and Fremont counties were formed in 1893, the first named for the Native American tribe that lived in the area and the second for John C. Fremont. Few men of his generation were as well-known as Fremont, dubbed “The Pathfinder” because he had led four expeditions that explored the country west of the Continental Divide. As a major in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War, he took over California and proclaimed himself military governor. In 1850 he was elected to Congress as one of the first two senators from the new state of California, and in 1856 he was the young Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, losing to Democrat James Buchanan.

Blaine County, with its county seat at Hailey, was formed in March 1895 out of part of a giant Alturas County, which was divided to form several new counties. Blaine County was named for Republican James G. Blaine, who had died only two years before. He had served in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate representing Maine. As secretary of state under three U.S. presidents, Blaine had opposed isolationism and favored policies that would lead to the creation of an American colonial system after the Spanish-American War of 1898. He sought the Republican nomination for president in 1876 and 1880 before being nominated in 1884, but he lost that election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

Lincoln County, with Shoshone as its county seat, was created by the Legislature on March 18, 1895, partly from Blaine County. There are 23 Lincoln counties in the United States, most of them named for Abraham Lincoln, who was, of course, president when the Idaho Territory was established.

The 20th century saw 22 new Idaho counties created, half of the present 44, all by dividing older ones. We’ll continue the story next week.

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