Idaho History

Pioneer Society’s inactivity drew fire and prompted a rebirth to record Idaho’s history

“Gov. William. J. McConnell. His prose, like his rhetoric, was fiery.”
“Gov. William. J. McConnell. His prose, like his rhetoric, was fiery.”

The Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers, founded in 1881, had not met for five years when it was reactivated in February 1886. A dozen notable pioneers who had not become members before were now admitted: John Lemp, Jonas W. Brown, John M. Cannaday, Isaac N. Coston, George Redway, G.T. Keys, Thomas E Logan, Charles Himrod, Thomas Davis, Thomas S. Hart, George Ainslie and James A. Pinney. Lemp, Logan, Himrod and Pinney had all served as mayor of Boise City, and Ainslie had served two terms in Congress.

In March 1886 the society rented the ground floor of the Masonic Hall for an office and meeting place. On June 19, 1886, the Idaho Statesman reported: “The Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers, at their last meeting on Tuesday last, changed their constitution by a unanimous vote, so that persons leaving their homes in good faith to settle in Idaho prior to July 1, 1865, may be admitted as members.”

In February 1887: “The material for the pioneer history of Idaho has been gathered with great care by Mr. Charles Stevenson, but is not yet written out for the publishers. The Society has not funds enough in hand to print, and the small appropriation asked in the general assembly was lost in the house. Mr. Stevenson will preserve his notes and memoranda till further action by the Pioneer Society.”

No mention was made of a history of Idaho that had been published in 1884: Wallace W. Elliott’s “History of Idaho Territory Showing its Resources and Advantages, With Illustrations Descriptive of its Scenery, Residences, Farms, Mines & Mills.” Today this big book is treasured more for its large-scale lithographic illustrations than for its history.

In April 1889, the Statesman shared a dream with its readers, “If we could pay for it in some way, it would be a good thing to ship the specimens now in the basement of the Capitol building and have them on exhibition at Paris the coming summer.” The Paris World’s Fair of 1889 featured the Eiffel Tower, but nothing from Idaho.

In November 1893, Franklin B. Gault, president of the University of Idaho, wrote to the Idaho Statesman: “Your editorial in the issue of Nov. 4 is opportune. I have often thought of the organization of a state historical society as highly important, but being a new-comer I hesitated to make the suggestion. Your editorial covers the ground so admirably that the necessity for such an organization need not be discussed further. I write this note to assure you that the university is in hearty sympathy with the proposed society and will do all within its power to further the interests of the same. The librarian of the university will cheerfully assume the custody of books, relics, papers, etc., furnishing room and the best of care at no expense to the society. Why not organize at once?”

In December 1894, the Idaho Statesman again advocated the creation of an Idaho State Historical Society as a state agency, and in February 1895, Gov. William J. McConnell, himself an Idaho pioneer (and one-time vigilante), asked the Legislature to establish a State Historical Society. He noted that the Pioneer Society had not met for seven years and that the state had paid C.C. Stevenson $400 and W.A. Goulder $525 to write a history of Idaho. If they had, he couldn’t find it. He thought Idaho’s history would “read like a romance” if done right. (McConnell published his own “Early History of Idaho” in 1913.)

The first meeting of the Pioneer Society since 1887 was held in February 1895. President Stevenson said he had about 200 pounds of manuscript history ready to be published. That month Gov. McConnell, in his inimitable fashion, blasted the pioneers for their inactivity. This apparently stirred them enough that they reorganized in March 1896 and rented space for a “permanent headquarters” in Boise’s new castle-like City Hall. W.A. Goulder was in charge of the Pioneer Room, and the Statesman thought, “This will make a convenient place for old timers to gather and talk over their experiences when the country was newer than now.”