Idaho History

Tracking how the historical society became a state agency in Idaho

The porch of the old Overland in Boise was stressed to the limit when this photo was taken more than 100 years ago.
The porch of the old Overland in Boise was stressed to the limit when this photo was taken more than 100 years ago.

When a group of 30 Idaho pioneers gathered to have their photograph taken on Oct. 16, 1897, the Idaho Statesman published their names with the date of their arrival in Idaho Territory. Some, who had crossed the plains by ox-cart in the 1850s and ’60s, had settled in Oregon before being drawn back to Idaho by the gold rush to Boise Basin, and the market this presented for farmers and businesses of all kinds.

The dedication of a history of Owyhee County, published in Silver City in 1898, read: “To those Pioneers who pinned their faith to the ultimate prosperity of Owyhee County, and expended their ‘bottom dollar’ to achieve that result.”

In Boise City in September 1899, the Statesman asked “all pioneers, both men and women” to gather in front of city hall to have their picture taken. This was one of several such photographs, culminating in the one shown here today and taken on June 29, 1904, in front of the old Overland Hotel at 8th and Main. It is by far the largest group of Idaho pioneers ever photographed. There are 246 men and women in the picture, mounted on cardboard, with the name and date of arrival in Idaho of each person listed on the back.

Following yet another Statesman editorial urging the reactivation of the Pioneer Historical Society in September 1904, John Hailey, James A. Pinney, Joseph Perrault and others met at Boise’s Chamber of Commerce to revive the group. They had not had a meeting for six years. In November 1905, the pioneers were given a room in the city’s newly opened Carnegie Library, a building that still stands near Boise High School.

In a history of Idaho, commissioned by the Legislature, pioneer stage line operator John Hailey described how The Historical Society of the State of Idaho became a state agency. “This Society was created by act of the Ninth Session of the legislature of the State of Idaho, approved March 12, 1907. The act provided for the taking over of the property holdings of the Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers, a corporation organized first on February 10, 1881, when articles of incorporation were filed in the office of the Secretary of the Territory. In 1896 they re-incorporated and filed Articles of Re-incorporation with the Secretary of State on March 3rd.

The act of March 12, 1907, provided, among other things, that the governor should appoint three trustees who should have control of the property taken over from the old Pioneer Society, to manage and conserve the same for the use and benefit of the State. The act also provided that the trustees should appoint a Librarian. They chose John Hailey, and the title was later changed to ‘director,’ whose responsibility was “to care for and keep this property on exhibition for the benefit of the people. Other duties of the Librarian are set forth in the act as follows:

To collect books, maps, charts and other papers and materials illustrative of the history of the state in particular and generally of the northwest.

To procure from pioneers narratives of their exploits, perils and adventures.

To procure facts and statements relative to the history, progress and decay of the Indian tribes within the state.

To collect and preserve fossils, specimens of ores and mineral objects, curiosities connected with the history or other material as will tend to facilitate historical, scientific and antiquarian research.”

The language used sounds quaint today, with a romantic view of history and what should be collected to illustrate it. For many years the society accepted anything people offered, including tons of material that had little or nothing to do with Idaho history. When I became director of the Idaho State Museum in 1969, the challenge was to tell Idaho’s story with new exhibits that included music, lighting and the spoken word. A stuffed ostrich had to go, but a stuffed two-headed calf was so popular with schoolchildren that we had to keep it on display with a reasonable explanation of how the display of such curiosities had a long history in Idaho.

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