Idaho History

Boise County was a true melting pot in the 1870s, with people hailing from even the Azores

These Boise County old-timers came from many countries.
These Boise County old-timers came from many countries. Idaho State Historical Society

America is often referred to as a “melting pot” of nationalities and cultures, and no place in Idaho Territory illustrated that better than did Boise County in the 1870 U.S. Census. The biggest gold rush since the California rush of 1849 attracted a diverse array of people to Boise County that is impressive.

Chinese outnumbered all other foreign-born by far, with an estimated population of 4,000.

In February 1867, the Idaho World newspaper printed a letter from Pioneer City that commented, “There are about seventy-five Portuguese in this camp – sober, steady, upright men, with not a pauper or ‘bummer’ among them.” The 1870 U.S. Census reveals that these Portuguese placer miners came to America not from Portugal but from the Azores, a group of nine volcanic islands in the northern Atlantic Ocean. Of the 71 recorded by the Census takers in 1870, 49 were living and working at Pioneer City, 13 were at Grant’s Creek, six at Centerville and three at Placerville.

Descendants of some of these Azoreans live in Idaho today. Between 1921 and 1927, about 250,000 Azoreans emigrated to Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, where many thousands of their decendants still live today. Rudyard Kipling’s classic “Captains Courageous,” from 1897, is the story of earlier Azorean fishermen on the Grand Banks off the coast of New England.

One of the largest groups recorded in the 1870 census was the Germans, yet when asked by the Census takers where they were born, they didn’t say “Germany.” Instead they named the small German state from which they came: Baden, Bavaria, Braunschweig, Hamburg, Hanover, Hesse, Holstein, Mannheim, Prussia, Saxony, Schleswig or Wurttemburg. That same year, 1870, the combined German states, led by Prussia, defeated Napoleon III and the French at the battle of Sedan, and proclaimed a united German state with Otto von Bismarck as its first chancellor.

Other places of origin recorded in Boise County in 1870 were Ireland 283, England 64, France 27, Norway 16, Switzerland 15, Canada 10, Nova Scotia 10, Scotland 8, Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) 6, Mexico 6, New Brunswick 6, Wales 4, Sweden 4, Denmark 3, Austria 3, Belgium 2, Hungary 2, Prince Edward Island 2, and one person each from Bohemia, Finland, Greece, Chile and the Isle of Man.

The most unusual place of birth listed was that of one young man of 19, working for his father as a bank clerk, who gave his place of birth as “Atlantic Ocean.” And a young woman of 23, who lived only a few doors away, gave her place of birth as “Pacific Ocean.” We’d love to know more of their stories. They had to have been at sea on their way to America when their mothers bore them.

The occupation listed most often by far for the men is “miner” or “placer miner,” and for women “keeping house” and “dress maker.” Most other occupations are given as well. To name just a few: baker, barber, bar tender, blacksmith, brewer, butcher, carpenter, Catholic priest, grocer, manufacturer soda water, merchant, M.D. and druggist, mule packer, retail liquors, shoemaker, tailor, teamster, tin smith, toll road keeper and watchmaker.

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