Idaho History

Dinner, dancing, Declaration: Even before statehood, Idaho rang in the Fourth in style

An Idaho City Fourth of July in the 1890s featured Miss Liberty, Uncle Sam, Miss Idaho, and Peace and Plenty.
An Idaho City Fourth of July in the 1890s featured Miss Liberty, Uncle Sam, Miss Idaho, and Peace and Plenty. Idaho State Historical Society

The Fourth of July was celebrated in nearly every mining camp and small town in Idaho Territory, with activities that always included the reading of the 1776 Declaration of Independence:

“When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Boise Basin had experienced the largest gold rush since the California rush of 1849, and Idaho City was briefly the largest town in the Pacific Northwest, surpassing Portland, Oregon. By 1870 when the Idaho World newspaper described Idaho City’s celebration of the grand and glorious July 4 “in due and ancient form,” the population was less than 900, but that did not keep its people from having a rousing good time.

“The city during the day presented rather a deserted appearance, as nearly all the business houses were closed and everybody and everybody’s family repaired to the Springs.” Robert Turner, proprietor of Idaho City’s noted hot springs resort, had spent weeks preparing for July 4 by building a giant arbor of pine and fir boughs “wherein the expected crowd might shield itself from the sun’s rays and the oppressive heat of the day.”

“About 3 o’clock P.M. the meeting was called to order by Hon. Samuel A. Merritt, who, after indulging in a few brief and appropriate remarks, introduced Jonas W. Brown, Esq. Mr. Brown, in a clear and distinct voice, read the Declaration of Independence, and after music by the Idaho Brass Band, Col. Merritt then introduced Frank Miller, Esq. the orator of the day. The address occupied about an hour, and was listened to with marked attention. It was well written and well delivered, and was replete with interesting historical facts which occurred in those times that ‘tried men’s souls.’”

It was too warm for much dancing until evening, so people went for walks in the woods and gathered wildflowers, and “love-sick couples whispered soft nonsense in each other’s ears.”

“The dinner was excellent, and ice cream and refreshments of all kinds were to be had in abundance. The band discoursed patriotic airs at intervals during the day, and early in the evening, when the sun had passed behind the hills, the dancing commenced and was kept up with spirit until the grey dawn of another day, when, wearied of the festivities of the Fourth, they dispersed to their respective homes.”

There had been no unpleasant incidents or accidents, and not one intoxicated individual had been seen all day – certainly unusual on such an occasion in 1870s Idaho.