Idaho History

Oral history valuable, if sometimes fuzzy

Last week, we quoted from the memories of a pioneer woman who arrived in Boise on September 20, 1864, after crossing the plains in a train of covered wagons. What she remembered in 1930 can be considered oral history, even though she told it to a Statesman reporter rather than talking into a tape recorder as we would today.

How do "Grandma Fulton's" memories of Boise, 66 years after that visit, compare with written records from the time?

"Some buildings were log cabins; some, tents; some, dugouts; perhaps one or two frame buildings were up." Mrs. Fulton remembered one hotel and one "very pretentious saloon and dance hall."

An official territorial census of Boise had been taken just 10 days before Mrs. Fulton arrived. It credited the town with 1,658 people, and a directory compiled that fall listed the young frontier town's businesses and occupations.

The picture presented by this directory is very different from what Mrs. Fulton recalled after all those years.

There was evidence that the little town on the Oregon Trail was a lot more advanced than she remembered, and that construction was booming: there were 26 carpenters, seven stonemasons, four bricklayers, and four painters. There were 12 grocery stores and meat markets, 10 saloon-keepers, six brewers, and nine hotel keepers. Twenty men listed their occupation as "merchant."

There was only one dentist in town, but there were seven physicians and surgeons and seven lawyers.

Since it was an animal-powered world, there were 18 blacksmiths who shoed horses and repaired wagons and stagecoaches. There were six livery stables and four hay yards.

The Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman began publication on July 26, 1864, less than a month before Mrs. Fulton arrived. The directory cited above lists James S. Reynolds as publisher, two of his brothers who worked with him at the paper at the time, and two printers.

Memory may not be totally accurately reliable, but there is value to oral history. Memoirs like Mrs. Fulton's add color, humor, and a human dimension that adds richness to the bare facts and statistics of historical record.

For example, this is Mrs. Fulton's story of how she met her husband on the same Oregon Trail adventure in 1864 that formed her impressions of Boise:

"I was driving slowly along when I heard the sound of horse's hoofs close by. Looking out I saw a man riding up and making signs as if he wanted to speak. I stopped and he handed me something in a sack. 'Here is a melon,' he said."

When she told him she had no money to pay for the melon, the man told her to keep it, but he wanted his flour sack back. She was embarrassed that she had kept the sack, not thinking it had any value, but the event introduced her to the man she would marry.

"The man was riding this little pinto pony, and I noticed the pony more than I did the rider. Later, when he twitted me about the sack episode, I explained that I didn't think he looked so bad, but I admired the pony more."