Idaho History

Journalist wrote with accuracy about Idaho in 1865

When we think of noted newspaper and magazine reporters who risked their lives to get a story, we might think first of Ernie Pyle, who covered the U.S. invasions of Pacific islands in World War II until he was killed in battle, or of Richard Harding Davis, who also made his name as a war correspondent. Pyle was a quiet and unassuming man. Davis was handsome, dashing and a prolific writer who covered the Spanish-American War and World War I. His biographer calls him "the most widely read reporter of his day."

Albert D. Richardson was chief war correspondent for the New York Tribune in the Civil War. He was captured by Confederate soldiers while trying to infiltrate their lines in May 1863, and spent a year and a half in a prison camp. In December, he and another correspondent escaped and a month later managed to find their way back to the Union lines. During his imprisonment his wife and infant daughter had died in Massachusetts, his native state.

In 1865, his book on his war experiences was published as "The Secret Service, the Field, the Dungeon and the Escape."

When Richardson came West and visited Idaho Territory in 1865 he was no stranger to Western life. He had traveled with Horace Greeley and Henry Villard in 1859 to Pike's Peak to report on the mining excitement then in its heyday, and had also visited the little-known Southwest.

The Richardson book of greatest interest to lovers of Idaho history was published in 1866.

"Beyond the Mississippi" is a masterfully written report of Richardson's travels over thousands of rugged Western miles by stagecoach and on horseback.

We appreciate his fine eye for detail, his ability to grasp and describe the technology of mining in the regions he visited, and for his graceful prose. There was much to report on the West that was little-known to Eastern readers, and Richardson reported it better than most. His comments are spiced with wit and humor, but his reporting on everything he saw is accurate.

"Boise, capital, commercial metropolis, and geographical center of Idaho, is a trading not a mining town, with about two thousand inhabitants. It is in the smooth valley of the Boise River — a valley fifty miles long by five or six in width, and with some agricultural capacity.

"The broad, level, treeless avenues, with their low, white, verandahed warehouses, log cabins, neat cottages and ever-shifting panorama of wagons and coaches, Indians, miners, farmers and speculators remind one of a prairie town in Kansas or Iowa. It is overlooked by Fort Boise, which has a noble parade-ground, surrounded by tasteful buildings of sandstone; and is a singularly beautiful frontier post."

Did Boise have 2,000 people in 1865? It is possible, although a territorial census of September 10, 1864, found 1,658. Since he couldn't take his own census, Richardson had to accept the figure given him by local officials, an estimate almost surely inflated at least a little. Every small town hoped to grow in population and wealth as soon as it could. As to the writer's statement that Boise was in "the geographical center of Idaho," we have to make allowance for the fact that the map-makers of the day had only the vaguest notion of Idaho geography, and no official survey would be begun until 1869. In fact, the map of the Western states in "Beyond the Mississippi" places Boise on Snake River at the mouth of Boise River. Since the 1834 fur trade Fort Boise was there, the map-maker may have confused fur trade and army forts — something people still do. The only other towns shown on this beautifully engraved but woefully inaccurate map are Lewiston, Idaho City, Rocky Bar, and the Owyhee mining camps of Ruby City and Silver City. Why? Because there weren't any worth mentioning when the book was published in 1867, save for a few mining camps that had lost population and fame to other gold discoveries.

"At the time of my visit," Richardson reported, "Idaho society was not attractive. Murders were frequent; for with a majority of industrious, law-abiding settlers, the Territory had also many late rebel soldiers and Missouri runaways; and the worst desperadoes from California, Nevada, Oregon, and Montana. The legislature contained just one Union member; and during the war there was more disloyalty than in any northern community except Utah."

Next week we'll share more of Richardson's descriptions and comments on Idaho in 1865, and tell how this adventurous journalist met his end.