Idaho History

University of Idaho dig looks for traces of Boise’s military past

Digging for historic treasure at old Fort Boise

University of Idaho archaeologists lead annual urban digs in Boise. This summer, the focus is the grounds of old Fort Boise. The site will become a parking lot in the near future. Historians want to make sure any remnants of the state's military h
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University of Idaho archaeologists lead annual urban digs in Boise. This summer, the focus is the grounds of old Fort Boise. The site will become a parking lot in the near future. Historians want to make sure any remnants of the state's military h

It’s become a tradition, University of Idaho archaeology students and professors spending weeks of their summer leading urban digs in Boise’s oldest neighborhoods.

They’re working this year on a grassy slope at old Fort Boise, now the grounds of the Boise VA Medical Center on Fort Street. The excavation is taking place at the site where troops and their horses gathered beginning in 1863.

Nathan Allison, a U of I doctoral student on the dig, said the project might turn up any number of items, including buttons lost from uniforms (which could help historians identify military units at the fort), bullets, shell casings, even horse tack. Metal detectors got 820 “hits” in the area of the dig, said Allison.

The three-week excavation began July 18 and will continue through Aug. 5.

The site is destined to become a parking garage. Parking is at a premium at the complex, which includes the Idaho State Veterans Home and a number of historic buildings, all still in use. Because the site is historic, law requires the Boise VA Medical Center to do an archaeological survey to make sure no significant historic materials will be lost when the parking garage is built. Depending on bids, construction could begin in 2017, said Josh Callihan, VA Medical Center spokesman.

“We are very proud of our connection to Idaho’s military history here on this campus. It is always exciting to see what will be unearthed during one of these digs and what those items will tell us about the people who lived and worked right here where we do,” said Callihan. “The veterans who use the Boise VA campus also very much enjoy learning about and being a part of Idaho’s military history.”

The partnership also benefits the public, Allison said. The site is open to visitors. The team welcomes volunteers who will get hands-on experience sifting soil and learning how archaeologists handle and catalog artifacts. Five U of I students from the anthropology department, including undergraduate and graduate students, are participating in the dig.

The Fort Boise excavation will be the fourth that Warner and University of Idaho students have conducted in the Boise area during the last five years. Previous locations included the River Street neighborhood and the Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga house in Boise’s Basque block.

Artifacts from all the digs go to U of I for indexing. Some go into storage and some become parts of historic displays, such as those at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center and those planned for Building 4.

The current dig is the second partnership between U of I and the VA. The first, in 2014, excavated the area around the fort’s former surgeon’s quarters, also known as Building 4. That dig uncovered part of an original foundation that helped a Preservation Idaho restoration crew rebuild the building’s porch to its original proportions. It also turned up “a bunch of little things you would expect to find, that would fall through the cracks of a porch,” said Mark Warner, the professor who has overseen all the Boise digs.

That stuff included needles, remnants of toys, marbles and bullets.

Restoration of Building 4 is still underway, said Callihan. He expects it to be complete sometime in early 2017. Plans include historical displays featuring artifacts and information about the building’s uses.

The U.S. Army stationed troops at Fort Boise from 1863 to 1912. After that the fort became a cavalry training ground. In the years after World War I, the fort became a rehabilitation hospital and tuberculosis ward. President Franklin D. Roosevelt transferred the site to the then-Veterans Administration in 1938.

U of I led a dig last summer at the 109-year-old Hayman house in the River Street neighborhood, Boise’s historic black neighborhood. Crews of students and volunteers uncovered fragments from domestic life in old Boise, including shoe leather, a cherry pitter and the remains of what might be the oldest Basque racquet court in Boise.

“The little things that can sometimes add up to a more substantive story about people’s lives,” said Warner.

Visit the site

Located on the lawn south of Officer’s Row, the dig site is open to the public Tuesday-Saturday through Aug. 5 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Parking is limited so visitors should come on foot, ride bikes or park outside the compound, leaving spaces for veteran medical patients who are at the VA for care.

If you’d like to volunteer, contact Mark Warner at 208-885-5954, 208-892-4501 or