Idaho History

Welsh have a long history in Idaho

In the 1916 election for governor of Idaho, both candidates were foreign-born. Democratic Gov. Moses Alexander, a clothier and former mayor of Boise, was born in Germany. He narrowly defeated banker D.W. Davis, a Republican from American Falls who was a native of Wales.

In 1918 Davis won the governorship by a vote of 57,626 to 38,499 over Democrat H.F. Samuels, a wealthy businessman from Wallace who had made his money through investment in the mines of that area. Davis was re-elected in 1920, by a wide margin over two opponents in a three-way race.

David William Davis, the 12th governor of the state of Idaho, was born in Cardiff, Wales, on April 23, 1873. His family came to America in 1875 and settled near Rippey, Iowa, in a coal mining region northwest of Des Moines. Young David went to work in the mines at only 12 years of age, at a time when child labor laws were not strictly enforced. His next job was clerking in a company store, where he showed marked talent for retailing and serving customers. He then worked as manager of a Farmer’s Cooperative Association, and as a teller in a bank. Although he had little formal education, Davis worked hard to educate himself in preparation for a career in banking.

During the Spanish American War, Davis served in the Navy in the Philippines, attaining the rank of petty officer, first class. Chronic lung problems, incurred during his time as a child working in a coal mine, forced him to take a year off from banking to recover his health.

After his first wife died in 1903, Davis married the daughter of a local banker whose bank had merged with the one where he worked. In 1906 the couple moved to American Falls, where Davis helped organize the First National Bank of American Falls and became increasingly involved in the Republican Party. In 1912 he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention and in 1913 was elected to the Idaho Senate. Five years later he was governor of Idaho.

The Welsh have a long and interesting history in Idaho. Three years before Davis was born, the U.S. census of 1870 recorded these people born in Wales living in Ada County: Barrett Williams, 67, farmer; his wife, Elizabeth, 57; and five children, the oldest born in Ohio, the others born in Wisconsin. Joel Jones, 36, was a boot maker, and James Hopkins, 29, was a stone mason. In Idaho County, R. Roberts, 35, J. Wilson, 35, and Philip Evans, 60, were miners. Jane Haskell, 32, was a dress maker. Owyhee County had seven Welsh-born miners and one man working in a sawmill.

By far the largest number of Welsh-born people living in Idaho at the end of the 19th century were Mormon converts who had moved west with Brigham Young in the great migration to Utah in 1847 and were then sent north as colonists to form new agricultural communities in southeastern Idaho. Today it is estimated that about 20 percent of the population of Utah is of Welsh descent, and that may be true for southeast Idaho as well.

Arnold Williams of Rexburg, born in Fillmore, Utah, of Welsh descent, was the first Mormon governor of Idaho, in office from 1945 until 1947. He had served in the Idaho Legislature, starting in 1936, and was briefly lieutenant governor before taking office as governor. He was secretary of state from 1959 until 1966.

Also of Welsh descent were Gov. John V. Evans and longtime state Auditor Joe R. Williams. Williams once told me about growing up in the small Welsh Mormon town of Samaria: “Arthur, I’ve not only been in every house in Samaria, I’m related to the people in every house in Samaria.” The tiny town, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is near Malad City, founded as a Welsh Mormon settlement in 1864. It celebrates its proud heritage each June with the Malad Valley Welsh Festival.

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