State Postcards

Idaho History and Government

In 1860, the U.S. Congress was taking steps to establish a new territory in the Rocky Mountains. As the members of Congress discussed possible names for the territory, an eccentric and enthusiastic lobbyist named George M. Willing offered up the name "Idaho," claiming it was a Shoshone word meaning "gem of the mountains." After a bit of scrutiny, it was revealed that Willing had simply made up the word. His suggestion was rejected and the territory in question was named Colorado. However, the word "Idaho" had already taken root in the public conscious. A steamship launched in 1860 on the Columbia River was named Idaho. This ship lent its name to the county that was formed the following year in the Washington Territory. Idaho County became the Idaho Territory and, eventually, the state of Idaho. To this day, many people still labor under the misconception that "Idaho" is derived from the Native American tongue. This legend has come to be known as the "Idahoax."

Idaho is a Rocky Mountain state, known for its rugged landscape of virgin forests, rolling hills, high desert, snow-capped mountains, steep canyons, and raging white water rivers. Although the state spans over 83,000 square miles, its population is less than 1.3 million, most of whom are located in or around the capital city Boise. Mining was once the bread-and-butter of Idaho, and it still plays a major part in the state's economy. In addition to the silver, copper, tungsten, and other important minerals, Idaho boasts a wealth of quality gemstones. The abundance of onyx, sapphires, agate, and rubies have led to Idaho's nickname, the "gem state." Farming has become a prominent industry in Idaho as well. Its vast stretches of farmland provide ample crops of vegetables, beets, wheat, and hay. Idaho also grows nearly one-third of the nation's potatoes, earning it the additional nickname of the "spud state."

Over 10,000 years ago, the Idaho area was inhabited by the Plano, Folsom, and Clovis tribes of Paleo-Indian hunters, eventually giving way to later tribes of Nez Perce, Coeur d'alene, Shoshone, and Bannock. Lewis and Clark were the first white men to explore the area, entering through the Lemhi Pass in 1805. At the time, the territory was a part of the unorganized Oregon Country, and both the U.S. and Great Britain were claiming ownership. This issue was finally resolved in 1846, when the Oregon Treaty established the border between the U.S. and British North America (later Canada).

In the late 1840s, thousands of emigrants began traversing the Oregon Trail through the Idaho wilderness, drawn by the lure of free farmland in the Pacific Northwest. The California Gold Rush of 1849 drew even more travelers along the California Trail. Apart from a few fur traders and missionaries, nobody seemed interested in settling this rugged territory until 1860, when a band of Mormon pioneers accidentally crossed the Utah border and founded Franklin, Idaho's oldest town. That same year, a small group of prospectors led by E. D. Pierce struck gold in the northern part of the territory and founded the town of Pierce. The ensuing gold rushes in the Clearwater country, Salmon River, and Boise Basin brought settlers flocking to the area, and the boomtown settlements flourished.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln officially created the Idaho Territory, which included all of Montana and most of Wyoming as well. The gold rush town of Lewiston, named after explorer Meriwether Lewis, was named the territorial capital that same year. The following year, the Idaho Territorial Legislature voted to relocate the capital south to Boise, a move that proved unpopular with the residents in northern Idaho. According to legend, government officials took the government seal and fled in secret for Boise to avoid the public outrage. (To mollify the angry northern folks, the legislature agreed to locate the University of Idaho in the northern town of Moscow.)

Montana was carved out of the Idaho Territory in 1864, followed by Wyoming in 1868, giving Idaho its permanent borders (and somewhat untraditional shape). Idaho achieved statehood in 1890, under President Benjamin Harrison. While mining remained viable in some parts of Idaho, agriculture gradually took hold as the state's chief industry. Many of the older settlements became ghost towns, while others managed to thrive by reinventing themselves as resort communities. In recent years, Idaho has expanded its commercial base to include science and technology industries.

Stretching down from the Canadian border, Idaho is bordered by the states of Washington, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah. The state is generally divided into six distinct regions: North, Central, East, Southwest, South Central, and Southeast.

North Idaho, also known as the Panhandle, is a narrow strip of land that lies between Montana and Washington. According to a popular (and likely apocryphal) legend, the Idaho border was originally supposed to extend west to the Continental Divide. However, the surveyors responsible for mapping out the Montana Territory in 1864 mistakenly set the border at the Bitteroot (Rocky) Mountains. North Idaho is a lush, green land of fern-lined creeks and azure lakes, with forests of red cedar and white pine growing on the surrounding mountainsides. Lake Pend Oreille is one of the largest natural lakes in the world, while Lake Coeur d'Alene is home to the scenic resort village that shares its name. This region is also home to the Panhandle National Forests, as well as Silverwood, the largest theme park in the northwestern U.S.

Central Idaho is dominated by the Salmon-Challis, Boise, and Sawtooth National Forests, and is home to Idaho's highest mountain, Borah Peak. The Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve lies at the southeastern tip of this region and features a strange, almost alien landscape of volcanic cones, tubes, and lakes. The Ernest Hemingway Memorial lies just outside Sun Valley Ski Resort, near the small city of Ketchum where Hemingway spent his final years. Numerous ghost towns, remnants of Idaho's mining history, can be found scattered about the Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.

Also known as the Yellowstone-Teton region, East Idaho is adjacent to both Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. The Teton Valley, once known as Pierre's Hole, was where the fur trappers and mountain men once came together during the 1700s for their annual rendezvous. The South Fork of the Snake River cuts through this region, making it a popular destination for fly-fishing enthusiasts. Prominent cities in this region include Idaho Falls, Pocatello, and Rexburg.

Southwest Idaho has a strikingly diverse geography, from the massive dunes of powdered lava at Bruneau Dunes State Park to the deep river gorge of Hells Canyon to the massive pine forests of Ponderosa State Park. Treasure Valley, once a gathering place for six different Native American tribes, is now home to numerous wineries and vineyards. The powerful Boise, Payette, and Snake Rivers run through Southwest Idaho, offering ample opportunity for fishing, rafting, or just bird watching. The capital city (and population center) Boise lies in the center of this region.

Back around the turn of the 20th century, much of South Central Idaho consisted of high desert that was too dry for farming. With the construction of Milner Dam and an elaborate series of irrigation canals on the Snake River, this arid countryside was converted into some of the most productive farmland in the U.S. The miraculous transformation has earned this region its nickname "Magic Valley." The ubiquitous Snake River flows through this region as well, cutting through Snake River Canyon (which is probably best known for Evel Knievel's failed attempt to jump it in 1974). The city of Twin Falls lies on the southern edge of the canyon, next to the Perrine Bridge. Approximately five miles to the east of Twin Falls, the Snake River plunges dramatically into the 210-foot Shoshone Falls, which are known as the "Niagara of the West."

Southeast Idaho, originally settled by the Church of Latter Day Saints, is where most of the state's potato crop is grown. The city of Blackfoot, in Bingham County, is home to the Idaho Potato Museum, where visitors can view the first potato planted in the state or the world's largest potato chip. The museum is particularly popular with out-of-state visitors, as they receive a box of hash browns with admission. Bear Lake, on the Idaho/Utah border, has water so turquoise-blue that it has been dubbed the "Caribbean of the Rockies." For history buffs, the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier offers visitors an opportunity to follow in the steps of the pioneers and prospectors who first passed through Idaho.

Map of Idaho
Idaho Map
Idaho Facts
Abbreviation: ID
Capital: Boise
Nickname: Gem State
Population: 1,293,953
Time Zone: PST/MST
State Motto: Esto perpetua ("Let it be perpetual")
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