Monday, September 9, 2013

Army Tries to Over-Awe Indians, Potential for Irrigated Agriculture Overlooked

On September 9, 1863, a correspondent sent off a long letter from “Camas Prairie, I. T.” that was later published in The Oregonian and in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. He wrote, “We left Fort Hall on our homeward trip, on the 27th of August, and arrived here on the 5th of September, all well.”

In this case, the “Camas Prairie” referred to lay west of today’s Bellevue, Idaho, not the one southeast of Lewiston. The letter went on, “The cavalry, under Col. Maury, will leave here on the 11th, for Salmon Falls and the Owyhee, en route for Fort Walla Walla. The infantry, under Maj. Rinearson, will go to Fort Boise and meet us at the Owyhee or on the Malheur.”

Colonel Reuben F. Maury, a West Point graduate, had served in the Mexican War and then retired to Oregon in 1852, when he was 28 years old. In 1861, he was appointed to lead the 1st Oregon Cavalry, a unit of Volunteers tasked with protecting miners and emigrants on the Oregon Trail.

The writer went on, “Our trip, so far as regards chastising the Snakes, has been fruitless. … Our detour via Salmon Falls may result in something advantageous, but the prospects are not flattering. I do not know what Col. Maury’s intentions are, but I think he will demand the Indians who have been robbing and committing murders heretofore, and force those Indians who are stationed at the Falls to give them up.”

Since the Shoshones depended upon fishing at Salmon Falls as a major food source, the Army could have kept them away from the area only by stationing a unit nearby.

The letter next offered  a rather short-sighted judgement: “The country on Boise river is poorly adapted to agricultural pursuits, and in my opinion, when the best lands are cultivated, will not produce enough for the supply of the mining population likely to winter in the valley.”

The writer failed to recognize the potential for irrigated agriculture in the Boise Valley. About a year later, a new newspaper in Boise City, the Idaho Statesman, would advertise a property, “Two and a half miles west of town, containing 160 acres. Has plenty of timber and is mostly covered by a good ditch for irrigation.”
Feeder Irrigation Ditch
Within a couple years, most of the land along the river would be under cultivation, and prices for food in the mining camps began to moderate.

References: [B&W]
Daniel S. Lamont (Director), The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Government Printing Office, Washington, D. C. (1897).
“Later from the North,” Evening Bulletin, San Francisco, California (October 12, 1863).
“Ranch for Sale,” Idaho Statesman, Boise (September 15, 1864).

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