Friday, May 26, 2017

Idaho Territory Reduced in Size to Create Montana [otd 05/26]

On May 26, 1864, the U. S. Congress passed legislation that reduced the previously-massive Idaho Territory by creating Montana Territory and splitting off most of future Wyoming. President Lincoln signed the bill two days later. By this action, they solved one of the major problems with the original structure of Idaho Territory.
Original Idaho Territory.
Adapted from J. H. Hawley with future borders tinted in color.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in 1863 [blog, Mar 4], it encompassed today’s Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It was, in fact, larger than Texas and Illinois combined. Put another way, the direct distance from Fort Laramie, in the southeast corner of the Territory, to the Territorial capital in Lewiston was almost as much as that from St. Louis, Missouri to Washington, D. C.

Aside from the sheer size, geographical reality made the Territory practically ungovernable. The Continental Divide separated two-thirds of all that area from the capital. Most of it was, of course, largely empty of whites. They were concentrated in the rich gold finds around Bannack and Virginia City. Still, over a third of the Territory’s population lived east of the Divide.

The first Idaho Territorial legislature convened on December 7, 1863. The handful of elected officials from east of the Divide had no particular trouble getting to Lewiston. However, when the legislature adjourned in February 1864, deep snow totally blocked the massive ranges to the east and south of the capital.

East-side officials first rode a stagecoach west to Wallula, where they could board a Columbia River steamboat. (Due to ice and low water, the first Snake River steamer would not reach Lewiston until April.) From there, they could proceed to Portland. They then embarked on a coastal ship to San Francisco, where they caught the regular overland stage to Salt Lake City. From there they split, some continuing to Fort Laramie, the others heading north.
Territorial map, 1866. J. H. Colton & Company.

Congress knew of this “ludicrous arrangement.” Even the Eastern newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer, remarked (March 4, 1864) on Idaho’s problem: “It will be impossible to establish good government there until the Territory is divided. The seat of government is in the extreme northwest corner of Idaho, from which the eastern part of the Territory is cut off by a mountain range, placing it quite beyond the control of the authorities while stationed so far away.”

Fortunately, Federal officials were already devising a solution. The easy answer would have been to partition the area along the Continental Divide. That would have put the border just east of today’s Butte. However, settlers in the Missoula Valley rejected the notion that their government would still be in Lewiston. (The final Idaho-Montana boundary followed the path we see today.)

By early May, 1864, legislators were deep in discussions of a bill to create this new Territory, to be called “Montana.” One final point held up passage, however. The House Committee proposed wording that restricted voting in the first Territorial elections to white men only. The Senate opposed that provision. Finally, after weeks of argument, they settled on the “color-blind” wording that ended up in the Territory’s Organic Act: “all citizens of the United States and those who have declared their intention to become such … shall be entitled to vote at said first election.”

Of course, Montana didn’t get everything Congress split off. They also put Wyoming (more or less) back in Dakota Territory. Note also that Idaho’s eastern border ran along the 33rd longitude west of Washington. That changed to the 34th in 1868, giving Idaho its present odd shape.
References: [B&W], [Brit], [Hawley]
"The Creation of the Territory of Idaho," Reference Series No. 264, Idaho State Historical Society (March 1969).
Michael P. Malone, Richard B. Roeder, and William L. Lang, Montana: A History of Two Centuries, Revised Edition, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1991).
“Map of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana,” General Atlas, J. H. Colton & Company, New York (1866).

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