Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Attorney and Teton Valley Developer Benjamin Driggs [otd 01/31]

Benjamin, Senior.
Driggs Family Archives.
Teton Valley pioneer and attorney Benjamin W. Driggs, Jr., was born January 31, 1858 in Pleasant Grove, Utah, about ten miles north of Provo. His father had been among early converts to the LDS church, suffered through the expulsion from Nauvoo, and trekked to Utah in 1852. Besides owning and, sometimes, operating a store in Pleasant Grove, the senior Driggs guided, did blacksmith work, and fought Ute Indians in central and southern Utah

Benjamin, Jr. had a bevy of siblings since his father, per then-current Mormon doctrine, had more than one wife. (He later served six months in prison for this practice.) On his own, Benjamin Jr. gathered the wherewithal to study at the University of Utah and Brigham Young College (now University). He then attended the University of Michigan Law School.

After graduating in 1886, he practiced law in Provo for two years before moving to Salt Lake City. He would remain in practice there for about fifteen years.

Benjamin also became interested in locating range suitable for stock raising. With much of northern Utah and southeast Idaho already claimed for farm and ranch settlements, he looked further north. In the spring of 1888, he responded to favorable reports about the Teton Valley by inspecting the area himself. Settlers closer to the river advised them to avoid the valley because it was known as “a rendezvous for horse thieves and outlaws.”

Colonists would later learn that the warning had some merit, but it did not deter them. Ben persuaded his younger brother Don, who was not yet married, to start cutting and hauling logs to a site that looked promising for a town.

By the end of 1889, the Valley contained a small colony of Mormon pioneers, including several Driggs family members. Benjamin himself took up a homestead and built a cabin, even though for many years he only spent part of the summer in the Valley. For a time, the structure served as the area’s only mercantile store.

In 1891, he processed a petition to acquire a post office for the new settlement. Because so many names on the petition were Driggs – three brothers and a cousin, along with Benjamin – that name was assigned to the new office. Brother Don became the first postmaster. A decade later, the local Mormons had established the Driggs Ward, with a school and meeting hall, as part of the Teton Stake.
Driggs, ca 1918. J. H. Hawley photo.

By that time, Benjamin was spending more and more time in the Valley. He moved his family and law practice there in 1903-1905. As de facto village attorney for Driggs, in 1910 he handled the incorporation paperwork for the town. Soon, the railroad arrived in the village, and it mushroomed: from a population of around 200 in 1910 to about 1,500 in 1918.

When the legislature established Teton County in 1915, Driggs became the county seat and Benjamin was elected as the first county Prosecuting Attorney. He was re-elected to that position in in 1922. In 1926, Caxton Printers, of Caldwell, published the first edition of Benjamin’s History of Teton Valley, Idaho. He passed away in July 1930.
References: [Hawley]
B. W. Driggs, History of Teton Valley, Idaho, Louis. I. Clements and Harold S. Forbush (Eds.), Eastern Idaho Publishing Company, Rexburg (1970)
“Benjamin W. Driggs Answers Last Call,” Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah (Oct. 2, 1913).

Monday, January 30, 2017

Frontier Missionary and Peacemaker Father Pierre-Jean de Smet [otd 01/30]

Father De Smet, 1860-65.
Library of Congress,
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection.
Roman Catholic priest Pierre-Jean de Smet was born in Belgium, January 30, 1801. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1821 and trained as a Roman Catholic missionary with the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. His first missionary work to the Indians was among the tribes along the lower Missouri.

In 1840, an Indian guided Father de Smet further west, where he met some Flathead Indians at Pierre’s Hole (today’s Teton Valley, Idaho). Encouraged by his missionary efforts there and in Montana, he returned with a group the following year.  On that trip, the Bartelson-Bidwell emigrant party accompanied de Smet’s missionaries as far as Soda Springs [blog, Aug 8]. The Bidwell expedition was the first company of Americans to emigrate to California by wagon train.

Father de Smet’s group reached Fort Hall after nearly four months on the trail. Glad of the respite, de Smet stopped to rest and repair equipment. The factor even sold him supplies at bargain prices, a major concession since everything had to be laboriously packed in from their base on the Pacific Coast.

After a few days, they continued into Montana. There, the Catholics built St. Mary’s Mission, 25-30 miles south of today’s Missoula. That fall, Father de Smet traveled even further west at the invitation of Dr. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor of the Columbia Division of the Hudson’s Bay Company [blog, Oct 19].
Kalispel teepee and canoe on the Pend Oreille, ca. 1860.
Bonner County Historical Society.

On his way to Fort Colville, Father de Smet encountered a band of Kalispel Indians. Though lacking in height, the good Father possessed an impressive physical presence and abundant charisma. His three-day sojourn planted more seeds. Word of the “Black Robe’s” mission quickly spread among the tribes of North Idaho.

When he returned in the spring, he met with more Kalispels, as well as Indians from the Kootenai and Coeur d’Alene tribes.

Fulfilling a promise made by Father de Smet during those meetings, Father Nicholas Point and Brother Charles Huet soon came among the Couer d’Alenes to build a mission church. Their choice of location proved inauspicious: floods inundated the site in the spring. Father de Smet selected a new location about 8 miles west of the later town of Kellogg.
Sacred Heart Mission church, Cataldo, Idaho, 1957.
Library of Congress.

The Mission of the Sacred Heart was moved to near today's Cataldo, in 1846. Four years later, Father Anthony Ravalli arrived to design and build a new church for the mission.

Constructed with simple hand tools, the timber-frame structure contained no nails and took three years to complete. It is the oldest building in the state. (Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, it was among the sites automatically included when the National Register of Historic Places was created in 1966.)

Father de Smet spent the rest of his life striving, with little long-term success, to maintain peace between whites and the tribes of the Northern Plains. For his day, de Smet traveled an incredible amount: The equivalent of over seven times around the Earth, soliciting funds and new recruits. He passed away in St. Louis, in May 1873.
References: [Brit] [Hawley]
Robert C. Carriker, Father Peter John De Smet: Jesuit in the West, University of Oklahoma Press (September 1998).

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Entrepreneur, Fur Trader, and Fort Hall Founder Nathaniel Wyeth [otd 01/29]

Nathaniel Wyeth, 1840.
Illustration for Harper's Magazine, 1892.
Entrepreneur Nathaniel J. Wyeth was born January 29, 1802, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Despite strong ties to Harvard on both sides of the family, the young Wyeth chose to go directly into business rather than attend college. He was highly successful in the ice business, rising to a general manager’s position.

However, pamphleteering by advocate Hall J. Kelley convinced Wyeth that he could make his own fortune by exploiting opportunities in the “Oregon Country.” (That region included today's Pacific Northwest, plus portions of British Columbia.) In early 1832, Wyeth organized a venture to pursue fur trading and trapping in the Rocky Mountains.

Unfortunately, the men he recruited in New England proved unsuitable, and six deserted even before Wyeth’s party started west from Missouri. Then, when they reached the trapper rendezvous, seven more men refused to continued with the expedition.

Wyeth’s party also had the bad luck to observe one of the most intense conflicts ever reported between trappers and hostile “Blackfeet” (actually Gros Ventre) Indians: the Battle of Pierre’s Hole [blog, July 18]. After visiting the Hostile’s redoubt the next day, Wyeth wrote, “It was a sickening scene of confusion and Blood[s]head. One of our men who was killed inside their fort we found mutilated in a shocking manner.”

Wyeth himself took some minor part in the battle, but his party of “Yankees” did not. Thus, his statement about “our men” was a sort of “editorial” license. His men did care for several wounded, one of whom died in their camp.

Wyeth was hard-working and conscientious, but in the end his lack of Western experience – and further bad luck – ruined this first expedition. Still sure there was profit to be had in the fur trade, Wyeth put together another attempt in 1834. This time he also transported supplies west to be sold, under contract, to another trapping company.

As recounted in my December 20 blog about Trapper Osborne Russell, Wyeth’s customer reneged on the  contract. Undeterred, he then built Old Fort Hall, in Idaho, to sell his supplies directly to the trappers and Indians.

Still, this venture also failed, largely because more-established competitors, the British-Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in particular, had a strangle-hold on the business. Within a couple years, Wyeth sold his Fort to the HBC.
Fort Hall, ca 1849. Library of Congress.
For the next 20 years, Old Fort Hall was the most important Euro-American trading post in Idaho. Tens of thousands of Oregon Trail pioneers passed by the Fort on their way to the Pacific Coast.

In 1845, the Joel Palmer party [blog, August 23] passed by. Palmer observed, “The bottoms here are wide, and covered with grass. There is an abundance of wood for fuel, fencing, and other purposes. No attempt has, as yet, been made to cultivate the soil. I think the drought too great; but if irrigation were resorted to, I doubt not it would produce some kinds of grain, such as wheat, corn, potatoes, &c.”

Wyeth returned to the ice trade, paid off his considerable debts, and eventually went into business for himself. He left a substantial fortune when he passed away in August 1856. (Ironically, about the time Old Fort Hall was finally abandoned.)
References: [B&W]
H. M. Chittenden, The American Fur Trade of the Far West, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1986)
Nathaniel J. Wyeth, Don Johnson (ed.), The Journals of Captain Nathaniel J. Wyeth's Expeditions to the Oregon Country 1831-1836, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington (1984).
Joel Palmer, Journal of Travels over the Rocky Mountains, 1845-1846, reprinted, Reuben Gold Thwaites (ed)., in Early Western Travels, Vol.  XXX, Arthur H. Clark Company, Cleveland (1906).

Saturday, January 28, 2017

William A. Foster, Boise Fireman and Long-Time Fire Chief [otd 01/28]

Chief Foster.
Boise Fire Department.
Boise Fire Chief William A. Foster was born on January 28, 1870, in Grinnell, Iowa. The family relocated to the high plains of northwestern Kansas when William was about fifteen years old. Then, in 1890, he moved to Idaho. He worked as a teamster hauling lumber for a time and then went into the freight business for himself.

After that, Foster spent five years representing a lumber company before moving out of state for a couple years. He returned to Boise in 1899-1900.

For awhile after 1894, Foster had served as a member of the Boise City volunteer fire brigade. That organization had been formed in 1876, although records also point to an earlier volunteer unit. He returned to that duty after his brief hiatus out of state.

In late 1901, the city decided to fund a fully paid Fire Department. The new Department took over the following summer [blog, June 2]. It started with part-time leadership, a core of firemen, and a body of firefighters who were paid by the calls they answered. Early accounts state that Foster became part of the new, professional Department in 1903. That was the same year the Department got a full-time Chief.

Foster advanced steadily through the ranks, learning new skills as the department upgraded its equipment. Aside from the normal increases in population, and city acreage, these improvements were required because Boise was also growing UP – with its first “skyscraper” (six stories) in 1910 [blog, Jan 9]. In 1912, Foster was promoted to Assistant Chief.

The Department added more equipment over the next several years, and motorized some of the horse-drawn rigs. Foster was promoted to the Chief’s position in 1917. Within a couple years or so, the Department employed nearly forty men, serving in four fire stations scattered throughout the city.
Chief’s car, 1912. Foster on left – then Assistant Chief.
Boise State University.

Idaho was then much more of a "farm state" than it is even today. Unfortunately, America's agricultural economy suffered greatly between the two World Wars, even before the Great Depression. (Much of the problem is blamed on excessive expansion to meet demand during World War I.) Naturally, Boise felt the pain along with the state.

As a result, Foster presided over a period when budgets were especially tight. Firefighters had to accept pay cuts, and crew numbers were pared to the bone. One entire fire station was closed in 1924. Yet fires still happened, and over the years the city, grudgingly perhaps, paid for a few new pumpers and ladder trucks.

During the Thirties, the Department began to give more attention to fire prevention. They initiated educational programs and sent fire inspectors out to advise property owners about particular problem spots. In 1938, the city created a formal office of Fire Inspector.

Chief Foster led the Department through all these profound changes until his retirement in 1939. He passed away in March 1958.
References: [Hawley]
“The Department’s History,” Boise Fire Department, CityofBoise.org (1999-2010).
“Foster 60th Anniversary,” Idaho Statesman (Oct 2, 1952).
Arthur Hart, Fighting Fire on the Frontier, Boise Fire Department Association (1976).

Friday, January 27, 2017

Educator, Attorney, and Supreme Court Justice John Rice [otd 01/27]

Judge Rice.
John Campbell Rice Foundation photo.
January 27, 1864, Idaho Supreme Court Justice John Campbell Rice was born on a farm in Cass County, Illinois, about thirty miles west of Springfield. After high school, he attended Illinois College, in Jacksonville (not far south of where Rice was born). He graduated in 1885 and began teaching mathematics at the college.

Three years later, he enrolled in law school, first at Michigan State University and then Cornell University. He received his law degree from Cornell in 1890.

John T. Morrison, a fellow student at Cornell, had previously met Presbyterian minister William Judson Boone. Boone moved to Caldwell, Idaho in 1887, and Morrison followed him there during the summer of 1890.

John Rice joined Morrison in Caldwell that fall, and they became partners in a law practice. When Boone founded the College of Idaho [blog, Nov 5], the partners both served as instructors there for two years. Rice taught Greek and mathematics, and later, economics.

Some years later, they found themselves in an odd position. The legislature upgraded Caldwell from “town” to “city” status. But the old town Board of Trustees successfully challenged the designation, and the election of a Mayor and City Council. John Morrison, the newly appointed City Attorney, was also a town Trustee and recused himself when the new Council appealed the District Court ruling. So the Council hired Rice, who won the appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court. (Idaho Statesman, June 25, 1897).

In 1897, Rice was elected to the Idaho House of Representatives. During his term he served as chairman of the judiciary committee. That legislature passed an Act to authorize the creation of a state Board of Arbitration to handle labor disputes. Another Act provided for the creation of irrigation districts to regularize the allotment of water rights.

After that, he was elected to the Caldwell city council, and served as mayor in 1902. His time as mayor corresponded roughly to the period when he relinquished the presidency of the Commercial Bank of Caldwell. Rice, along with several partners, including Albert K. Steunenberg [blog, Sept 11], had founded the bank in 1895. He resumed the presidency in 1907 and continued in that position until at least 1920.

He had other active business connections in Caldwell and around the state. Besides holdings in western Idaho, he helped organize the First National Bank of Saint Anthony, all the way across the state.
College of Idaho campus, ca. 1900. College of Idaho.
Rice also continued his involvement with the College of Idaho, although he no longer taught there. He had been among the principals when the College was incorporated in 1893 as a legal entity, separate from the Presbyterian Church. Rice remained a Trustee of the College through its darkest days in the Great Depression. (He was, in fact, chairman of the Board of Trustees when he died.)

Rice was first elected to the Idaho Supreme Court in 1916, and remained there until 1923. He thus served through the turmoil related to World War I, and the implementation of national Prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment. He was also there when voters amended the state constitution to expand the Supreme Court from three members to five.

After another period in private practice, he was appointed to be a district court judge, a position he held when he passed away in November 1937.
References: [French], [Hawley], [Illust-State]
Louie W. Attebery, The College of Idaho, 1891-1991: A Centennial History. © The College of Idaho, Caldwell (1991).
“John T. Morrison,” Reference Series No. 404, Idaho State Historical Society (September 1996).
"Necrology: John Campbell Rice,” Cornell Alumni News, Ithaca, New York (December 16, 1937).

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rancher, Canal Manager, and Ada County Sheriff James Bennett [otd 01/26]

Sheriff Bennett.
Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
Ada County Sheriff James A. Bennett was born January 26, 1865 in Leavenworth, Kansas. The family moved to farm country 40-50 southwest of St. Louis, Missouri when James was a few years old. He grew up in that area and garnered what education he could from the common schools there.

James came to Idaho in 1886. This was a period of high optimism for stock-raising in Idaho. For example, the Idaho Statesman gushed (October 9, 1886) that the cattle business “has grown to wonderful proportions of late years.” As proof, it went on, readers should consider that “Millions of dollars are invested in stock in Idaho, and the returns from this source excel all others combined.”

A couple years earlier, the Oregon Short Line completed its tracks across Idaho, which further boosted stock raising. Sheep holdings particularly benefited, since sheep raisers rarely drove large flocks to distant markets. Now they didn’t have to.

Bennett easily found work and, in 1888, he claimed a homestead in Ada County, some of which he still owned thirty years later. Along with his stock raising and farming, he worked for some of the regional irrigation companies. Hawley’s History noted that “For eleven years he was headgate keeper and ditch walker for the Ridenbaugh ditch.”

The Ridenbaugh Canal runs along the Boise Bench, today passing through the residential and business districts of southwest Boise. The Bennett Lateral is a feeder canal in that area.

That feeder was first identified publicly in 1902. The Idaho Statesman reported (June 27, 1902) on Ada County government business concerning “what is known as the Bennett Lateral.” The item said, “It is therefore ordered by the County Board of Commissioners that measuring devices and weirs be placed in said canal.”

Bennett’s first wife, Maggie, died from tuberculosis (Idaho Statesman, October 21, 1898) and he remarried two years later. Maggie had come from an old pioneer family, with property in the Wood River area. In 1903, James was appointed executor so he could settle the estate, including payment of back taxes.
Ridenbaugh Canal. Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District.

He then purchased a lot about five miles southeast of Boise. Later, James built a home of “generous proportions … well back from the highway in a cluster of large maples and with a terraced lawn and flower gardens in front.”

He was elected Ada County sheriff in 1908. Bennett had a busy two-year term, during which the office gained a third deputy and the county jail got a new floor. Besides dealing with a rumored Tong war in the Oriental community, the sheriff also had to appear as a witness in a case before the Idaho Supreme Court. At the end of his term, Bennett returned to irrigation work and farming.  (Election laws then precluded a second consecutive term.)

In the late 1910s, he served as superintendent of the Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District, a unit that served over 4,000 water users. Today, that District owns the century-old water rights of the original Ridenbaugh Canal.

In 1942, Bennett moved to Meridian, where he was elected a Justice of the Peace. Ill health eventually forced him to resign, and he died in 1947.                                               
References: [Hawley]
“History,” Ada County Sheriff’s Office, online.
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Millionaire Banker, Business Leader, and Developer John Vollmer [otd 01/25]

John P. Vollmer, ca. 1875.
Vollmer Family Archives.
Wealthy developer John P. Vollmer was born on January 25, 1847, in Wurtemburg, Germany. The family emigrated to the U.S. when John was about four years old, settling in Louisville, Kentucky. From there, in 1855, they moved to Indianapolis, Indiana.

After some years in a German-speaking private school, Vollmer attended the Indianapolis college that is now Butler University.

During the Civil War, he saw action as an under-age soldier serving a brief stint in an Indiana Volunteer regiment.  After a short span as an apprentice clerk in a small retail business, he went to work for a large book company in Indianapolis. He spent several years there, advancing to a Chief Clerk's position.

Looking for greater opportunities, Vollmer relocated to Walla Walla, Washington in 1868. There, he managed a distillery producing “high wine” – a clear 100-120 proof alcoholic beverage, suitable for aging or infusing with other flavor elements.

John P. moved to Lewiston in 1870 and opened a grocery and wholesale liquor business. Three years later his growing temperance convictions led him to quit selling liquor, but he soon greatly expanded the mercantile side. He operated a wide range of enterprises that eventually owned over a score of outlets in various Idaho towns as well as in Washington state.

Vollmer initiated or backed many progressive improvements in the region, including: the first north Idaho telegraph line, telephone service four years later, and the Lewiston Water and Light Company. Other developments included several major irrigation systems, and construction of a “conservatively estimated” mile’s worth of Lewiston buildings. He was also a Trustee of the Lewiston State Normal School.

He had affiliations with steamboat and railway companies, and led the organization of substantial banks in Lewiston, Grangeville, and Genesee. Through the banks, and by direct investment, he owned many thousands of acres of prime farm land, said to require “two hundred and forty-eight miles of fencing.”

Since Vollmer acquired much of his acreage via foreclosures, he was not universally admired. The Illustrated History of North Idaho stated that Vollmer had “as few enemies probably, as any man living, of his active, agressive [sic] temperament and extensive business interests.”

That statement is a considerable departure from what subscription histories of that period normally said in their biographies. Almost invariably they praised a pioneer’s “excellent qualities” and noted that the person was “highly esteemed by all.” (The exact words varied, but not the fulsome sentiment.)
Vollmer Mansion, Lewiston. Vollmer Family archives.
Still, while he was clearly seen as a hard-headed man of business, Vollmer seems to have had a more enlightened side – absent from many of the “robber barons” of his day. Thus, he and his wife were known for their literary interests, and their home was considered a center of Lewiston refinement and gentility. His various biographers always saw fit to mention “his fine private library.”

In 1914, people around the state, and beyond, urged him to run for Idaho Governor on the Progressive Party ticket. Although tempted, Vollmer, who was then 67 years old, withdrew from consideration because, he said (Idaho Statesman, April 14, 1914), “My physician advises me that a campaign might endanger my health.”

He passed away in 1917.
References: [French], [Illust-North], [Illust-State]

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Freighter and Rancher “Doc” Rankin – A Legend in His Own Time [otd 01/24]

"Doc” Rankin. H. T. French photo.

William Allen “Doc” Rankin was born January 24, 1836, in Lafayette, Indiana. Several ancestors in his paternal line fought in the American Revolution, later being plantation owners in Virginia. Although Doc’s family moved to the Midwest (to Iowa after Indiana), they retained strong family ties to Virginia.

Thus, because his forebears were “old line” Virginians, the young man sympathized with the South during the Civil War. When the war began, Rankin was in Iowa farming and raising stock. In fact, he fit the demographic for one typical kind of “Copperhead” – "agrarians" with Southern roots. Copperheads were Northerners who opposed the war.

Rankin therefore began to procure horses and recruit like-minded men for the Southern forces. However, Iowa apparently became too “hot” for him in 1863, so he and five other men headed west. Along the way, they stopped at Fort Bridger, where Rankin made the first of many western acquaintances: old Jim Bridger himself.

After a winter in California, Doc entered the freighting business. He then “spent twelve years in driving his outfit across the deserts of the West and over pretty nearly all the trails that then led from one center of population to another.”

His draft animals and equipment wore down, of course, hauling heavy loads on primitive roads over rugged mountains. To avoid losing part of a freighting season, Rankin made time to recoup his outfit by spending several winters in California.

Rankin came to know “many of the ablest and most famous men of the West.” That included prominent politicians such as Brigham Young and George Hearst (later a U. S. Senator from California, and father of publisher William Randolph Hearst).
Freight outfit in the Sierras, ca 1866. Library of Congress.

When Congress suspended coinage of silver dollars in 1873, miners decamped in droves from the silver mines of Nevada. Rankin’s freight business followed them to the gold fields of California, mainly in the Bodie area. Despite its rich and notorious reputation, the Bodie gold strikes proved short-lived, and rapidly tapered off after about 1880. His business declining, Doc moved to Boise in 1881.

For the next eight years, Rankin engaged in various enterprises to make a living. Thus, a year after he got there, the Idaho Statesman (March 18, 1882) thanked Doc for “a fine salmon trout. He brought in a load of fine fish Sunday, for which he found ready sale. He expects to be here again next week, after which he will visit this market once a week, if possible.”

Finally, in 1889, he took up a homestead two miles southwest of Boise. He  remained there for the next quarter century. When H. T. French published his History in 1914, Doc’s biography said, “The street car line runs out Rankin street named in his honor, right past his door.”

Rankin took an active interest in the affairs of the Democratic Party in Idaho. However, he never ran for political office here, perhaps soured by an experience in Nevada, where he was reportedly “deprived of his rightful seat” in the legislature by election fraud. Still, in 1912, at the age of seventy-six, Doc was still serving as a precinct chairman for the party (Statesman, April 7, 1912).

When Old Doc passed away in 1917, the Idaho Statesman (December 16, 1917) said that during his years of traveling, “He came to be thoroughly familiar with the entire country, and was often referred to as an authority on road conditions of the West.”
References: [Brit], [French] 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Church Leader, Suffragette, and Temperance Advocate Rebecca Mitchell [otd 01/23]

Activist Mitchell.
J. H. Hawley photo.
Mrs. Rebecca Mitchell was born January 23, 1834, in Macoupin County, Illinois, 30-50 miles south of Springfield. Little is known of her early life. After she was widowed, she completed her education, first in local schools (which she attended with her own children) and then at the Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago. For a time, she served as a missionary and church worker in Illinois.

However, the settled cities and towns of Illinois apparently offered too little scope for Mitchell’s missionary zeal. With limited resources, she looked to the “Wild West,” where gunfights were still common, “Judge Lynch” sometimes dispensed frontier justice, and churches were few and far between. In June 1882, she landed in Idaho Falls, then still called Eagle Rock.

Being almost destitute when she arrived, Mitchell made do with quarters in a weathered “board shanty.” She quickly set out to visit every family dwelling in the little settlement. For many years, the area had grown slowly, but the arrival of the railroad three years earlier had caused a surge. Rebecca’s enthusiasm matched perfectly with a genuinely-felt need among the locals.

On the Sunday after her arrival, she conducted the first Sunday school classes at her rude home. Organized schools were just getting started in the region when she arrived, often as the effort of a few families. Mrs. Mitchell sparked progress along those lines, organizing a day school.

Aside from occasional small remittances from family, she was entirely self-supporting, and found that costs were unexpectedly high in the little frontier town. Still, in a memoir published many years later (Idaho Falls Times, October 13, 1908), she offered proof that “the Lord will provide.” She had, she said, just spent her last nickel, when the father of a day school pupil called to pay his son’s tuition … well before the due date.
Eagle Rock Baptist Church.
Bonneville County Historical Society.

Mitchell’s efforts to promote a church had begun as soon as she arrived. She sought funds locally and also wrote to Baptist organizations in the East. Donors in the New England states were particularly generous. The Anderson brothers – among the earliest Eagle Rock pioneers – donated the necessary land. Locals dedicated a new Baptist Church in November 1884.

For a time, the church provided space for a larger school as well as a library.  Mitchell continued to teach until other schools and teachers became well established. After that, she concentrated more on her church and social work.

Mrs. Mitchell strongly supported the temperance movement, organizing the first local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She also lectured all over the state and at national conventions, being known as an effective and entertaining speaker. Thus, the Idaho Falls Times reprinted (February 22, 1894) an item from the Weiser Signal about Mrs. Mitchell’s presentations in the Weiser area: “Her lectures are interesting and she always has a well attended house.”

Mitchell even spent one winter in Boise pushing for various reform laws and aiding in the advocacy for women’s suffrage. She also served as the chaplain of the Idaho House of Representatives … through 1934, the only women to have ever held that position.

Naturally, she also supported many causes in Eagle Rock, being “a prominent member of the Village Improvement Society.” Upon her passing, on September 30, 1908, several communities around the state held memorial services and promulgated resolutions of remembrance and honor.
References: [B&W], [Hawley]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
“Golden Jubilee Edition, 1884-1934,” Idaho Falls Post-Register (September 10, 1934).