Sunday, March 4, 2018

President Lincoln Signs Law to Create Idaho Territory [otd 03/04]

On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill that created Idaho Territory, splitting it off from Washington Territory. The signing culminated a period of intense political wrangling that first heated up in late 1858, after the Yakima Indian War. When Oregon became a state in February 1859, Washington Territory was left basically as a catch-all for the area north of Utah and west of (vaguely) the Rockies.
Gold pan with nuggets amidst black sand.
National Park Service.

The bickering and horse-trading greatly intensified after Captain Elias Pierce’s party discovered gold along the Clearwater River in the fall of 1860 [blog, Oct 2]. Ignoring the boundary of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, prospectors poured into the region.

Washington Territorial officials quickly created Shoshone County to provide an administrative structure for the Idaho mining districts. The county encompassed the region between near-future Lewiston and the Continental Divide, and south from the Canadian border to some amorphous boundary down towards Utah Territory.

As more prospectors arrived and spread south, the legislature split Shoshone County along the Clearwater River. The area to the south became Nez Perce County, with Lewiston as the seat. And still the eager gold seekers pressed on, making more gold discoveries in the Boise Basin (a high mountainous plain northeast of Boise City, which did not yet exist).

By the end of 1862, the population centers for Washington Territory had shifted dramatically … from the Puget Sound area to the gold fields of (future) Idaho and Montana. And the imbalance grew worse with every day that passed. Alarmed, political leaders in Olympia knew they had to shed all those voters that could challenge their control of the Territorial legislature.

“Not so fast” politicos in Walla Walla and Lewiston said: Let’s keep the Territory intact, but move the capital to our more central location. Even Vancouver had a dark horse in the running. Located on the preferred wagon road between coastal Washington and the interior, they had hopes of winning the capital as a compromise candidate.

After much maneuvering, the contest became a face-off between Olympia and Lewiston. A complete description of their respective agendas is beyond the scope of this article, but the Olympians got what they wanted. The split placed the border just west of Lewiston. That retained the maximum area for the future growth of Washington's population and economy, but dumped all those prospector votes. It was well they did. At the first census, completed in September of 1863, Idaho Territory had nearly three times the population of Washington Territory.
Combination of three U. S. General Land Office maps,
Territorial period.

Lewiston, of course, also won by being designated capital of the new Idaho Territory. Their triumph would be short-lived, however.

As then defined, the Territory was a "geographic monstrosity" - encompassing all the future states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. That gave it an area substantially larger than Texas ... actually, more than Texas and Illinois combined. Nearly 700 direct miles separated Fort Laramie, on the North Platte River, from the capital at Lewiston. That’s roughly equivalent to the distance from Philadelphia to Chicago, but there were no connecting roads to speak of.

Idaho's structure soon changed drastically: Less than 15 months after its founding, Congress reduced it to its present size plus a chunk of Wyoming west of the Continental Divide. Eight months after that, Territorial legislators moved the capital from Lewiston to Boise.
Reference: [B&W], [Illust-State]
"The Creation of the Territory of Idaho," Reference Series No. 264, Idaho State Historical Society (March 1969).

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