Tuesday, July 3, 2018

President Harrison Makes Idaho Territory the Forty-Third U. S. State [otd 07/03]

President Benjamin Harrison, ca. 1897.
Library of Congress.
On July 3, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the bill that made Idaho a state, the 43rd. The signing culminated one of the more convoluted pathways taken by any state to its final admission into the Union.

Idaho became a Territory in March 1863. That was largely because political leaders in Washington Territory wanted to be rid of all those voting-age prospectors in the Idaho gold fields [blog, March 4].

Lewiston was selected as the initial capital more or less "by default." However, legislators from the populous Boise Basin and Silver City areas moved the capital to Boise City at the end of 1864. Thus, for years to come, Panhandle residents – Lewiston, Grangeville, and further north – fought to to escape the “tyranny” of the southern Idaho counties.

Yet the Territory might have become a state within just a year or two, despite its almost totally undeveloped infrastructure. The first Territorial governor, William Wallace [blog, Oct 31], had gone East to Washington, D. C., as Idaho’s Delegate to Congress. (Delegates have no vote on the floor, but can serve on committees and vote on issues at that level.)

The man who replaced him, Caleb Lyon, wanted to do even better. If he could somehow promote Idaho statehood, he hoped to be rewarded with a seat in the U. S. Senate. After all, Nevada had been granted statehood in 1864, although it had fewer people than Idaho at the time. But the Republican-controlled Congress rejected the notion because Democrats had become the dominant party in Idaho by then.

In the period 1872-1876, North Idahoans mounted yet another strong campaign for annexation to Washington. That failed, but they raised the issue again in 1882. Diehards pushed this option especially hard during the campaign to gain statehood for Washington. However, separatist sentiment among the general population had largely waned by then. Washington became a state in 1889, without any additions from North Idaho.

Idahoans also felt pressure from the south. In 1869-70, Nevada politicians had opened a campaign to annex the major mining districts in the Owyhee area near Silver City. To gain support further north, they even went so far as to propose that Idaho be split between Nevada and Washington Territory. That proposal also failed.
Territorial capitol building, completed 1886.
Illustrated History of the State of Idaho.
In 1886, northerners combined with Nevada politicians to resurrect the Territorial-split notion. The first part of the scheme, adding the north to Washington, actually passed Congress in March 1887. Luckily, Idaho had a “secret weapon” in Governor Edward A. Stevenson. He had, of course, been appointed by President Grover Cleveland. Moreover, the governor’s cousin*, Adlai E. Stevenson, was then Assistant Postmaster General of the United States. (He would serve as Vice President during Cleveland’s second term.) Cleveland heeded the Idaho Governor’s plea to veto the bill.

Idaho settlement had increased dramatically after the Oregon Short Line Railway completed tracks across the southern part in 1884. Thus, by around 1888, proponents had launched a serious campaign to attain statehood for the Territory. As noted in my blog for May 11, they were unable to push “enabling legislation” through Congress, but went ahead with a constitutional convention in 1889. After all the earlier political fireworks, the statehood vote in 1890 seemed almost anti-climactic.

* At best they were fourth or fifth cousins. But in that era, emigrant families counted their connections back through many, many generations. There was no such thing as a “distant” cousin; they were simply “family.”
References: [B&W]
“Caleb Lyon’s Statehood Scheme,” Reference Series No. 377, Idaho State Historical Society (July 13, 1966).
“Centennial of Idaho's Admission to Statehood,” Reference Series No. 928, Idaho State Historical Society (April 1989).
“Idaho Before Statehood (1860-1890),” Reference Series No. 108, Idaho State Historical Society (July 1966).
“Idaho State Admission,” Reference Series No. 916, Idaho State Historical Society (1989).


  1. Fascinating story!

    How did Idaho get its shape?
    Brent Hill, Idaho State Senator, Feb 23, 2017
    "The first proposed map of the Idaho Territory would have kept the Idaho panhandle and part of Montana in Washington Territory leaving southern Idaho and Wyoming as the new Idaho Territory."

  2. Here's an intriguing proposal for Eastern Washington and Eastern Oregon to join Idaho.

    "This change would affect about 1.5 million residents in Eastern Washington and about half a million in Eastern Oregon. It would more than double the population of Idaho to about 3.6 million. Washington and Oregon would be left with about 5.6 million and 3.5 million."