Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Prospectors led by Elias Pierce Find Gold on Orofino Creek [otd 10/2]

E. D. Pierce. [Hawley]
Speaking of this day in October 1860, Captain Elias D. Pierce said, “[On] the second we moved down and camped on the stream, afterwards called Oraphenia creek. Here we found better prospects than further up the stream where we first made the discovery, which was a sufficient guarrentee that we had a rich and extensive mining camp, and organized a new mining district, and gave its boundaries, drafted a code of mining laws, to govern our new mining district.”

Their discovery of gold near what would soon become the town of Pierce set off a rush into Idaho that transformed an “empty wilderness” into a thriving U. S. Territory. Of course, the region was not really empty. In fact, the only reasonable access to the gold fields ran right through the Nez Percé Indian Reservation. Many subsequent finds were actually inside the reservation boundary established in 1855.

Elias Pierce was born in 1824 or 1825, most likely in Virginia. (He always gave that or West Virginia as his birthplace to census takers, and suggestions that he emigrated from Ireland are based on probably flawed evidence.) Pierce enlisted in the Army for the 1846-1848 Mexican War, but saw only minor action. After his discharge, Pierce joined the stampede into the California gold fields. He did quite well there, both as a miner and as a storekeeper – he even served a term in the California legislature.

Unfortunately, that soon changed: First, a partner absconded with the company’s funds, then a major customer defaulted. Conflict with Pacific Northwest Indians complicated his efforts to recoup his fortunes.

Still, Pierce now had an unexpected asset: He spoke the Nez Percé language and had traded with the tribe on good terms for several years. His party did avoid confrontations on their way to make the gold discovery, but they marched out openly and had no trouble with surprised tribesmen.
Gold in the pan. National Park Service.

While fear of the Nez Percé checked an early flood of prospectors, many from Pierce’s party returned to Orofino Creek and built cabins for their winter stay. Wise in the ways of gold mania, Pierce did not go with them. He went to Olympia, the Territorial capital, and secured the franchise for a wagon road between Walla Walla and the Nez Percé country.

Pierce tried to continue in the freight business through about 1866, but without any notable success. He then prospected in Montana and mined coal in Montana before going east to Indiana in 1869 and getting married. He died there, virtually penniless, in 1897.

Meanwhile, back in 1860-61, legislators had made Pierce City the county seat of a brand new Shoshone County, although they had only Captain Pierce’s word that the village existed. They created the county in early January and concluded an agreement with the Nez Percé three months later: Whites could freely prospect and mine the watersheds of the Clearwater and Snake rivers within the reservation, but absolutely no permanent settlement was allowed.

Pierce City, technically outside the reservation, blossomed during the following summer, starting from the core of winter cabins. However, the best placers in the area soon played out and the population dropped from a peak of over a thousand to just 131 in 1864. Still, it held on as the county seat until 1885, when that moved to Murray.
References: [B&W], [Brit], [Illust-North]
“Census of 1864,” Reference Series No. 130, Idaho State Historical Society.
Elias D Pierce., as told to Lula Jones Larrick, The Pierce Chronicle, Idaho Research Foundation, Inc., Moscow, Idaho (1975).

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