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Gold Nuggets & Black Sand



Gold and silver bonanzas created Idaho Territory ... and agriculture expanded to feed the hungry miners

In early October, 1860, a party led by Elias D. Pierce discovered gold on Orofino Creek near what would soon become the town of Pierce. Piece said, "I never saw a party of men so much excited. They made the hills and mountains ring with shouts of joy."

The mining districts in the Clearwater River watershed soon swarmed with prospectors. Newcomers probed further and further south into the Salmon River drainage and discovered more rich fields. By that time, 15-20 thousand prospectors crowded the goldfields, many pushing into (future) Montana and even further south in Idaho. On August 2, 1862, a party led by George Grimes discovered gold in the Boise Basin, deep in the rugged wilderness around the upper forks of the Boise River. (A few days earlier, gold had also been discovered in Montana.)

Politicians around Puget Sound viewed the phenomenal growth in the gold country with growing alarm. All those voting-age males threatened their majority in the Territorial legislature. After much maneuvering, they found a simple answer: Split off a new territory but keep enough area so normal settlement could support Washington statehood. When Idaho Territory was created on March 4, 1863, the border ran just west of Lewiston and all those populous mining districts.

Idaho Territory originally included all of today's Idaho and Montana, and much of Wyoming, altogether an area larger than Texas. A census of the new Territory showed a population of over thirty-two thousand, about twenty thousand of whom lived in what would become the state. Because of the uncertainty noted above about the exact southern border, this census did not include the Mormon settlements north of the Utah line.

Geography made the new Territory a monstrosity, so on May 26, 1864, Congress split off Montana Territory. For political reasons, the new Territory included the Bitterroot Valley, with the Bitterroot range summit rather than the Continental Divide as the legally-defined border. (That segment did not result from an incompetent/drunk survey party, as legend would have it.) This action solved the east-west problem, but rugged central Idaho mountains still separated north from south.

Large-scale gold mining faded rather rapidly in the north, but would continue in the Boise Basin and nearby areas for over ninety years. (That history is further detailed in my new book, Boise Basin Gold Country). In the short term, however, the Boise River gold fields could not begin to accommodate the thousands of prospectors that thronged the area. Many began to search elsewhere. Thus, in May 1863, a party of prospectors discovered gold in the Owyhee Mountains. The subsequent rush quickly determined that numerous silver lodes represented the true wealth of the area. In less that four years, burgeoning Silver City would be designated the Owyhee County seat.

Miners and travelers suffered from Indian attacks as the natives -- quite naturally -- resisted the whites' massive intrusions into their homelands. Complaints from whites in southwest Idaho led, in July 1863, to the construction of a new Fort Boise about fifty miles east of the original Hudson's Bay Company post. Within a matter of weeks, the village of Boise City, sprang up near the fort. In late 1864, because of the huge north-south population imbalance, the legislature moved the Territorial capital from Lewiston to Boise City. For years to come, resentful North Idaho residents fought to become part of Washington.

Very quickly, opportunists began driving bands of cattle, and some sheep, into the area to supply gold camp butcher shops. Also, in the spring of 1863, John M. Crooks and Aurora Shumway bought claimed land northeast of today's Grangeville and moved a thousand head of cattle onto it. The Crooks & Shumway company was the first of many who entered the stock raising business in Idaho.

Down south, ranches appeared from around Boise all the way to the Oregon border, including areas along the Payette and Weiser rivers. At the same time, settlers began irrigated farming at favored spots in the Boise valley to supply grain, vegetables, and fruits for the camps. (Continued traffic along the Oregon Trail provided a bonus for them and for the general stores established along that route.)

Nor were areas further east neglected. Freighter Matt Taylor saw opportunity at a point where the Snake River rushed through a narrow lava rock canyon. He and two partners obtained a franchise and, in April 1865, opened a toll bridge at today's Idaho Falls. Their business thrived handling the freight and passenger traffic with the mines in Montana. Taylor's Bridge also became a focal point for settlement in the upper Snake River valley.

Meanwhile prospectors pushed deeper and deeper in the wilds in search new gold fields. Located in a high Salmon River mountain basin, Leesburg began as an expansion of mining in nearby Montana. After the first find in July 1866, the stampede to Idaho's newest mines depopulated Montana's capital city for a few weeks. One prospector said, "Much coarse gold was found and nuggets of $5.00 to $50.00 were common."

As mining expanded, so did farming and ranching. The demand was such that stockmen found it profitable to buy herds of cheap Texas longhorns and drive them into Idaho. John Q. Shirley and Charles Gamble are generally credited with driving the first Texas cattle into Idaho, around 1866. That was about the same time Texas cattle were being driven into Montana. Shirley and his partner Andrew Sweetser grazed their herd along the Snake River near old Fort Hall, later moving to the Raft River area. The following year, Cornelius "Con" Shea drove the first longhorns into the "Owyhee Country." That "Country" includes southwest Idaho and across the border in southeast Oregon.

In May 1869 at Promontory Point, track-layers joined the two legs of the transcontinental railroad. Although a decade passed before Idaho got its first spur line, the railroad had a profound impact on the Territory. By this time, the "easy" placer fields in the Boise Basin had mostly played out, and many prospectors had moved on. The Basin population had declined to about 3,500 in the 1870 census. Nearly half (1,700) of those remaining were Chinese. In fact, the overall Idaho population had decreased by about 7 percent. Still, as the "bloom" went off the Basin, other regions took up most of the slack – like Leesburg, and even deeper into the mountains.

With the railroad reducing the travel time from months to days, more and more settlers found their way to Idaho. They took up homesteads along the rivers and streams where small ditches could provide water for their crops. Meanwhile, ranching became an economic force in its own right. By 1875-1877, the mines were no longer the only market. Stockmen trailed thousands of cattle to stations on the railroad: south into Nevada and east into Wyoming.

Naturally, Idaho's original inhabitants tried desperately to hang onto their native lands. The so-called "Snake War" – involving southern Shoshone and Bannock tribesmen – flickered and flared from about 1864 to about 1869. By then most of the tribes had been lured onto reservations with promises of food, clothing, and a stipend to compensate them for lost lands. They were also suppose to receive training and education to help them adjust to a settled life. Matters had been peacefully in the north, but the arrangements sewed the seeds of future trouble.

From 1870 to 1880, Idaho's population almost doubled, to over 32 thousand people. Lead-silver discoveries along the Wood River (Ketchum-Hailey-Bellevue) set off a rush into that area in 1879-1880. The following decade would see even greater growth in mining, stock raising, and other agriculture.

To be Continued ...

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