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Dig Into Idaho's Mining History

Throughout 2022 the Idaho State Historical Society will explore how hard rock mining enterprises shaped and continue to shape the Gem State. Hard rock mining usually involves extracting non-fuel metal and mineral deposits, such as gold, silver, iron, copper, zinc, and lead, among others, from solid ores or eroded deposits in streambeds. Through exhibits, programs, events, and a new interpretive walking path at the Boise Assay Office, home to the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), we aspire to elevate the history of mining from its 19th-century cycle of boom and bust to a comprehensive evaluation of the extractive industry from the 1860s to the present. Keep reading to learn more about our plans for 2022 and about how our agency has interpreted mining history over time.

While mining has always held an important place in the state’s history, 2022 provides a unique opportunity to pause and reflect on the technological innovations, environmental implications, economic impacts, societal consequences, and legal ramifications of hard rock mining in Idaho. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the passage of federal legislation commonly known as the General Mining Law. When President Ulysses S. Grant signed H.R. 1016, “A Bill to Promote the Development of the Mining Resources of the United States,” on May 10, 1872, customs that had matured in California’s goldfields became more than common practice—they became law.

More so than any other 19th-century enterprise, the labor-intensive mining industry encouraged colonization across the American West while concurrently encouraging non-native population growth and advances in communication and transportation technologies. In the burgeoning industry’s wake came systems of law and governance and expanded opportunities for commerce. The 150th anniversary of the passage of federal legislation that codified private individuals’ right of access to the exploration, occupation, and purchase of mineral deposits on public lands is an especially poignant moment for reflection because this law largely remains unchanged today. Despite attempts over the last fifteen decades to amend or repeal the General Mining Law, individuals can stake mining claims on federal land by following nearly the same processes that pioneers followed in 1872. 

While the General Mining Law has remained steadfast, our collective knowledge of how best to preserve, protect, and restore our planet’s natural resources has grown and shifted. Throughout the late 20th century, federal legislation intended to protect the country’s water, air, and natural habitats impacted the extractive industry. Moreover, these shifting national priorities also influenced how individual states govern mineral production within their borders. At the same time, mining corporations, associated businesses, and environmental advocates faced contention yet found opportunities to collaborate, negotiate, and implement more responsible mining practices to become better stewards of the planet’s natural resources. 

By acknowledging this historic milestone, we hope to provide space to explore the complex history of hard rock mining in Idaho. Throughout our agency’s 141-year history, we have created exhibitions touting the lone miner and his pick, pan, and shovel and displayed the various types of hard rock minerals found throughout the Gem State. We have provided programming discussing labor strikes and divisions between miners, mine owners, politicians, and the Native Americans whose ancestral lands hold much of Idaho’s mineral wealth. And throughout our various publications, including Mountain Light, Idaho Yesterdays, and the short-lived children’s publication, The Prospector Club, we created content about Idaho’s various mining districts, the detailed processes that turn ore into a refined product, and the individuals who touched the industry over time. 

Throughout 2022, we aim to build on these interpretations and our role as stewards of the past. We will utilize new technologies to make this history relevant to our friends, partners, customers, and visitors from across the Gem State, including entities in state government and Idaho’s five federally recognized tribes. We want to commemorate this moment in American history and use it as a platform to make Idaho’s mining history a larger part of the historical narrative about the extractive industry’s role—both past and present—in the American West.

Written by State Historian HannaLore Hein

Photos:

  • “Idaho’s Mining History”, Map by George Bodwitch, 1959, as featured in J. Teske et al., “Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology, Bulletin No. 18, Idaho’s Mineral Industry…The First Hundred Years,” Bulletin (Moscow, Idaho: Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology, March 24, 1961), Special Collections, Idaho State Archives.
  • 73-129-2, Atlanta Pioneers, Idaho State Archives
  • 75-214-20_C, War Eagle Gold and Silver Mining Company Stock Certificate, Idaho State Archives

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