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Territorial History

Get Territorial: Idaho at 150

A Closer Look

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Territorial History

I thought we commemorated the Idaho centennial a few years ago.  How can it be the sesquicentennial already?

In 1990, Idaho commemorated the centennial of statehood.  But Idaho became a territory on March 4, 1863, and 2013 marks the 150th anniversary.

The territorial period was a long time ago.  How do events from that period affect me today?

A case could be made that the 27-year territorial era was the most important period in Idaho history in terms of shaping the state we know today.  Do you drive on Idaho’s main highways?  Did you attend Idaho public schools?  Do you pay county taxes?  Did you find it surprising in the 1990s that the U.S. Supreme Court granted ownership of part of Lake Coeur d’Alene to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe?  Have you wondered why Idaho has three state universities?  Have you found it curious that many northern Idahoans refer to their part of the state as North Idaho, when no other region uses such capitalization?  Have you ever voted for a Supreme Court justice?  Do you have irrigation water rights?  If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are living with the result of decisions made during Idaho’s territorial period.

Idaho looked like a rectangle when it became a territory.  How did it get its present odd shape?

Originally, Idaho consisted of all of Idaho, Montana, and most of Wyoming, an unwieldy land mass.  Much of this area had been part of Washington Territory, and Idaho was created because western Washington politicians wanted to discard vast tracks of land to the east which were gaining population due to gold rushes.  This action would leave a more compact Washington Territory—and help to assure that Olympia would remain as its capital.  When Idaho’s first territorial legislature met in Lewiston in 1863, one delegate from present-day Montana, unwilling to venture across the Bitterroots in winter, instead journeyed overland to California and then by boat up the Pacific and the Columbia and Snake rivers to the proceedings.  Not surprisingly, those first legislators unanimously petitioned Congress to reduce the size of the territory to make it more governable, not to mention easier to get around.  In 1864, Montana broke away, and in 1868, Wyoming left, leaving Idaho with its jagged panhandle in the north and a nearly straight-edged boundary with Wyoming in the east.  Check out this fact sheet for more information on Idaho's territorial maps.

Why is Idaho’s capitol in Boise?

By the time of the creation of Idaho Territory, much of the population had already shifted away from gold diggings in the Clearwater region to the Boise Basin.  Just like that legislator who traveled to California to get to Idaho’s capital in 1863, lawmakers found it increasingly difficult to get to Lewiston, since most of them lived far away.  During their second session in 1864, legislators voted to move the capitol to Boise, a controversial move that some believed was illegal.  But subsequent legal rulings confirmed Boise as the capitol.

The move of the capitol from Lewiston to Boise was controversial.  Once the capitol moved, did regional controversies subside?

Hardly.  In 1878, 96 percent of northern Idaho voters approved a proposal that would have united the panhandle with Washington.  In 1887, a measure to do just that passed both houses of Congress; only a pocket veto by President Grover Cleveland retained Idaho as we now know it.  To help mollify the north, the Idaho constitution created the University of Idaho at Moscow, and Congress created Latah County, the only county in the United States formed by an act of Congress.  For many years, relationships between many eastern Idaho residents and the rest of the territory were also strained, but for religious rather than geographical reasons.  In 1884, the territorial legislature passed the Idaho Test Oath, which essentially disenfranchised members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who then mostly lived in the southeast.  This policy, ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and codified in the state constitution, endured into the 1890s, after Idaho became a state.

What happened to the Indians who were living in Idaho when it became a territory?

Idaho’s Indian people were here long before the territorial period, and they still remain, part of the vibrant and diverse fabric that makes up Idaho of the 21st century.  But the territorial period was traumatic for Idaho’s tribes.  The 1863 Nez Perce Treaty drastically shrank tribal lands, giving rise to discontent that led to the 1877 Nez Perce War.  Southwestern Idaho tribal members were uprooted to reservations at Fort Hall and the Duck Valley.  The Coeur d’Alenes had to relinquish most of their ancestral homeland.

What was the most significant event during the territorial period?

The most important event of the territorial era occurred in the summer of 1889 when 72 men met in Boise to write a constitution for what would become, the following year, the State of Idaho.  Though it has been amended, that document remains basically as it was written nearly 125 years ago, the foundation for all Idaho laws; the tie that binds together our diverse state.

If I wanted to visit some sites in Idaho relating to the territorial period, where could I go?

There are hundreds of sites dating from the territorial period.  Here are some that are open to the public: 

Assay Office [1871], 210 Main St., Boise (Operated by Idaho State Historical Society)
Birch Creek Charcoal Kilns [1885], near Leadore
Blaine County Courthouse [1883], 206 First Ave. S., Hailey
Boise Basin Museum [1867], 501 Montgomery St., Idaho City
Chesterfield Ward Meetinghouse [1887], Chesterfield (Operated by Chesterfield Foundation)
Cyrus Jacobs-Uberuaga House [1864], 607 Grove St., Boise (Operated by Basque Museum and Cultural Center)
Fort Sherman Chapel [1880], 332 Hubbard, Coeur d’Alene (Operated by Museum of North Idaho)
Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts and History [1884], 415 Main St., Lewiston
Lorenzo Hatch House [1872], East Main Street, Franklin (Operated by Idaho State Historical Society and Franklin Pioneer Association) 
McConnell House [1886], 110 S. Adams St., Moscow (Operated by Latah County Historical Society)
Old Idaho Penitentiary [1872], Old Penitentiary Rd., Boise (Operated by Idaho State Historical Society)
Rock Creek Store [1865], near Hansen (Operated by Idaho State Historical Society and Friends of Stricker Ranch)
Schick-Ostolasa Farmstead [1864], 5213 Dry Creek Rd., Boise (Operated by Dry Creek Historical Society)
Shoshone County Courthouse [1862], Pierce (Operated by Idaho State Historical Society and Bradbury Memorial Logging Museum)
Silver City Town Site [1860s]

How can I help to leave a lasting legacy of the territorial commemoration?

The roots of who we are as a people and as a state lie in the territorial period.  Take this opportunity to learn more about your local area’s history as well as the state’s history.  Join your local historical society or the Idaho State Historical Society.  Take an active role in preserving local sites or buildings of historical significance.  Help to work with these historical organizations to see that collections of artifacts, photographs, and records relating to Idaho’s rich history are preserved for future generations by encouraging people to donate materials to historical repositories rather than tossing them into landfills or selling them at auction.  Encourage heritage tourism and support initiatives of your local historic preservation commission.  Impress upon your children and grandchildren that without knowledge of our history, a culture can easily lose its freedom. 



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