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State of Idaho

The territory comprised within the State of Idaho was the last in the Union to be trodden by the foot of the white man. Originally claimed by Spain under her claim to the whole of the New World, and lying between what was later acknowledged Spanish territory on the south and the territory on the north claimed first by France and later held by England, it was not reached by the early Spanish explorations which in the two and a half centuries following the voyages of Columbus penetrated some part of the country now included in each State south of the forty-second parallel and west of the Mississippi River.

Following Magellan's passage around South America in 1520, the wave of exploration quickly rolled up the western coast of the New World, and was soon followed, at first by a few and later by increasing numbers of trading vessels intent on barter with the natives. But this wave rolled back from the rugged coast line like the ebb of the tide or the retreat of the great storm waves baffled and broken after flinging themselves in impotent fury against the rocky barrier. These traders barely touched the coast, their penetration of the interior being confined to finding some sheltered inlet affording safe anchorage for the ship while bartering with the inhabitants of the coast and such tribes as came down from the interior for that purpose. These men never passed even the Cascade Range, and that any of them ever saw any portion of the present State of Idaho is improbable.

The real explorers of the interior of that part of the North American continent now included in the United States and Canada were the French and French Canadian "voyageurs," those hardy men of the lake, stream and forest who at first under French, and later under English auspices and leadership, came by the way of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes, and traversed the continent from the mouth of the Mississippi to that of the McKenzie, and from Newfoundland to Vancouver. Sometimes they went as missionaries, fired with religious zeal; more often as trappers bent on obtaining by any means at their command the wealth of furs this great region then afforded. Both by training and by habit they were travelers by water rather than by land. They were expert in the building and handling of the canoes and light boats so well adapted to the navigation of the rivers and lakes so numerous in the interior of the continent, especially in the region of the Great Lakes and the vast expanse of country to the west and northwest of them. They so much preferred traveling by water that it was only with great reluctance and when the point desired could not be reached in any other way that they could be induced to travel overland.

From the northern shores of Lake Superior there is, through a marvelous network of lakes and rivers, an almost unbroken water route northwest down the McKenzie to the Arctic Ocean, and up the Peace and Athabaska, western tributaries of the McKenzie, and the two branches of the Saskatchewan, falling ultimately into Hudson's Bay, to the eastern base of the Rocky Mountains. This fact, coupled with the other important one that the animals whose furs were most sought were more numerous and more easily caught along the streams than away from them, accounts for the deflection of the early explorations from this source to the northwest instead of going directly west across the continent in the latitude of Idaho. Thus it happened that Idaho, walled in on the east, west and north by giant mountains, and penetrated only by rivers flowing to the Pacific and the Great Salt Lake, was passed by, while the continent was crossed and re-crossed both north and south of it.

Many Spanish expeditions from the time of the bombastic Balboa had reached the Pacific overland, but none of them north of the Bay of San Francisco. Alexander McKenzie, in the employ of the Northwest Fur Company, after having in 1789 first explored to the Arctic Ocean the river which has since borne his name, started late in 1792 from his base at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabaska in an endeavor to reach the Pacific. He proceeded up Peace River, and, after wintering 500 miles to the southwest, where the party almost perished from cold, he continued up the river and by a short portage across the Rockies and down a tributary of the Frazer and the main stream itself to near the Blackwater, a branch coming in from the west, thence overland to the Pacific at North Bentinck Arm. He returned by the .same route, arriving at Fort Chipewyan in September.

The early accounts of many regions are largely traditional, and in them a little truth is so blended with fable or gross exaggeration that it is often a difficult matter to winnow the kernels of historical fact from the chaff in which they are concealed. This is true of Idaho, but in a comparatively small degree only. The first mention of the Rocky Mountains in the latitude of Idaho is found in La Hontan's account of his pretended "journey up the long river" in 1688. He tells of having met four men who informed him they lived in "the country farthest to the north and west then known, and beyond mountains six leagues broad, and so high one must cast an infinity of windings and turnings before he can cross them," and that their principal river "runs a great way westward" and empties into a vast salt lake. It is supposed the "long river" is the Missouri, the mountains one of the numerous ranges of the Rocky Mountains and "the river flowing west" the Columbia or possibly the Colorado. The first Europeans to see the Rocky Mountains in this latitude were undoubtedly the members of Verendrye's party of French and Canadian explorers, traders and hunters, who, having proceeded westward from Lake Superior to a distance much greater than that at which they expected to find the mountains, were in January, 1743, confronted by the rugged, snowy ranges of western Montana, and, despairing of reaching by that route the ocean they were seeking, turned south and east, returning by the way of the Yellowstone River.

It is probable that the first white man who set foot on the soil of Idaho was one of those adventurous fur traders or trappers who pushed out far in advance as the Hudson Bay and Northwest companies extended their operations across the continent. Most of these men were of French descent, many of them half-breeds, and after they became engaged in this work they knew no home but the wilderness. They took Indian wives, lived among the Indians, and to a large extent adopted the Indian mode of life. But they left no story of their travels, no description of the new regions visited. Trained to reticence along this line, and to deception if too closely questioned, they never told what they had found, for the reason that each desired to preserve for himself or his company the desirable new hunting and trapping grounds he had discovered. Consequently they do not count, either as a matter of history or so far as the world of today is concerned.

Eliminating these trappers and fur traders, it remained for the Lewis and Clarke government exploring expedition of 1805-06 to first penetrate this region of towering mountains, vast forests, extensive plains, dark, silent lakes and mighty rushing rivers, and give the story to the world. Having passed the winter of 1804-05 on the Missouri River near where Bismarck, North Dakota, now stands, the Lewis and Clarke party of thirty-two persons proceeded up the river to the junction of Horse Prairie Creek with Reed Rock Creek, between where the towns of Red Rock and Dillon, Montana, now are. Here the canoes were abandoned, and, horses having been bought from the Indians, they advanced over practically the present Salmon stage route up Horse Prairie Creek, crossing what is now the Idaho State line on the ridge of the divide and down Agency Creek, emerging into Lemhi valley near where Fort Lemhi was later built. Thus did the first white men who have left their story to posterity enter the State of Idaho. Their course was north down the Lemhi, their intention being to follow the stream until they reached the Columbia. When the rapids below Salmon City were encountered a party was sent by land to explore the river further down. They reported it impassable for canoes. The attempt was then made to follow the Salmon by land, but after a trial of two or three days the country became so rugged the horses could go no further and this, too, had to be given up. With difficulty the party found its way over the Bitter Root Mountains north of Shoup, went down the Bitter Root valley to the Lolo Fork, thence up that stream, over the Lolo pass, and, proceeding between the North and Middle Forks of the Clearwater, emerged into the prairie. At the junction of the North Fork of the Clearwater with the main stream they constructed canoes and embarked on the river on their way to the mouth of the Columbia. The party had entered Idaho at the head of Agency Creek on the 12th of August, and it was the 10th of October when their canoes crossed the western boundary at the junction of the Clearwater and the Snake. They had traversed only territory now embraced in the counties of Lemhi. Idaho and Nez Perce. In May and June of 1806 Lewis and Clarke were again on the Clearwater, on the return trip. They did not touch Lemhi County on the return, following the Nez Perce or Lolo trail over Lolo pass and almost directly east by way of the Blackfoot River, reaching the Missouri River north of where Helena now is.

Lewis and Clarke found the Indians of Idaho in possession of articles of European manufacture, which had been obtained mostly from trading vessels along the coast, and had been passed in barter from tribe to tribe until they had reached this remote region. As time went on the number of traders and trappers who visited the country year by year increased, as the fur trade of the interior of the continent gradually pushed west-ward over the mountains. In 1809 the trading post of Fort Henry was built on the Henry or North Fork of the Snake in Fremont County. It was the first footing established by white men in what is now Idaho, and has the distinction of being the first post planted by citizens of the United States west of the Rocky Mountains. It was built by Agent Henry for the Missouri Fur Company, but, owing to Indian hostilities, was abandoned in 1810.

In 1811 Astor's Pacific Fur Company established a fort at Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia, and several at interior points in Washington and Oregon. The war of 1812 stopped all American activity in the Northwest, and everything American, including Astoria, was taken possession of by the English and the English fur companies, and the authority of the United States was not re-established until 1818. Within the next fifteen years the American fur companies and traders and trappers from the United States traversed the country each year and the fur trade grew to enormous proportions. But little of historical value concerning this period has come down to us in authentic form.

Idaho Irrigation Dam

Idaho Sage Brush


Source: Sketches of the Inter-Mountain States, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, Published by The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1909 



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