An Historical Timeline for Idaho, 1670 – 1890

The following article was excerpted from William Dollarhide’s new book, Idaho Name Lists 1860s-2011:


For genealogical research in Idaho, the following timeline of events should help any genealogist understand the area with an historical, jurisdictional, and genealogical point of view:

1670. The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed in London, with the intent of establishing trading posts in North America. The company was granted the right to exploit huge tracts of land by the British Crown, and became the dominate force in the settlement of British North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The first governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company was Prince Rupert of the Rhine, a nephew of Charles I, and the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company was first known as “Prince Rupert’s Land.” The company extended its influence from the drainage of Hudson’s Bay to all of western Canada and parts of southeast Alaska. At one time, the company’s claims extended into the present areas of Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

1784. The North West Fur Company was formed in Montreal. It became a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company for dominance of the fur trade in British North America. Although both companies were British-owned, the North West Fur Company was manned mostly be French-Canadians, while the Hudson’s Bay Company was dominated by Scottish-Canadians. With no love between them, the two companies fought furiously for fur trading rights, attacking each other’s forts, burning their ships, etc., until the two companies were forced to end their differences by the British Crown.

1803. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery, the first expedition to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River. Their trek to the Pacific was mostly via river routes, beginning at St. Louis on the Mississippi, up the Missouri River to its source in Montana, then by foot and horseback across the mountains, picking up Idaho’s Clearwater River, to the Snake River of Idaho and Washington, and finally, the Columbia River all the way to its mouth at present Astoria, Oregon.

1805. August. The first whites to see present-day Idaho, the Lewis and Clark expedition left the Missouri Breaks in present-day Montana on horseback, and crossed the Continental Divide at what is now called Lemhi Pass, moving into present-day Idaho. At that point they had entered into the land of the Shoshone Indians, the same tribe from which their guide, Sacajawea, was native.

1807. British explorer and mapmaker David Thompson, former employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, now with the North West Fur Company, began looking for routes from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. He established fur trading opportunities with any Indian tribes he encountered, and charted detailed maps of the Columbia River. From 1807 to 1809, Thompson established the first trading post in present Montana at Kootenai Falls, near Libby; the first in present Idaho, Kullyspell House, on Pend Oreille Lake; and the first trading post in present Washington, now Bonner’s Ferry, on the Columbia River.

1808. John Jacob Astor formed the American Fur Company to compete with the North West Fur Company in the northern Plains.

1810. Fort Henry, the first American fur post west of the Rocky Mountains was established near present St. Anthony, Idaho. That same year, John Jacob Astor formed the Pacific Fur Company, intent on establishing a fur trade west of the Rockies.

1811. March. American fur traders built Fort Astoria near the mouth of the Columbia River as part of Astor’s Pacific Fur Company. Manned by two shiploads of men and supplies, it was the first American settlement on the Pacific Coast of North America. Meanwhile, an expedition of the Pacific Fur Company led by Astor’s second-in-command Wilson P. Hunt, headed overland from St. Louis to meet up with the Astoria crew, hoping to arrive there at the same time as Astor’s ships. They were called the “Overland Astorians.” En route from St. Louis to Astoria, they discovered the Boise Valley, and explored the Snake River Valley on their way to the Columbia River. The Astorians had hard times in present Idaho and decided to divide into two groups, one led by Wilson Hunt, the other led by Donald MacKenzie, a Scotsman-Canadian Astor had hired away from the North West Fur Company in 1810. MacKenzie’s group eventually found the Salmon River leading to the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia rivers. They marked a trail for Hunt to follow. MacKenzie also made note of a location for a fur trading post on the Clearwater River near its mouth at the Snake River and vowed to return to Idaho.

1812. In January, MacKenzie’s group of Astorians arrived at Fort Astoria. A month later, Wilson Hunt’s group arrived. On the Columbia, Wilson’s group had joined with David Thompson, who had just finished his maps of the river. Thompson then followed Hunt’s party for the remainder of their trip to Fort Astoria. Soon after arriving, Thompson set up a rival fur trading post for the North West Fur Company next door to Fort Astoria. Although competitors, the French-Canadians of the North West Fur Company, and the Americans of the Pacific Fur Company supported each other and often sent teams of trappers out together to find and retrieve the animal hides they both coveted. In a bit of irony, the French-Canadians of the British-owned Northwest Fur Company got along better with their rival Americans of the Pacific Fur Company than they did with their rival British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company. Later in 1812, Donald MacKenzie accompanied his friend David Thompson back to the Clearwater River near present-day Lewiston, Idaho, where they established a new trading fort for the Pacific Fur Company called MacKenzie’s Post.

1813. After war was declared in 1812, British warships blockaded Fort Astoria. The Astorians decided it was better to get out before shots were fired, and the entire Fort Astoria operation was sold to the British-owned North West Fur Company, who renamed it Fort George. The North West Fur Company also took over all of Astor’s fur trading posts, including MacKenzie’s Post in Idaho. All of the Astorians, including MacKenzie, then returned overland to St. Louis, and followed a more southern route through present-day Wyoming than was used to get there. In doing so, the returning Astorians became the first to cross South Pass, the Wyoming route through the Rocky Mountains that would be followed by thousands of Oregon Trail travelers.

1818. The Treaty of Ghent officially ended the War of 1812. Included in the treaty was a provision where Britain and the U.S. agreed to the 49th parallel as the international boundary from the Lake of the Woods (now Minnesota) to the Continental Divide.
– Fort Astoria restored. Invoking the Treaty of Ghent in 1818, John Jacob Astor used the provisions for returning all occupied lands by the British back to the Americans, and got the American government to allow his Pacific Fur Company to take possession of Fort Astoria again. Although the fort changed hands, the North West Fur Company continued to use it for their operations for several more years.
— The Oregon Treaty. Before the War of 1812, both the British and Americans had extensive fur trading operations in the Oregon Country, and both countries laid claim to the area. In 1818, the Oregon Treaty was signed, in which the U.S. and Great Britain agreed to a joint occupation of the Oregon Country. The area was defined as extending from the Continental Divide to the Pacific Ocean, and from about latitude 54o in present British Columbia, to the present Siskiyou Mountains (which lie on the modern boundary between Oregon and California). Though not stated in the treaty, it was clear that the intention was to see who could inhabit the area first. Although the British had well-established fur trading operations in the Oregon Country, the Americans had the advantage of being closer. With newly discovered overland routes from the Mississippi River to the Columbia River, they had the ability to supply new settlers into the region. In 1827 a provision was added to the treaty that allowed either party to invoke a conclusion of ownership, by giving 12 months notice to the other. Notice was not given until 1845, when President James Polk sought resolution, leading to a new treaty in 1846.

1821. Upon the encouragement of the British Crown, The Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Fur Company merged, retaining the name Hudson’s Bay. The company now had a monopoly on fur trading in British North America. Their presence continued in the Oregon Country as well, including their fur trading operations in present-day Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Today, The Hudson’s Bay Company continues (“Shop the Bay!” is the slogan of Canada’s largest retailer).

1822. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company was formed by General William Ashley. He placed an ad in a St. Louis newspaper to recruit able-bodied men for his new fur-trading enterprise. There was no shortage of willing young men. Ashley did not build a chain of forts to manage his fur trading operation. Instead, he sent his men out alone and made arrangements to meet them all at a central place a year later. At the predetermined time, Ashley loaded up his pack-teams with supplies and headed off to meet his “mountain men.”

1825. The British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Vancouver as a center for their fur trading operations on the Pacific Coast. Fort Vancouver was located about 100 miles upriver from Fort Astoria, the center for the American-owned Pacific Fur Company. The Columbia River now became a highway to Canada, leading to routes for the fur trade that extended to the Great Lakes and beyond.
– William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company pack-teams were the first to penetrate into the west, blazing a route for the Oregon Trail settlers who would follow years later. When Ashley finally reached his men each year, it was cause for celebration – a wild party they called “the rendezvous.” Many of the rendezvous took place in present-day Idaho, usually along the Snake River Valley. In 1826, William Ashley retired a wealthy man, and began a life of politics. He sold his interest in the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to his employees.

1830. Jedediah Smith and William Sublette, now partners in the successor to William Ashley’s trading company, led the first wagon train across the Rocky Mountains at South Pass and on to the Upper Wind River. The 500-mile journey through Indian country took about six weeks, and proved that even heavily loaded wagons and livestock – the prerequisites for settlement – could travel overland to the Pacific.

1834. Fort Hall was established as a fur trading post on the Snake River in present-day southeastern Idaho by Nathaniel Jarvis Wyeth, a Boston entrepreneur. Three years later, Wyeth gave up and sold the fort to the Hudson’s Bay Company. In the 1840s and 1850s, Fort Hall became the most important rest and re-supply point for all Oregon Trail wagon trains.
– Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife Narcissa and also Rev. Henry H. Spalding and his wife Eliza set up a protestant mission near the junction of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. (Whitman was a Methodist, Spalding a Presbyterian, but their missions were sanctioned by a missionary council of New England Congregationalists). Narcissa and Eliza were the first white women to cross the mountains into the Oregon Country. Their travel route would become known as the Oregon Trail and would be used by hundreds of thousands of future settlers.
– Rev. Henry H. Spalding established an Indian mission near present Lapwai, Idaho, where he printed Idaho’s first book, established Idaho’s first school, developed Idaho’s first irrigation system, and grew Idaho’s first potatoes. Today, Lapwai is the seat of government of the Nez Perce Indian Reservation.
– Fort Boise was established by the Hudson’s Bay Company on the Snake River, at the mouth of the Boise River.

The Oregon Trail. Traditionally, the 2,000-mile-long wagon road began at Independence, Missouri and ended  at Oregon City, Oregon.
The Oregon Trail. Traditionally, the 2,000-mile-long wagon road began at Independence, Missouri and ended at Oregon City, Oregon.

1841. The Western Emigration Society, a group of about 70 settlers bound for California and the Oregon Country set off on the Oregon Trail, beginning at Independence, Missouri. This was the first organized wagon train to head for California and Oregon. It is usually called the “Bartleson-Bidwell party” named for the two leaders. John Bartleson led about half of the group to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. John Bidwell took the other half to California’s Sacramento Valley.

• NOTE: Many descendants of Oregon Pioneers claim that when the Bartleson-Bidwell wagon train reached a fork in the road just west of Fort Hall, there was a sign-post ( ← California | Oregon → ) and those who could read went to Oregon.

1843. The Great Migration begins. A wagon train with over 120 wagons, a large herd of livestock, and nearly 1,000 pioneers headed out on the Oregon Trail. Once they reached Fort Hall, they were guided by Dr. Marcus Whitman, returning to his mission on the Snake River. This 1843 wagon train was the model for the organization of many wagon trains that would follow over the next 25 years. For an online list of the members of the 1843 Wagon Train, see the OR RootsWeb site:

1843. May 2nd, a group of 50 Americans and 52 French Canadians met in the Willamette Valley to take a vote to determine who should govern the Oregon Country. A vote of 52-50 favored keeping Oregon as American territory (two Canadians switched their votes). The group then proceeded to form a provisional territorial government with Champoeg as its capital, established on July 5, 1843. The Provisional Territory of Oregon elected a governor, established courts, created several counties, and functioned with the consent of the local population. In 1843, the Provisional Territory of Oregon was not part of the U.S., but its organization was a key element in the resolution of the U.S. – British Joint Occupation in favor of the U.S.

1844-1848. In the 1844 presidential election, James K. Polk, Democrat, defeated Henry Clay, Whig, to become President of the United States. The two burning political issues of the day were the annexation of Texas and the acquisition of the Oregon Country. James K. Polk, as the “Manifest Destiny” candidate, was elected with campaign slogans of Annex Texas! and Fifty-four forty or fight! In 1845, Texas was annexed to the U.S. and war with Mexico began soon after. But in 1846, Polk settled for the 49th parallel as the northern boundary of the Oregon Country. The treaty of 1846 brought the Provisional Oregon Territory into the United States. And, in 1848, President Polk signed a bill that created an official U.S. Oregon Territory. The new territory included all of present-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho, plus lands in Montana and Wyoming west of the Continental Divide.

• NOTE: The presidential campaign slogans for James K. Polk were actually reverse of what really took place. His first slogan should have been, “Annex Texas and Fight!” and his second should have been “Fifty-four forty or whatever!” In fact, the reason for Polk’s decision to settle the Oregon Country question with the 49th parallel was simply that he did not want to go to war with Mexico and Britain at the same time.

1849. Over 30,000 emigrants who joined the California gold rush came over the Oregon Trail into Idaho, and from there to the California Trail. The following year, it is estimated that as many as 55,000 made the trip. Heavy traffic continued on the trail for several years. In 1849, a U.S. Military post, Cantonment Loring, was established near present Fort Hall, Idaho.

1850 Federal Census. June 1st. The first federal census was taken in Oregon Territory, which included the area of present-day Oregon, Washington, and Idaho; and Montana and Wyoming areas west of the Continental Divide. The population was revealed as 12,093 people. No population was recorded in the present-day Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming areas.

1852. In this year, it was estimated that over 67,000 people traveled the Oregon Trail across Wyoming’s South Pass into Idaho, and on to Oregon or California. This year was the height of the Oregon Trail migrations. Recommended reading: Route of the Oregon Trail in Idaho: From Thomas Ford Valley at the Wyoming State Line Westward to Fort Boise at the Oregon State Line, published by the Idaho Department of Highways and Idaho Historical Society, Boise, ID, 1963, 32 pages, FHL book 979.6 E76.

1853. Washington Territory was created by Congress, taken from the Oregon Territory area. The original Oregon Territory was divided on a line following the Columbia River to the point of intersection with Latitude 46o North, then following that line to the Continental Divide. Thus, Washington Territory included the northern panhandle of present-day Idaho, while the southern portion of Idaho remained in Oregon Territory.

1858. Washington Territory created Spokane County, extending from the Columbia River to the Continental Divide, from Latitude 46o North to 49o North. The present-day panhandle of Idaho was included in the first Spokane County.

1859. Oregon became a state with its present boundaries. The eastern remnant of Oregon Territory to the Continental Divide was added to Washington Territory, which now included all of present-day Idaho.

1860. April. The town of Franklin was established by a few Mormon families sent to the Cache Valley by Brigham Young. They believed they were in Utah, but in 1872, a new survey of the boundary between Utah and Idaho Territories revealed that Franklin was actually in Idaho.

1860 Federal Census. June 1st. The census return reported “no population” for the area of Spokane County, Washington Territory (including the panhandle of present-day Idaho). The non-county area of Washington Territory south of Latitude 46o also had no population (except for a few Cache Valley residents, enumerated as part of Utah Territory, but later discovered to live within Idaho Territory).

1860-1863. Birth of Idaho. A few weeks after the 1860 federal census enumerators had returned their reports of “no population,” gold was discovered on the Clearwater River in late 1860. After the demise of MacKenzie’s Post, the same location gave birth to the gold rush town of Lewiston, established near the junction of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers in 1861. Lewiston became the entry point to Idaho’s gold rush. Lewiston also became (and still is) the most inland seaport of the Pacific. More gold was discovered on the Salmon River in 1861, and the Boise River Basin in 1862; and gold and silver were found in the Owyhee River country in 1863. Most of the settlements are only ghost towns now, but the many settlers who poured in during the gold rush in just three years populated the Idaho areas dramatically, in fact, larger than the rest of Washington Territory. In late 1862, the mining communities began proposing plans for the creation of a new territory, at first suggesting Walla Walla as its capital. But, the main Washington Territory population around Puget Sound did not want to lose its farming communities in the Columbia Basin area. The Olympia-based Puget Sounders were already outnumbered, and with the increased voting population in the Idaho mining areas, they would soon be outnumbered in the territorial legislature as well. In order to preserve as much of Washington Territory as possible, they proposed a compromise Idaho Territory division line beginning near Lewiston on the Snake River The compromise plan was passed in Congress in February 1863.

1860-1863 Washington Territory Counties Created in Gold Rush Idaho: As a direct result of the gold rush settlements, five counties were created in Idaho areas by Washington Territory between 1860 and 1863:
● Missoula County, December 1860, taken from
Spokane Co WT.
● Shoshone County, January 1861, taken from
Spokane Co WT.
● Idaho County, December 1861, taken from
Shoshone Co WT.
● Nez Perce County, December 1861, taken
from Missoula Co WT.
● Boise County, January 1863, taken from
Idaho Co WT .

1863. March 4th. President Lincoln signed into law an act creating Idaho Territory. The first territorial capital was at Lewiston, and the original area included all of present-day Idaho and Montana, and most of Wyoming. The recent Washington Territory counties of Boise, Idaho, Missoula, Nez Perce, and Shoshone became the first Idaho Territory counties. In addition, large non-county areas extended across the mountainous expanse to the Dakota Territory line.

The first Idaho Territory, March 1863.
The first Idaho Territory, March 1863.

1864. The Panhandle. Right after the formation of Idaho Territory in 1863, Congress realized they had created an ungovernable political mammoth. The first Idaho Territory was larger than Texas. In the congressional hearings for creating a new Montana Territory from oversized Idaho, Congress began discussing a rearrangement of Washington Territory back to its 1853 boundaries (from the Pacific to the Continental Divide). But, that proposal was overruled by a new plan to balance the territorial population by leaving a northern panhandle in Idaho Territory. The new panhandle had a greater number of non-Mormons in its northern mining communities than there were Mormons in the southern Snake River Valley farming communities. The anti-Mormon feelings in Congress, and the adding of the non-Mormon panhandle to Idaho may not be well documented in historical records. However, this was the same Congress that had denied Utah’s 2nd petition for statehood in 1862. That petition was obviously denied because Congress was wary of the Mormons and their practice of polygamy, but there are no historical documents that express those congressional feelings outright.

Idaho Territory (with a panhandle) after the creation of Montana Territory, and the expansion of Dakota Territory in 1864.
Idaho Territory (with a panhandle) after the creation of Montana Territory, and the expansion of Dakota Territory in 1864.

The Idaho panhandle was created when Montana Territory was formed in 1864, but at the same time, a large part of the southern part of Idaho Territory was given to Dakota Territory. Finally, in 1868, when Wyoming Territory was created, Idaho Territory was reduced to its present size and shape.

1865. The territorial capital was moved from Lewiston to Boise.

1890. July 3rd. Idaho became the 43rd state, with Boise as the state capital. The population was 88,548 people.

Recommended reading:
Idaho Name Lists 1860s-2011
Map Guide to the U.S. Federal Censuses, 1790-1920

One thought on “An Historical Timeline for Idaho, 1670 – 1890

  1. In the Idaho Timeline, I referred to the 1818 treaty when Latitude 49 degrees was first drawn as the boundary between British Canada and the U.S., from the Lake of the Woods to the Continental Divide. I incorrectly referred to that treaty as the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 was signed in 1814.
    – bill$hide

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