BY MICHAEL H. O’DONNELL
What is now Idaho served as home to Native Americans for centuries and as a crossroad for exploration of the West. It wasn’t until March 4, 1863, that it became a child of the Civil War — a strategic move by President Lincoln to stem the spread of slavery and help fund the Union army.
About 700 residents of Eastern Idaho packed the event center at the Shoshone-Bannock Hotel and Event Center Monday night to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Idaho becoming a territory. In the process, they learned some important things about their home.
Lincoln stayed up late into the night that fateful March day and he returned in spirit through the performance of Steve Holgate and the historical perspective provided by former Idaho Lt. Governor and attorney general, David Leroy.
The Shoshone-Bannock peoples had roamed the lava formations, mountains and rivers of Idaho for “100 times a 150 years,” according to Leroy and he said Fort Hall was a perfect choice for celebrating Idaho’s sesquicentennial of gaining its status as a territory of the U.S.
Fort Hall itself became a major location on the Oregon Trail during the great migration of farmers headed for the Willamette Valley in Oregon or prospectors drawn to the gold fields of California in the 1840s. Later as gold and silver was discovered in northern and western Idaho, this state began to grow in a non-native resident population.
But one major event bound immigrants and native residents alike, according to Darrell Shay, the Cultural Resources Director for the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. It was the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that set the stage for the creation of territories and established the rights of American Indians.
“In 1491 we owned most of America,” Shay joked with the crowd. “Then the real estate market went up.”
Shay said as more outsiders began to settle in Idaho, tensions did flare up between native and non-native people, but the Shoshone-Bannocks always were known as a “friendly” people.
“There was a bunch of people looking to make a new life and there was a bunch of people whose way of life was about to end,” he said about the settlement of Idaho.
Once precious metals were discovered in Idaho and mining activities began to flourish, the state became more valuable as its own identity. As the years leading up to territorial status unfolded, America found itself in a great civil war with a leader determined to end slavery.
Leroy, calling Lincoln a great strategist, said Idaho was the perfect place to stop the spread of slavery to the western part of the nation and it had the mineral wealth to help pay for a war that had grown in financial and human cost.
“He was a man of ideas and a man of principles,” Leroy said about Lincoln.
The night of March 4, 1863, Lincoln wrestled with four major pieces of legislation — all of which impacted the Civil War. He was wrestling with a bill to create conscription and force men into military service. Lincoln also had to work on a financial bill to create treasury notes to help fund the war effort and he ratified a suspension of the right of habeas corpus to allow the suppression of anti-union elements in the country.
The last thing on his plate that night was making Idaho a territory.
“Idaho was a great blocking maneuver,” Leroy said.
Then the former attorney general shared that there is a bronze statue in Boise that states: “Idaho, more than any other state, is related to Lincoln.” He said the words ring true.
Because of a long friendship between the Lincoln family and the Dubois family, Fred Dubois would eventually become the U.S. Marshall for the Idaho Territory. His father was a good friend of Lincoln before Lincoln was assassinated and had created solid credentials in the Republican Party.
Fred’s brother, Jesse had taken a position in the Idaho Territory as a doctor at Fort Hall.
Later Fred would champion Idaho’s inclusion as a state and serve two terms in the U.S. Senate representing Idaho.
All these pieces of culture and history came together in a four-hour gala held at Fort Hall more than a century and a half later.
As President Lincoln told the crowd Monday night, as he read a letter from a Union soldier during the Civil War, the struggles this nation has faced have been made to create “the Union as it should be.”