Excerpt from Boise Basin of Gold

Boise Basin, in southwestern Idaho, is an area roughly 20 miles square, drained by dozens of small streams that run into Grimes and More creeks, They, in turn, run into Boise River. The entire basin is made up of hills and ridges that range in elevation from 3000 to 5000 feet, covered with pine and fir forests. Higher mountain ridges around the edges give the area its basin character.

This book attempts to capture the flavor of life in the bustling mining camps that grew up in a few short months after gold was discovered on Grimes creek in August 1862. It is an account of people and events that reveal what it was like to live in Boise Basin in the years between 1862 and 1890 when Idaho became a state. In a work of this size, it has not been possible, of course, to write anything like a complete history of the Basin, or to include more than a selection of the many stories that could be told about life in that group of small towns as they passed from booming gold rush camps into small but stable mining communities.

We have relied heavily upon eye-witness descriptions of people and events, and have allowed those who lived in Boise Basin at the time to tell what happened in their own words, often biased or emotional, these accounts nevertheless have the merit of revealing attitudes and prejudices. People’s perceptions of the truth usually influence their actions more than what is true, The words of those who lived in the Basin in the 19th Century have other qualities that make them worth quoting – they are often picturesque, witty, charming, and humorous, they have a spontaneity and immediacy rarely found in the later writing of scholars.

Welcome, then, to Idaho’s Basin of Gold, I hope it is as much fun to read as it was to write.

Following the discovery of gold in North Idaho in 1860 a steady stream of prospectors and miners poured into what was then the eastern part of Washington Territory. They fanned out across the rugged granite terrain of the Clearwater, Salmon River, Owyhee and other mountains, looking for prospects rich enough to justify staking claims and beginning full-scale mining. Prospectors looked for free gold in stream beds or gravel bars – particles that could be washed out by placering – or surface indications of gold-bearing quartz veins that could be worked by driving tunnels or shafts into the mountainside. The discovery of Boise Basin’s riches came on August 2, 1862, when a party of prospectors from Florence and Auburn, Oregon, found gold on Boston Bar near later Centerville. Although commonly called the Grimes party, the initial discovery group was really composed of three prospecting parties that had joined forces to explore the Basin in the summer of 1862. Moses Splawn, who had mined at Florence and Elk City, was the leader of one band, H. Fogus led another, and George Grimes a third. They got together in the Owyhee country, crossed a flooding Snake River with some difficulty and struck out for Boise Basin. Fearing attack by the numerous Shoshoni Indians who lived in Boise Valley, they proceeded cautiously up the river to Boise canyon, then followed a northern ridge that led them into the Basin.

Moses Splawn’s interest in the area had been aroused by a Bannock Indian, who uncharacteristically took the white man’s mania for gold seriously enough to suggest that if the yellow metal was that important they could find it in abundance in Boise Basin.

On August 9, 1862, a week after D. H. Fogus found gold on Boston Bar, George Grimes was shot from ambush and killed. As Merle Wells points out, “Although a strong tradition persists in Boise Basin that the Indians had nothing to do with the shooting, those who returned to Walla Walla credited the incident to a disaffected Bannock or Shoshoni. In any event, Grimes was hastily buried in a prospect hole and his men hurried back to the Boise River. (Grimes Creek and Grimes Pass were later named in honor of the unfortunate prospector and a monument erected at the spot where he was buried.) Pioneer City (first called Hog’em) and Idaho City (first called Bannock City or West Bannock) were started in October 1862, after enlarged and well-supplied parties returned from Walla Walla. Reports that some placer claims were yielding as much as $200 per day per man reached Lewiston, Walla Walla, and Portland, leading to a mad rush to Boise Basin, even though the country was remote, trails virtually undeveloped, and roads for wheeled vehicles non-existent. A more serious difficulty was the fact that winter was coming on. Water for placering would not be available when streams froze and deep snows would make life miserable, if not dangerous.

Despite all that, they came – by the thousands. A contemporary, writing in Boise’s Capital Chronicle a few years later, explained it: “They were, for the most part, veteran prospectors for gold. Many years of adventurous experiences all over the gold fields of California, Fraser River, Cariboo, Washington Territory and Eastern Oregon, had acquainted them with the general features and climatic changes of the entire gold producing region from British Columbia to Southern California. They were at home wherever they went self-reliant and energetic to a remarkable degree. Hardships and privations had no terror; and peril, with a spice of adventure, had a positive charm for them.

Not all who joined the rush to Boise Basin late in 1862 quite fit this romantic description. As in every gold rush, there were men inadequately prepared, either physically or mentally, to endure the hardships. Some came without the supplies or the money they would need to last through a mountain winter. Many who hoped to find work to earn their keep were disappointed. The even larger population attracted to Idaho in the spring of 1863 included sober and industrious men who knew what they were doing, scoundrels and adventurers who came to prey on others, and large numbers of men without the skills or the capital to stick it out. Small wonder, then, that the Basin’s spectacular inrush of people in 1863 and 1864 was followed by a period of stabilization when most of the disappointed fortune hunters drifted away to other excitements or went back to their former homes.

On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation establishing Idaho Territory out of what had been the eastern part of Washington Territory. By that fall Boise Basin was the center of population in the new territory and Idaho City (then called Bannock City) had passed Portland to become the largest town in the Pacific Northwest, with 6,275 inhabitants. Placerville had 3,254, Centerville, 2,638, Pioneer City, 2,743, and Granite Creek about 1,500. Never since have these communities come close to the numbers they had in 1863. By 1870, when the first decennial census of Idaho was taken, Idaho City’s population had declined to only 889, Pioneer City’s to 477, Centerville’s to 474, Placerville’s to 318, and Granite Creek’s to 299. Buena Vista Bar, included in the 1863 estimate with Idaho City, was counted at 880 in 1870, but the combined total for the two (1,769) was less than a third of 1863’spopulation.