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Excerpt – Inventing Idaho



Idaho’s eccentric boundary circumnavigates the state over the course of 1,800 miles. But Idaho did not attain that borderline all at once. Between 1819 and 1868, it took its current shape by means of six separate diplomatic and political accords. I debated the best method of addressing each of those distinct borders. I considered beginning at one boundary and proceeding geographically around the state, but, as a historian, I believe most stories are best told chronologically. The first border chapter focuses on Idaho’s oldest boundary, the southern line separating Idaho from Nevada and Utah, established in 1819. The narrative then jumps geographically to the far north and the border with Canada, a demarcation finalized in 1846. Then on to the west- ern boundaries with Oregon (1859) and Washington (1863), and the northeastern with Montana (1864). The final border chapter centers on Idaho’s most recent boundary, the line with Wyoming, created in 1868.

When Congress established that final border, Idaho lost the Grand Tetons, Jackson Hole, and much of what became Yellowstone National Park to Wyoming. This is just one example of how borders have enduring consequences. To highlight other examples, I added a “border story” following each of the main chapters. Each story provides a case study of how that borderline impacts people’s lives. For example, the 21st-century efforts of Oregonians to secede and join Idaho are the focus of the story “Greater Idaho,” which follows Chapter Four. This contemporary movement has long historical roots starting in the 1850s.

When diplomats established the international boundary between Canada and the United States in 1846—the subject of Chapter Three—they set another of Idaho’s future borders, in the process isolating members of the Kootenai Tribe of Idaho from relatives in British Columbia. The tribe’s declaration of war against the United States in 1976, highlighted in the border story “War,” resulted in a federally recognized reservation in far northern Idaho.

I selected the border story subjects to focus on a diversity of ways in which Idaho’s outlines boundaries have over time influenced those living within their confines, from settlers and miners to Mormon immigrants and Native Americans. Other writers might have selected different examples, but a verifiable truth remains: Idahoans today continue to creatively face the challenges of boundary decisions made a century and a half ago.

Keith C. Petersen Pullman, Washington May 2022




Student Special


It seemed the entire town had gathered at the Moscow depot. A band played. Old acquaintances reacquainted. A line of cars waited to chauffeur passengers to their new homes up the hill.

The Student Special, pulled by two locomotives, arrived at the station at 12:50 p.m. on a sunny September day. The crowd cheered as 300 nattily attired University of Idaho students disembarked from the ten passenger cars. People distributed flowers, snapped photos, gave hugs. Another school year would soon begin.

The train had just zigzagged through three states—its only possible route—to deliver students from one part of Idaho to another. Although they did not know it, those townspeople assembled at the depot, the students on board, and the operators of this special train— indeed, the University of Idaho itself—all converged on that day because of decisions made in such faraway places as Madrid, Lon- don, and Washington, D.C., between 1819 and 1868. That is when diplomats and politicians foisted on Idaho the nation’s most peculiar borders. Since then, Idahoans have toiled to unite their geographically challenging state. University of Idaho administrators came up with one innovation: The Student Special.

Late in his life, Norman Maclean gained international acclaim for writing A River Runs Through It. Earlier, he had been more drawn to mountains than rivers—particularly Idaho’s mountains. As a 17-year- old, he spent the summer of 1919 on a fire lookout in north-central Idaho. Day after day, he gazed in wonder upon vast expanses of mountains, “more mountains in all directions than I was ever to see again.” They ran far into the distance, endless ridges matted with dark forests. “The mountains of Idaho, poems of geology stretching beyond any boundaries and seemingly even beyond the world,” Maclean rhapsodized.1

Northern Idaho is a vast sea of mountains, broken only occasion- ally by lush prairies. They would eventually prove a boon to tourism officials—and Realtors selling property with breathtaking views. But those mountains—not to mention wild rivers and vast canyons—separated north Idaho from the south, isolating the residents of Idaho’s panhandle from the rest of the state.

At the time Congress formally established Idaho’s bizarre boundaries in the 1860s, few of its members had ever experienced anything like Idaho’s craggy peaks. Fewer still had even seen the place they would name Idaho. Faced with urgent issues surrounding a bloody Civil War, they hastily set Idaho’s territorial borders, in the process creating an abomination of a panhandle—spectacularly beautiful, but narrow, jagged, and disconnected from the rest of the state. Members of Congress conceived Idaho, then moved on to momentous national concerns. They left it to Idahoans to figure out how to make the place function.

Initially, it seemed north Idaho would do all right. William Wal- lace, the territory’s first governor, proclaimed Lewiston the capital in 1863. Everything changed two years later when an acting governor confiscated the official territorial records and rode off with them to Boise, which has been the capital since. Was the capital stolen? Rightfully transferred? Take your pick, and whether an Idahoan lives north or south of the Salmon River usually determines their point of view. Regardless, northern Idaho residents learned a lesson when they lost the capital to the south. When delegates met in Boise in 1889 to write a constitution for the State of Idaho, northern representatives saw to it that the document spelled out the site of the new state’s college. The University of Idaho would be permanently located in Moscow, protected by constitutional decree. No southern hijinks could displace it. While northern Idaho gained the university, most of the state’s people lived in the south—including most of its college-age students. Between the University of Idaho and that principal audience lay those endless ranges of mountains—not to mention rivers and canyons. University administrators tackled the dilemma of linking two disparate parts of a dissimilar state. They faced the same conundrum as generations of Idahoans who have attempted to create a working commonwealth. The geographically challenged members of Congress who set Idaho’s strange borders had done Idahoans no favors.

Moscow’s newspaper emphasized the challenge. “Geographical barriers make the trip from one part of the state to the other…embarrassing,” concluded the editor of the Daily Star-Mirror. “To go from any point in south Idaho to a northern city it is necessary to travel through three states and consume much more time than would be used were there a more direct route.” So, University of Idaho officials teamed with the Union Pacific Railroad to create the Student Special, a train connecting northern and southern Idaho—via Oregon and Washington.2

The train commenced in Pocatello. From there, the Student Special, made up of coach cars, baggage cars, dining car, and sleeper cars “of the latest type,” rolled west, gathering more passengers at American Falls, Shoshone, Gooding, Bliss, Glenns Ferry, Mountain Home, Nampa, Caldwell, and Parma. Spur lines transported students from Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, and Boise to the main UP route. The Special crossed the border into Oregon. At Umatilla, the student cars decoupled and waited on a siding to connect with a “milk train” that would carry them through small eastern Washington towns before arriving at Moscow. Students beginning their journey in Pocatello would have covered 692 miles in a little more than 24 hours, roughly equivalent to traveling from New York City to Indianapolis.3

Other states ran trains transporting students to universities, but nothing on the scale of Idaho’s Student Special. “It gives Idaho the dubious distinction of having the longest known route for a regular student train,” noted geographer Benjamin Thomas, “a long trip for a student attending his ‘local’ state university.” The Student Specials began rolling before World War I and operated until after World War I. They carried students to Moscow in the fall, to and from campus at Christmas, and returned them home in the spring. The train became “a well-established feature of the opening of the University each fall” and provided a lifetime of memories for those who rode. “It was a very exciting experience for all of us,” recalled one.4

Still, it was a makeshift effort to connect two parts of a state that, logically, had no reason to exist inside the confines of one set of borders. Idaho’s boundaries circumvent a rugged landscape of mountains, rivers, canyons, forests, and deserts. Much of Idaho’s history is one of accommodating its burdensome borders. With ingenuity and resolve, Idahoans have endeavored to create a unified state. That process would have been much easier if Idaho had more reasonable borders. But then, Idaho would not be Idaho had it matured without struggle.

Idahoans had virtually no say in the way their state took shape. Had they, they probably would have done things differently. But those decisions were made in places faraway, by diplomats, politicians, and schemers. Truthfully, they made a mess of things, and Idaho, coping within its illogical confines, almost ceased to exist even before statehood arrived, a near casualty of its curious configuration. Those students who disembarked in Moscow on that sunny day in September were but one part of the puzzle, part of the long and ongoing story of Idahoans creatively attempting to piece together a workable state.




Rectangles on the Land


It is, admittedly, unusual to begin a book about Idaho with the French and Indian War. But that seems a good place to start this story, because that 18th-century conflict helped determine Idaho’s borders—long before there was an Idaho. Understanding how Idaho got its boundaries is critical to understanding Idaho, for one can make a case that its peculiar borders have influenced Idaho’s development more than any other factor in its history.

Look at a map of the western United States. Toss out California and Texas, which entered the union under unusual circumstances, and you have a bunch of rectangles. Some borders accommodate natural features, but the map of the West is essentially a vast expanse of box- like states. And then we have Idaho. What in the world happened here?

To unravel the answer requires some understanding of 18th-century North America. It is fitting that the story of how the nation got its most awkwardly shaped state begins with continent’s most inappropriately named war.

A reasonable person could assume that a conflict called the French and Indian War would have pitted French against Indians. Actually, it was combat between French and Indians on one side and British and Indians—albeit fewer of them—on the other. We could refer to this conflict as the Seven Years War, as Europeans do, except it lasted nine years in America. Notwithstanding its problematic nomenclature, the ramifications of this brutal war dramatically influenced American history, even in a place like Idaho—not yet a figment of anyone’s imagination at the time.

The war, like most, began as a dispute over territory. In the 1750s, France claimed a vast tract of North America, from the eastern sea- coast of Canada, south through the Great Lakes, and on to the Gulf of Mexico. England had chartered companies to establish colonies in America. Their land grants extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. Thus, England claimed all the area south of French Canada and north of Spanish Florida—from sea to sea. England and France, in other words, both laid claim to the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River.

These conflicting claims did not much matter for a long time. Relatively few French citizens resided in North America, and British colonists confined themselves to the eastern seaboard. But as British settlers began traipsing to the west side of the Appalachian Mountains, conflicts occurred, beginning in 1754. What Americans called the French and Indian War bloodily ebbed and flowed until France and England signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763. The treaty granted Canada and the region between the Mississippi and Appalachians to England. In a nutshell, it ensured that, while French culture still thrives in parts of Canada and Louisiana, English language and values would dominate that region.

The French and Indian War saddled England with huge debts. When the British imposed a series of unpopular taxes on American colonists to help alleviate the indebtedness, it touched off an affair called the American Revolution.

The revolution would be immaterial to a story about Idaho’s boundaries had the victorious Americans not found themselves the new proprietors of those formerly disputed lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. What was a young nation to do with all that extra country? As was often Americans’ wont in those days, they assigned Thomas Jefferson the task of figuring things out.

As a consequence of the Revolutionary War, England ceded to America 400,000 square miles of land east of the Mississippi River. Several American states had claims on this land dating back to the colonial era. In 1783, Thomas Jefferson journeyed to Annapolis, Maryland, to represent Virginia in the Congress of the Confederation. All delegates to the Congress understood that the new nation had somehow to transform western lands into manageable jurisdictions. Beyond that, they disagreed on just who should create what order. Should existing states that retained claims on the territory decide that country’s future? Land speculators? The nascent federal government? His congressional colleagues appointed Jefferson to devise a plan. Over the course of a few months, he conceived the fundamental foundation of American westward expansion.1

Jefferson insisted that existing states relinquish to the federal government all their claims to western lands. National policy would shape western expansion, not the whims of individual states. The land, he asserted, should eventually become new states. These would have the same relationship to the federal government as older ones and would pay their share of federal debts. There would be an orderly process of progressing from territorial status to statehood.

Jefferson also realized that the federal government needed to create geographical order. Surveyors should lay out the land in square grids, with precise north-south and east-west lines. One year later, Congress further refined this concept by establishing the system of dividing land into townships and sections. That became the nation’s accepted system as it expanded west.

Another Jeffersonian concept of orderliness initially had less success. He proposed dividing the trans-Appalachian region into a series of territories that would eventually become states. The western boundaries of those lying along the Mississippi would meander with the river. But that was Jefferson’s only concession to geography. He conceived other borders as straight lines, proposing a series of side-by-side rectangles stacked up like rows of boxes. When each rectangle filled with enough people, it would qualify for statehood. He gave the places classical-sounding names like Assenisipia and Metropotamia. We would today remember nothing of Jefferson’s nod to the classics had he not also proposed naming two of them Michigania and Illinoia.

In May 1784, the Confederation Congress appointed Jefferson Minister to France. He sailed for Europe two months later. Congress approved much of what Jefferson had proposed about western lands, particularly his concept of the progression of frontier territories into states. But in his absence, Congress jettisoned his idea of neat, rectangular territories. Such a division, disregarding natural boundaries, would have produced jurisdictions “inconveniently divided by rivers, lakes and mountains, and many of them must…contain a large pro- portion of barren and unimprovable lands.” Some would never enjoy a sufficient number of inhabitants to form a government and would exist “without laws and without order.”2

Thomas Jefferson’s vision of rectangular states went unrealized in the 18th century. It would gain new life in the 19th-century American West.


Few members of Congress had any knowledge of those western lands. But most had a concept that geography should help determine borders. Thus, the country ended up with interestingly shaped states in that region. They bore little resemblance to Jefferson’s orderly boxes. But Jefferson’s concept of neat rectangles reemerged as the United States expanded west of the Mississippi.

From the earliest days of America, the country has had a keen interest in the creation of state boundaries. The longest clause in the Articles of Confederation, the 1781 precursor to the United States Constitution, dealt with borders. The Articles granted to the Confederation Congress the authority of “last resort” in all boundary disputes. The Constitution, ratified six years later, gave the United States Congress power to admit new states to the union. Although the Constitution did not specifically assign Congress the right to establish the new states’ borders, Congress assumed that authority by claiming sole jurisdiction to determine territorial boundaries. By the time western territories became states, Congress had already established their borders. So, in essence Congress held virtually all power over the creation of state borders.

As a result of the Louisiana Purchase, the War with Mexico, and various treaties, the United States in the first half of the 19th century gained unambiguous rights to western America. Congress now had on its hands more land requiring orderliness. Following the process Jefferson established, Congress would first divide this region into territories and then states—with the exception of Texas and California, which entered the union without first becoming territories. The 19th-century United States Congress had this in common with the 18th-century Congress of the Confederation: its members knew virtually nothing about the western lands they oversaw. The borders of western states often reflect that congressional bewilderment. As historian Herman Deutsch noted, “Few subjects offer greater opportunities to ponder the historical results of man’s ignorance than does the history of boundary lines.” Congress found straight-line borders a reasonable substitute for its lack of understanding of western geography. Rivers form a number of western state borders, and one boundary—between Idaho and Montana—runs along the crest of mountains. But straight lines pre- dominate. Except for about 25 miles along the Rio Grande, all of New Mexico’s borders follow lines of latitude and longitude. The boundaries of Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming consist entirely of straight lines. Jefferson’s affinity for boxes reached its apex in the latter two states, which are nearly perfect rectangles. Every state in the continental United States west of the Mississippi has some straight-line borders.3 “Congress had a predilection for symmetry when drawing West-

ern boundaries,” noted geographer Malcolm Comeaux. Not only did it pursue straight lines, it also sought to create states of approximately equal size. Kansas, Nebraska, and the two Dakotas are all the same height. Although slightly “taller” than those four, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana are likewise the same distance from north to south. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming, and the two Dakotas are the same width. If he could block out Idaho, Thomas Jefferson would be pleased with how Congress mapped the western United States.4

Straight lines were easier to plot on maps than marks adhering to natural features, particularly in the 19th-century American West. That region suffered for years from a paucity of accurately detailed maps showing geographic characteristics. Combined with a general congressional lack of knowledge of the region and the Jeffersonian goal of imposing order on a landscape, it becomes clear why most of the West resembles a conglomeration of rectangular boxes. But those strokes, so easily drawn on a flat map, usually defied the natural landscape, paying little heed to mountains, rivers, and valleys. Still, those lines proved critical to people living in the West and continue to be consequential today. As President—and historian—Woodrow Wilson noted, west- ern states were “whimsically enough formed,” having “joined mining communities with agricultural, the mountain with the plain, the ranch with the farm” leaving “neighbors ill at ease with one another.”5

Much of the congressional decision-making over western borders took place when members of Congress could be excused for paying attention to more pressing issues. Take Idaho, for example. That territory came into existence during the darkest days of the Civil War. Members of Congress had more important matters to contemplate than the boundaries of a strangely named territory in a faraway place. Few members of Congress in the 1860s knew anything about that landscape. So, they were susceptible to influence by men who did know the area and could make convincing arguments for borders that would benefit them personally—but not so much the future residents of Idaho.

Idaho is a product of its time—a time of war and of ignorance of western geography, when Congress created a territory, and then a state, with borders that make very little sense. But Idaho is also a product of the time when Congress largely realized the Jeffersonian ideal of geo- metric symmetry. That seems an odd statement when discussing such a peculiarly shaped state. But paying closer attention to a map of Idaho reveals this. Three of its borders—north, south, and the boundary with Wyoming—are straight lines. A fourth, the border with Washing- ton, is essentially a straight line, excepting a few squiggly miles on its southern end. The borders with Oregon and Montana incorporate both straight lines and geographic features. Regardless of its overall eccentric appearance, most of Idaho boundaries are straight.

Despite this adherence to geometric lines, Idaho turned out— well, weird, essentially slapped together by a distracted Congress. Author Vardis Fisher called it a “geographic monstrosity.” Michael Trinklein claimed, simply, “Idaho makes no sense,” featuring regions that “go together about as well as peanut butter and jellyfish.” Historians have agreed. “Idaho’s odd shape [is the] result of perhaps the most counterintuitive state boundaries in the country,” concluded Laura Woodworth-Ney. Idaho’s borders defy “historical, geographical, cultural, and social logic,” agreed Carlos Schwantes. They “met the criteria of political expediency only, and that may be about the same as saying [they] had no logic at all.” All of which might be humorous if not for such serious aftereffects. As longtime Idaho State Historian Merle Wells wrote, “The choice of boundaries did much to decide what the future state would be like.”6

Idaho’s borders have roots in the French and Indian War, in early American diplomacy, and in a Congress that showed little interest in the repercussions of its boundary-drawing authority. The story of how Idaho got its strange shape is the tale of people with little knowledge of the place imposing boundaries and leaving it to Idaho residents to figure things out—which Idahoans have been attempting to accomplish since. It is a story of how famous Americans rarely associated with Idaho history—Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Richard Rush, James K. Polk—had much more influence on Idaho’s boundaries than did anyone who ever resided there. It is an account of international negotiations, high-stakes chicanery, and political compromise. Rarely is it a story of logic prevailing over irrationality.

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