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Idaho: The Land of the Nez Perce and Shoshone

The Nez Perce tribe lived in the north of what is now Idaho, and the Shoshone in the south.

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Idaho became the 43rd state to join the Union on July 3, 1890. Its name is thought to be taken from a Shoshone phrase that means “gem of the mountains.” The shape of the state looks much like a logger’s boot, which is fitting since the terrain is full of forests and mountains and logging and mining play major roles in its economy.

Before the Europeans arrived, the land was occupied by Native American tribes, namely the Shoshone to the south and the Nez Perce in the north. Both tribes lived similar lifestyles and made their homes in tepees, which made it easy to move when they were following the buffalo.

In 1592, Spanish explorers entered the area and began introducing pigs, horses, tomatoes, beans, corn, and garlic to the indigenous peoples. In 1805, Lewis and Clark entered Idaho while on their way to the Pacific Ocean. They met with the Shoshone and Nez Perce and obtained a guide, Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian they had met before.  The Nez Perce helped the explorers survive, feeding them and helping them build canoes. They showed Lewis and Clark how to get to the Pacific Ocean. Soon after, fur traders started going to the area, including Andrew Henry, who built Fort Henry in 1810.

Just as with most of the states, Idaho was claimed by both the United States and Britain. The area used to be very large, but in 1846, it became part of the U.S. through the Oregon Treaty with Britain and in 1848, it joined the Oregon Territory. A few years later, in 1853, Oregon became its own territory and Idaho became part of the Washington Territory in the Pacific Northwest.

Idaho’s remote location made it one of the last areas to be explored and settled. When gold was discovered in 1860, people anxious to make their fortunes flocked to the area. It grew in population exponentially and in 1863 it became its own territory. It would still be nearly 30 more years before Idaho joined the Union.

The Tribes

Much of Idaho was established using the Native American names. Coeur d’Alene, for example, is a popular town today but also the name of a tribe. The name came from French fur traders and trappers when they encountered the Schitsu’umish Indians. In their dealings with the natives, they nicknamed them “Coeur d’Alene” which means “heart of the awl.” The term was used to refer to the tribes trading skills. One Frenchman was so impressed with their talents, he described them as “the greatest traders in the world.”

The ancient tribal trade routes and paths still exist. Today, those same passages have become interstate highways.

The Nez Perce tribe’s name seems like a translation error. The French somehow translated their name to mean “pierced nose” even though this was not a tradition of the tribe. The natives, however, choose to go by the name Ni Mii Pu which means “The People.”

Idaho generally stayed out of the Civil War and many soldiers from the Union and the Confederate armies sought refuge there. It was ahead of its time as far as progressive politics and was the first state in the nation to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.

Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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