Life in the Old West

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Gold led settlers to Boise; irrigation farming kept them there


As with many towns of the West, promises of sudden wealth brought the first settlers to Boise, Idaho — prospectors drawn by an 1862 gold strike. But it was the rich soil, coaxed into bearing crops by a complex of irrigation channels cut into the Idaho desert that turned fortune seekers into settlers.

Originally named “Les Bois” (French, meaning “wooded”) by Hudson’s Bay Company trappers who came into the area as early as 1834, the stretch of wooded land was transformed first into gold diggings, then a small town, and finally the capital of the state of Idaho. It grew from about 400 houses and other permanent structures in 1868 to a city of more than 205,000 population by 2009.

Gold discoveries were most abundant in the mountains and foothills near Boise, not so much in the town site itself. But with the presence of some wagon routes near and through the town and the military’s willingness to set up a fort on these trails in the 1860s, by the 1870s Boise had become a busy settlement to supplying goods and services to the miners and remote mining camps in the hills outside town. (Also contributing to the town’s prominence was the addition of the Idaho Penitentiary in 1870.)

But gold fever dominated the town’s early days and early decades, as throughout much of the West in the 1850s-’80s. Although no major gold strikes were actually made the town of Boise, the eager and the optimistic frequently panned for gold along the Boise River where it ran through and near the town. One wag famous for his public displays of fun and tomfoolery was a well-known blacksmith named George Washington Stilts.
In 1876, spring flooding waters changed the course of the Boise River, prompting Stilts to begin placer mining along the stretch of newly exposed stream bed. No one knew for sure whether Stilts was serious about his efforts or just pranking the townsfolk. (I could find no record of Stilts’ success or failure at his gold prospecting business.)

Once gold fever died down in Boise, the town began to decline in population. But instead of turning into another western ghost town abandoned by treasure seekers, Boise found a way to save itself: combining careful planning with a lot of hard work turned the settlement from a gold camp into fertile farm land. Under determined local leadership, a well organized system of irrigation canals and ditches grew up around the Boise River and up into the water courses of the nearby mountains.

Water rights and usage have always been an issue throughout the West, and the Boise Valley region was no exception. But after much wrangling, state legislative battles, and enormous successes combined with scandals and failures, the people of Boise Valley ended up by the late-19th and early-20th century with a region blessed by abundant water for farming what would otherwise have been a sparsely inhabited desert.

From gold fever to farms and orchards, Boise’s history speaks to the adventuresome spirit and determination that shaped life in the Old West.

(Sources: Information for this glimpse of Boise, Idaho, history came from several websites accessed in February 2012, primarily these two: http://www.city-data.com/us-cities/The-West/Boise-History.html and http://www.idahostatesman.com/2012/02/05/1981989/prospectors-found-gold-not-far.html)