Exploration & Expansion

The expansion of the United States from its original size of just 13 small, eastern states is an important part of American history and the history of Idaho.

Much of the regional culture and demography of Idaho and the west can be attributed to the people that originally settled in the area. However, the settlement of Idaho was just a part of a much larger movement of westward expansion in the United States. The exploration, settlement, and development of the western frontier left behind a legacy that is an integral part of American culture.

In 1789, at the time of the Revolutionary War, the United States consisted of what now seems like a small strip of land between the Allegheny Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. However, it would not remain that way for long. Almost immediately, settlers began pushing west into the areas lying between the Allegheny Mountains and the Mississippi River. Then, in 1803, the U.S. made the Louisiana Purchase, acquiring hundreds of thousands of square miles of land from France. This land stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, and would allow for the settlement of the mid-western states and the Great Plains.

Most of this area was ideal for farming, with deep fertile soils, but the western Great Plains region was found to be too dry for agriculture, so ranching would be initiated there instead.

Look at some Oregon Trail statistics:
* Indian Attacks
* Total Migration
Go visit Mining for more information.

Look at Idaho in 1860.

Look at Idaho in 1863.
Look at territorial changes from 1848 to after 1869.
Click here to read a historical essay about the exploration and expansion of Idaho, how Idaho was named, and the development of the state's government.
Click here to read an additional discussion of Westward Expansion in the United States
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In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition from Missouri to the Pacific Northwest, exploring parts of what would become Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, aided by an Indian woman named Sacajawea. They wrote memoirs about the ruggedness of the mountains of central Idaho and the overall beauty of the Northwest The acquisition of these lands would come later in U.S. history, but the door to the west had been opened.

At first, the only white men living in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain regions were fur trappers or mountain men. Many of these men worked under contract with large commercial fur companies. Commercial fur hunting played a large role in opening up the western frontiers and developing relations with local Indians.

However, by the 1840s most of the beaver that were so highly sought after by the trappers, had been hunted to near extinction and the fur companies pulled out.

The rugged terrain and Indian presence had been enough to keep most people away from the Northwest and Rocky Mountains for a while, but eventually the prospect of gold, lumber, land and freedom got the best of many. All types were attracted to the frontier - from homesteaders, to loggers, miners, gamblers, merchants, outlaws and more.

By the 1840’s Oregon was a very attractive place to settlers. The rumors of good farmland brought people by the thousands. Families would sell almost everything they owned to buy a wagon and supplies for the long trip over the Oregon Trail.

Fort Hall, Idaho was a major stop along the Oregon Trail, providing a place for settlers to get supplies and rest, before they proceeded with the last part of their trip. Unfortunately, the journey was not as easy as many would have hoped. Hostile Indians and rugged mountain terrain cost the lives of many people before they ever got to Oregon.

An even bigger draw west came in 1849 when gold was discovered in California. Over 80,000 "forty-niners" made it to California, and many more died on the trail, victimized by the Nevada desert or mountains along the way. Most of the "forty-niners" that did make it to California never found gold, but the gold rush brought enough people into the area that California became a state in 1850.

After California, it was Colorado, then Nevada, Montana, and Idaho that saw a rapid influx of miners and mining settlements as mineral resources were discovered in the mountains and rivers of those states. Mining was responsible for the settlement of the areas near Boise, Ketchum, and Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho; as well as many other communities.

As mining towns sprang up and permanent settlements were established throughout the west, a need for more supplies and more efficient transportation was developed. This opened the door for the stagecoach and the railroad.

By 1869, the first railroad stretched from Nebraska to the Pacific. This allowed quicker transportation of goods and people. Spur lines were built to major towns throughout the west, and soon people began coming faster than ever before.

Between 1870 and 1890, the biggest movement westward took place. Spreading from the rail lines, hundreds of thousands of settlers moved into the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho.

The last territory to be settled was Oklahoma in 1889. Eventually, territories became states, with Idaho achieving statehood on July 3, 1890.

With the frontier gone, people began to develop areas that had previously been less desirable. In the arid regions of the west, this meant implementing irrigation methods and building dams so that crops could be grown and water made available for daily uses. Areas like the Magic Valley of Idaho were turned from sagebrush and weeds to green agricultural land as canals and irrigation ditches were built. Cities such as Twin Falls could be established because of the newfound productivity of the irrigated farmland.

All over the west, cities sprang up and grew as more people moved into the region. Today, many of the largest cities in the U.S. are old frontier towns.

The history of westward expansion is a unique part of western heritage. Much of the political and cultural character of the western U.S. still reflects its frontier roots.

Supplemental Reading:
Rocks, Rails & Trails:

  Chapter 4: Northwest Frontier
    Chapter 5: Oregon & California Trails
    Chapter 6: Mormon Settlement
    Chapter 7: Railroads
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Immigration & Emigration