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How did Idaho's capital move from Lewiston to Boise?

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
A sign marking Lewiston, Idaho's historical importance to the state.

Once you’re old enough to read, it’s hard not to notice the sign: “Welcome to Historic Lewiston, Idaho – Idaho’s First Territorial Capital.”

It’s something that’s ingrained in you growing up in the town and what you openly share with those you meet from below the time zone bridge.

Shannon Hohl went to the University of Idaho, but now lives in Boise and has long wondered what prompted the capital to move nearly 275 miles south.

“Friends of mine that are from Boise really don’t know much about this, but when I talk to people who are from North Idaho they’re the ones who usually bring it up,” Hohl says.

“They usually just mention it ‘Oh, by the way the capital was in Lewiston,’ kind of like ‘Don’t forget us. Don’t forget that we were where it was at, at the time.’”

It’s a story that strikes at the heart of Idaho’s western roots.

Lewiston sits at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers – the same water the Corps of Discovery cut through with dugout canoes on its trek westward to the Pacific Ocean.

Several decades later, settlers moved in to stake claims at nearby goldmines, to harvest vast forests just upriver, and later, to farm the rich soils of the Palouse and Camas Prairie.

Credit University of Idaho Library, Special Collections
Lewiston, Washington Territory, August 1862.

“Lewiston was a pretty thriving community. Indeed, it had a population larger than Seattle and Portland combined. There were thousands of people [who] came here,” says local historian Steven Branting who’s written several books about the city.

“But you would have been in a town that was pretty lawless. There was no Matt Dillon in town to keep the peace,” Branting says, referring to the sheriff character in the series 'Gunsmoke.'

At the time, Lewiston and the rest of Idaho were part of the Washington Territory.

In 1863, Congress carved out the Idaho Territory with Lewiston designated as its capital, but it wouldn’t last long.

Later that year, the southern legislative contingent tried to bring the capital home with them, but the bill was eventually tabled.

Credit Courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society
Idaho's First Territorial Statehouse in Lewiston, 1905.

Miners who had struck gold in the upper Clearwater near Pierce, however, now moved to the Boise Basin in search of new veins, according to Branting.

“They were following the money, essentially, and so most people left Lewiston except for a lot of the people who saw the potential of being a place where steamers were going to be coming up.”

The influx of people created new counties – and more counties meant more seats for the south in the territorial legislature.

The return of the legislature in November 1864 is something northerners claim should never have happened under the law.

Despite their objections, they couldn’t stop a bill to move the capital.

“It was not a small matter. People were very emotionally involved in this,” Branting says.

The following spring, Clinton DeWitt Smith, the newly installed territorial secretary of state, named himself acting governor and brought federal troops with him from nearby Fort Lapwai.

Those who had opposed the move locked the territorial seal and documents at the Lewiston jail – not in the capitol building as commonly thought, according to Branting.

“And they specifically took them out of there to get them out of his hands – the secretary’s hands – and they locked them in the jail. So when [DeWitt Smith] brought troops in, the troops covered the ferries, he went in and broke the lock on the jail and got in and got all the papers and then whips out of town on the ferry.”

In 1866, the territory’s new Supreme Court upheld what northerners viewed as a wild west heist without issuing a written opinion.

Credit Courtesy of the Nez Perce County Historical Society
A Lewiston street scene, December 1885, a few months before Congress approved a bill that would have annexed the city — and the rest of North Idaho — into the Washington Territory.

Those from the panhandle were so furious with the decision they pressured Congress to annex Idaho's northern half into the Washington Territory about 20 years later. Both the House and Senate passed the bill, but President Grover Cleveland hid it in his desk.

“Governor Stevenson, who was a close friend, lobbied him really hard. I mean he leaned on him, saying it will produce chaos here and Cleveland pocket vetoed it, which a president cannot do today,” Branting says.

“Otherwise, we would be sitting in Washington right now.”

So now, it’s merely a point of pride – and sometimes a chip on our shoulders – for those of us from Lewiston.

The political split struck so long ago, separated by hundreds of miles and an entire time zone, isn’t as raw as it used to be. Branting, like many Lewistonians I know, say Boise can keep the white marbled building.

“Would I want the capital back here? Absolutely not. I enjoy getting someplace in three minutes.”

This story was first published on January 12, 2018.

I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!

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