Everyone loves to learn about the chaos and craziness that was the Wild West of the United States. Okay, maybe not everyone is eager to learn about all the facts, but there are also quite a few fascinating and exciting stories from the time. Idaho is one of the places at the center of all of this excitement. Few other states can say they had the same hand as Idaho in creating the western half of the United States and bringing it up to what it is today. Idaho has a rich and interesting history when it comes to the old days that were full of outlaws and bank robberies. There are all kinds of exciting stories to be told about the forming of Idaho and all of the things that happened within the state’s borders before they were the borders of a state. Local heroes became famous across the country. Men and women lived and died in happiness and in terror. The harsh wasteland that was the untamed wilderness of the Western United States pressed down upon the people that lived there and what was forged from that pressure is the Idaho you find today.
Unfortunately, the first thing I have to tell you is that the Wild West was not actually that wild and was not as exciting as you may have seen it to be in the movies. It was still pretty exciting, but not in the same way that John Wayne, Robert Redford and Paul Newman, or Clint Eastwood is exciting. I know it can be a bit of a bummer to realize that Hollywood was not very truthful about all of the gunfights, stagecoach robberies, and outlaws that they have shown in their movies, but it is simply just not the way things were. Sure, there were occasional bandits that would take over a town or plague the roads and the west was a wild place with dangerous animals and environments but it was not all shootouts all the time. No, the Wild West is not what you are used to seeing on the television and was in fact much tamer. Towns forbid the carrying of weapons and people just generally wanted to make their way in a new world (The new world of the New World). However, there was still violence and heroism and there are all manner of exciting stories from the time that might almost stack up to the image we have today.
The Oregon Trail was one of the wilder things to happen to Idaho and it was actually quite civilized for what the rest of the area was like. The Oregon Trail brought all kinds of people to Idaho and sent them beyond if Idaho was not their final destination. Many of the stories that are told of what occurred on the Oregon Trail are full of that heroism we talked about as well as plenty of tragedy as well. The crossing from the Eastern United States to the Western United States was not an easy one. Men and women died in the attempt to reach their new home, many of them dying just as the journey started, falling prey to some sickness or suffering in an accident. Sometimes the accident did not kill them right out, but it put them in a state that was not conducive to their survival in the wild of the unsettled United States. For many, the journey was simply long and hard. The nights were cold and the days were hot with a constant permeation of dirt in the air and in their clothes. Of course, there were other sources of danger that were more human than environmental, but not many people actually fully understand the truth of those dangers either.
If there is one conflict of the Idaho Wild West that brought about the same level of violence that you see in movies about the time, it is the conflict between the settlers and the native populations that were already in place in America. Now, while there was plenty of violence, it was not as you may have seen it in the old westerns. There was certainly unprovoked aggression from native populations but much of the violence could be blamed on both sides. The settlers moved into native lands, set up shop, and started to take up space. Naturally, the more space they took up and the more of an impact they had on the land, the more frustrated the Native Americans would get. Peace resolved into disputes and when these disputes inevitably exploded away from any possible compromise or concession. This conflict went on and on, much of it playing out in Idaho, and we still feel the repercussion of it today.
Two of the most well-known events are the Bear River Massacre and the Nez Perce War. The Bear River Massacre was an event that repeated itself time and time again. Disputes between settlers and natives evolved into violent conflict with death on both sides and then the United States Military was called in. The actual massacre is not fully understood since the only people reporting on it were the people who perpetrated it and the people for whom it was perpetrated, but hundreds of Native American men, women, and children lost their lives to account for the deaths of more than twenty soldiers. The Nez Perce War is a bit of a more exciting and inspiring story. When the United States came to the Nez Perce tribe and told them they would have to live on a reservation from now on, they chose to head for the Canadian border instead. Thus, the Nez Perce War began, with several battles occurring on the path to the border, many of which were victories for the Nez Perce. Eventually, the army forces sent to confront them were too much and the Nez Perce were overwhelmed and forced to go back to the reservation.