What If the Mormons Hadn’t Come to Idaho? (Written for ISU’s alumni magazine, Outlook, in the winter of 1989, in anticipation of Idaho’s Centennial in 1990)


            In my U.S. history survey class, I once used a book entitled Speculations on American History by Morton Borden and Otis L. Graham, Jr.  Students found it difficult, and I abandoned it as assigned reading after a year.  Perhaps, I rationalized, people first have to know how things turned out before they can appreciate alternative paths to America’s present.  I’ve since learned from one of the authors that my experience was common.  Professors loved the book; students didn’t.

            I find the book so stimulating because it is premised on the belief that there is nothing “inevitable” about history.  By seriously investigating multiple outcomes, history comes alive and refreshes interest.  Speculation frees us from “the dead hand of the past,” as Thomas Jefferson phrased it.

            As Idaho approaches its centennial year, “what if” questions abound for the modern period of Idaho’s past since 1800.  What if: Sacajawea hadn’t joined the Lewis and Clark expedition?  Gold hadn’t been discovered in the Boise Basin in the 1860s, in the Wood River Valley in the 1870s, and silver in north Idaho in the 1880s?  Chief Joseph had made it into Canada in 1877?  Ira B. Perrine, Frank Buhl, Stanley Milner, Peter Kimberly, and Walter Filer hadn’t tamed the Snake River in 1905?  INEL hadn’t been established in 1949?  Richard Stallings hadn’t defeated George Hansen by 170 votes in 1984?  I think about such questions a lot.  Really, I do.

            All of these questions contain rich possibilities, but most pale in interest compared with my topic in this column, “What if the Mormons hadn’t come to Idaho?”  Clearly, the lives of all Idahoans today would be different, but in what ways?  Of special interest to ISU alums, the Academy of Idaho, the Southern Branch, and ISC might never have happened.  The railroad almost certainly wouldn’t have entered southeastern Idaho at Preston in 1874 on its way to the Montana mines.  Without the Utah Northern (and later the Utah & Northern, the Oregon Short Line, and the Union Pacific), there would have been no Pocatello in 1882 and no land run in 1902.  The Ft. Hall Indian Reservation would have been larger, longer.

            Also, the settlement of the upper Snake River area would have been delayed, along with small-scale irrigation projects along the Snake and its tributaries.  Ricks College [today, Brigham Young University – Idaho] probably wouldn’t have been located in Rexburg, nor would Idaho Falls have supplanted Eagle Rock.  Without the need for irrigation so early, there would have been no need for a Teton Dam and no “over-irrigation” with the dam’s collapse in 1976.

            These and many other topics reward investigation.  Because space is limited, I have decided to concentrate my attention on politics in the period immediately preceding statehood.  For several reasons, I will argue that without the large LDS migration in the 1870s, Idaho would never have become a state.

            First, an assumption.  I think it fair to assume that as long as Mormons remained centered in Salt Lake City, migration into Idaho Territory was inevitable.  But the timing could have been very different.  Following abandonment of the Lemhi settlement in 1858, church leaders questioned the suitability of the area for Mormon outposts.  Also, general opinion held that the Cache Valley was too cold for growing crops.  As early as 1851, a colony at San Bernardino, California, existed; in 1855, at Las Vegas.  Suppose climate and church hierarchy had directed people south or west rather than north.  Without Franklin (1860), Paris (1863), and most importantly the railroad (1874), no large-scale Mormon migration into Idaho Territory would have occurred prior to statehood.

            The timing of the railroad is crucial.  The mines in Montana Territory lured freighters and railroad interests, but the national panic of 1873 and agricultural reverses in Utah doomed the Utah Northern.  Would Jay Gould have built a railroad from start on his own, had he not been able to purchase Utah Northern stock for 40 cents on the dollar?  Perhaps, but probably not in 1877.

            Given these assumptions, delayed settlement of southeastern Idaho until the late 1880s or early 1890s is not unreasonable.  With such a delay, in 1890 southeastern Idaho would arguably have had 15,000 fewer residents.  Southern Idaho would still have had twice the number of residents as north Idaho, but overall a much less compelling case for statehood would have existed.  Dividing Idaho Territory among its neighbors would have been more possible, more reasonable, and plausible.

            By the mid-1880s, north Idahoans wanted out.  Most people living in Lewiston and northern parts considered union with Washington or Montana Territory, or creating a new territory out of parts of each, desirable.  As north Idahoans tried to pull away, Nevada Republican Senator William M. Stewart sought to snare south Idaho for Nevada.

            Briefly put, Nevada’s population growth slowed following statehood (1864) and declined during the 1880s.  By 1890, more people lived in southern Idaho Territory than in the State of Nevada.  Plans for joining southern Idaho with Nevada included holding alternative sessions of the Nevada[ho?] legislature in Carson City and Boise and excluding the territory north of about Grangeville.  The state would have looked strange, but so do a lot of states.  A bill for this purpose cleared Congress in March 1887, but acting upon the advice of Idaho’s Democratic Territorial Governor Edward A. Stevenson, Democratic President Grover Cleveland never signed it into law.  Hopes of northern Idahoans and Senator Stewart resurfaced in February 1888, in the Democratic party-controlled House of Representatives but died in the Republican-controlled Senate.  Idaho remained intact.

            But just barely.  Northerners demanded satisfaction, and more.  The fourteenth session of the Idaho territorial legislature in January-February 1887, voted to locate the University of Idaho at Eagle Rock.  By moving the university to Moscow in 1889, sectional discord abated in populous Latah County and, gradually, in Nez Perce county as well (between the two of them, about half the population of north Idaho).  In the summer of 1889, north Idaho and the Boise area dominated the work of the Idaho Constitutional Convention, led by William H. Claggett of Murray (Shoshone County).  In 1890, most northerners resigned themselves to their inclusion in the new forty-third state of Idaho.

            How can we best explain this dramatic shift in Idaho’s fortunes?  What factor was most indispensable to the fusion of northern and southern Idaho factions in 1890?  One answer buries all others--anti-Mormonism.  The large concentration of Mormons in Bear Lake and Oneida Counties infuriated many Idahoans.  Voting as a bloc, Mormons helped the Democratic party to control politics in Idaho Territory in its early years.  When the U.S. Congress in 1882 passed the Edmunds Act, the bill that disfranchised polygamists and barred them from holding public office and sitting on juries, anti-Mormons and Republicans found a way to strike at the political power of the LDS Church.  In December 1884, the Idaho Legislature passed the Test Oath, extending the Edmunds Act to cover all who professed a belief in polygamy even if they didn’t practice it (estimates place the number of practicing polygamists in the two to three percent range).  Simultaneously, the legislature created Bingham County out of predominately Mormon Oneida County and extended its southern boundary to include Oxford, which the railroad transformed into an overwhelmingly “gentile” community.

            To enforce the Test Oath, marshals and judges adopted intrusive measures.  Fred T. DuBois from Blackfoot hounded polygamists, arrested them, and sent them to prison.  At elections, he and his associates ensured that practicing Mormons did not vote.  Most importantly, he used the Mormon issue to build a political party that united the southern and northern portions of the state.

            At the Constitutional Convention, anti-Mormonism touched every issue.  Mormons, having been counted as part of the territory, were excluded from voting in Article I, section 3.  Clearly, political considerations controlled this issue--if Mormons voted, they would vote Democratic.  If they voted Democratic, they would jeopardize the movement to statehood since the Republican party controlled both houses of Congress after the elections of 1888.  A comparison with Democratic party-controlled New Mexico and Arizona Territories is instructive--statehood did not come there until 1912.

            If Mormon numbers had remained small, what other issue would Republicans from south Idaho have used to pressure the north into statehood?  All other potential issues (water, for example) were more divisive than inclusive.  Without the issue of anti-Mormonism to unite Republicans and paralyze Democrats, therefore, the Congress would probably have joined southern Idaho to Nevada and north Idaho to Washington Territory.  Idaho would have missed its opportunity for statehood.

            Would Nevadaho have prospered, however?  Probably not.  Looking back from 1989, we can see that population in Nevada has always lagged behind Idaho’s.  Railroads and irrigation projects brought large numbers of farmers to Idaho, farther splitting the two regions’ interests.  The Boise-Carson City connection was doomed from the start, and after World War I Nevadahoans moved the capital of the state to Boise.  Then, both Carson City-Reno and Las Vegas areas turned toward California.  Petitions for secession only momentarily diverted Congress’s attention from the problems of the Great Depression.  Today, “the Strip” runs between Reno and Tahoe, and Lake Mead provides water and power to Los Angeles.

            What happened to north Idaho?  Farther from Seattle than from Boise, secession fever plagued the area by the early 1890s.  Spokane-area residents welcomed the fight, but without western Montana the secession movement faltered in the Congress due to lack of population.  Trains, Interstate 90, and airplanes momentarily bonded Coeur d’Alene, Wallace and Kellogg in extreme eastern Washington to the rest of the state.  But with declining silver prices, rumors of secession persist into recent times.  Unhappy as part of Idaho in the 1880s, northerners are equally unhappy as part of Washington in the 1980s.  Deja vu.

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            Toward the end of the preface of Speculations on American History, the authors offer the hope that “by reflecting upon what might have happened, the reader will better understand what did happen.”  With them, I hope this essay will stimulate interest in Idaho history and provoke discussion and dissent among the readers of Outlook.  Alternative scenarios--perhaps less politically based than this one--will enrich our understanding of Idaho’s real and what-might-have-been history.

            My conclusion is this: Like all the states after the first thirteen, Idaho was born out of horse trading, gerrymandering, political intrigue, partisan rivalries, sectional animosities and bigotry -- the essential elements of the so-called “Mormon question” in 1889/1890.  Such is the legacy of Idaho’s past, and its challenge for the future.