Idaho’s Territorial Capital Dispute
A nineteenth-century dispute over where to place the state capital dispute helped create a regional divide that persists in Idaho to this day. It all started when westward settlers found gold in 1860, leading many to migrate to the Rocky Mountains in hopes of striking it rich. Settlers found gold in the Clearwater River, in northern Idaho, and some formed mining camps, one of which was Lewiston. As the settler population grew, many in the area called for establishing a seat of United States government closer than Olympia, Washington. In response, in March 1863, territorial governor William H. Wallace pronounced Lewiston the capital of Idaho. Wallace chose this location because in addition to the gold, there was already an established transportation and communication system that linked northern Idaho to other U.S. states and territories.
After the discovery of gold in 1862 in the Boise Basin, however, eager settlers rushed to the southern part of the territory. At the same time, gold had depleted up north in Lewiston, even further accelerating the southward migration. With most of the settler population now residing in the south, moving the capital seemed logical, especially since mountainous terrain made traveling between Boise and Lewiston difficult.
This turned out to be easier said than done, however. The territorial legislature, primarily made up of representatives from northern Idaho, failed the first initiative to change Idaho’s capital. However, in 1864 Idaho’s number of legislative representatives changed to accommodate the difference in population, leaving three representatives for the north and four for the south. This change in political power—plus pressure from H. C. Riggs, one of Bosise’s founders—convinced acting governor Caleb Lyon to move the capital to Boise. On November 23, 1864, Riggs introduced a bill to make Boise the capital. It passed six days later, and Lyon signed it into law.
Rather than fix the problem, this may have only made it worse. Governor Lyon fled to nearby Walla Walla, Washington, and sent a trusted official to retrieve the official documents from the acting secretary of Lewiston. After a stalemate over who had rights to the papers, and where the capital would officially reside, President Lincoln’s territorial secretary C. DeWitt Smith went to serve as acting governor of Idaho. With help from Fort Lapwai soldiers, Smith obtained the documents and traveled to Boise, where he put the new law into effect.
In the end, moving the capitol from Lewiston to southern Idaho left its residents with a sense of lost pride. This sparked a cultural divide between northern and southern Idaho that continues to this day. To this day, downtown Lewiston hosts a sign proclaiming the city “Idaho's First Territorial Capital,” demonstrating that the residents remember their city’s history and will not let people forget Idaho’s original territorial capital.