BOISE – It was Abraham Lincoln who established the Idaho territory in 1863, helped pick the name “Idaho” and appointed the first territorial governor.
Lincoln even had Idaho on his mind the day he was assassinated, when he invited an Idaho delegation to join him at Ford’s Theater. They didn’t go.
As Idaho gears up for a two-year celebration of Lincoln’s 200th birthday, new attention is being drawn to the ties between the Gem State and the 16th president.
“Lincoln figures very prominently in the early history of Idaho,” said state historian emeritus Arthur Hart. “There’s going to be a lot of boning up on Abraham Lincoln.”
Idaho has established an Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, and its chairman, former lieutenant governor and state attorney general David Leroy, said there are big plans. This year’s Legislature set aside $10,000 for “seed money” for the effort.
“He was literally the father of the territory and the state,” Leroy said of Lincoln.
Washington also is looking ahead to the bicentennial, though state Historical Society Director David Nicandri said, “The tie-ins are a little remote.”
Washington territory was established by President Millard Fillmore in 1853. Lincoln did, however, appoint various territorial officials, and his policies had great impact on the state and the West.
Nicandri said, “We’re probably going to bring in some speakers, and we’ve got an eye out for traveling exhibits that might be of interest here in the state of Washington during the Lincoln Bicentennial.”
Idaho’s a little farther along, with a commission already established – the sixth state to take that step – and both the $10,000 appropriation and a $2,000 grant from the Idaho Humanities Council already committed to the commemoration.
The commission had asked the Legislature for $168,250.
“While we’re not fully funded, we’re pleased at the initial teaser,” Leroy said. “We will be out in the corporate and philanthropic community to try and raise money.”
Leroy said he’s already booked “Forever Free,” a traveling exhibit sponsored by the American Library Association, to come to Idaho next February.
“It’s booked through 2011, but we’ve scored a copy of it for a key date, for next year’s kickoff,” he said.
The exhibit, possibly accompanied by an Idaho-specific traveling exhibit, will go to North Idaho and eastern Idaho as well as Boise, Leroy said.
He also hopes to involve schoolchildren, possibly through lesson plans designed to reach all students in the state.
“Third, we hope to organize various symposia on history, race relations, Lincoln and the modern world, various topics that would intrigue and enlighten participants regarding Lincoln’s philosophy and the issues initially addressed in the Civil War era,” Leroy said.
Idaho’s first territorial governor, William H. Wallace, was a congressman from Washington territory when Lincoln appointed him.
Leroy, who has become a Lincoln buff and is seeking a publisher for a book he wrote on the president, found historical accounts indicating that Lincoln attended a meeting at Wallace’s Washington, D.C., home at which the two good friends decided to call the new territory Idaho.
In 1860, “Idaho” had been proposed as the name for what eventually became Colorado. Promoters claimed it was an Indian word meaning “gem of the mountains,” but in debate in the U.S. Senate in February 1861, the name was derided as “a counterfeit” that wasn’t an Indian word at all. It was discarded in favor of Colorado.
Still, the name got out. A steamship on the Columbia River that took miners to what later would become Idaho was christened the “Idaho.”
Two years later, the concerns about the name apparently forgotten, it was proposed for the name of the new territory sliced from the huge Washington Territory.
But when the bill was introduced in Congress in December 1862, the name had been changed to “Montana.” Senators, who debated it in early 1863, objected, with one saying Montana “signifies nothing at all” while “Idaho, in English, signifies ‘Gem of the Mountains.’ ”
The Idaho bill passed, and Lincoln signed it into law on March 4, 1863.
Lincoln’s second appointee as Idaho governor, New Yorker Caleb Lyon, didn’t fare so well. When he left, he absconded with $40,000 in federal Indian funds. “He just stole it,” Hart said.
Leroy said Lincoln showed continuing interest in Idaho, checking out books from the Library of Congress about the western territories, mentioning Idaho in his 1863 and 1864 State of the Union addresses, and making 15 Idaho appointments.
“He created Idaho territory with a stroke of a pen,” Leroy said.
“The western territories were organized and populated with Union-friendly governments in an effort to support his re-election and conclude the Civil War.”