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North vs. the South: Inside the tale of Idaho’s two capital cities

Although Northern and Southern Idaho are in the same state – they have some differences that can sometimes make them feel like they are two different states. And at one point, in Idaho’s early days – they almost were.

While Boise became the capital of the Idaho territory in 1864, another city in Idaho previously held the title – for a short stint. Before the territory was even established, Northern Idaho was the most populated – with Lewiston being the biggest town.

So when the territory of Idaho was established on March 4, 1863, the first territorial governor – William Henson Wallace – decided it made the most sense to have his office in Lewiston. And that same year, he summoned the first territorial legislature there.

However, when gold was discovered in the Boise Basin that same year, new mines and opportunities brought people down south and Southern Idaho’s population of almost 19,000 in 1864 far outweighed Northern Idaho’s population of almost 3,000.

And when the second legislature met in November 1864, the important decision of establishing a permanent territorial capital was on the table.

According to the Idaho State Historical Society, Northern Idaho members tried to avoid the issue of locating a territorial capital. Instead, they asked Congress to make a new Idaho Territory made up of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington – completely separating from the southern part of the state.

But they were defeated – and Southern Idaho legislators’ voted to stay a part of the territory and Boise was established as the capital of Idaho.

Northern Idaho didn’t give up without a fight though – claiming that the second legislative session wasn’t legitimate because the session convened on the wrong day.

While the fight for the capital city went back and forth for many years, C. Dewitt Smith took matters into his own hands as the new territory secretary in 1865. With a file of soldiers, the territorial seal, and as many territorial papers as he could carry, Smith made his way to Boise, and eventually, the Supreme Court heard the case.

“The legality of the second session of the legislature was upheld, and it became clear that Boise had been the official capital since December 24, 1864, even if it had taken many months and assorted lawsuits, arrests, military expeditions, and bad language to put the decision into effect,” an Idaho State Historical Society notes.

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Anna Daly - BoiseDev Reporter
Anna Daly - BoiseDev Reporter
Anna Daly is a reporter for BoiseDev. She's an Emmy-winning journalist, and a professor at the College of Western Idaho. Contact her at [email protected].

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