“The Negro in the history of the Pacific Northwest is indeed a bold subject when it is realized that there are so few Negroes in that section of the United States even at the present day, and in the early history of the section there were even fewer than now.” W. Sherman Savage (1928) “The Negro in the History of the Pacific Northwest”, The Journal of Negro History, 13(3):255—264.
The above statement by Savage in 1928 was as true in his time as it is today, at least in Idaho. African Americans comprise a small percentage of Idaho’s population today. Currently, we are only about 1.5% of Boise’s population, which means the black population in town is greater than it has ever been. Black people were never the largest racial group in the River Street either, but they were the neighborhood’s most emblematic residents. For decades, River Street has been known as “the Black Neighborhood”– the place where black people lived; meaning that they did not have a welcome place elsewhere in the city.
It is important to note, however, that African Americans have been present in what is now Boise, Idaho for almost as long as Euroamericans have. But long before black or white lived in the area that is now River Street, it was inhabited by Native Americans; specifically, members of the Shoshone Tribe.
Long Before River Street
It should be no surprise to realize that everywhere human beings live today, they have already lived for thousands of years. The River Street area is no different. Long before Europeans arrived, the Boise, Idaho area was occupied by Native Americans. Archaeological evidence recovered at Wilson Butte Cave indicates human beings were living in southern Idaho more than 11,000 years ago and have continued to live there ever since. Southern Idaho was much colder and wetter than it is today. People at that time primarily hunted big game animals that are extinct in southern Idaho today: mammoth, ground sloths, and bison.
Around 8,000 years ago, the climate in southern Idaho began to change. It became dryer and hotter. The large glaciers that never covered southern Idaho but passed by east of the Rockies began to recede. The population in southern Idaho grew and the archaeological remains of two different lifeways have been recovered: people in southeastern Idaho adapted to the desert lifestyle while folks to the northeast continued depending upon bison herds. Archaeologists believe these two archaeological cultures are the descendants of the Northern Shoshone (Wells 2000:17). The Boise area was historically occupied by the western band of the Northern Shoshone.
By the time Europeans started creating records of the Native American way of life in southern Idaho, they had been living there for hundreds of generations and had adapted to their arid, Great Basin home. The Northern Shoshone lived in an area that extended from eastern Oregon into Wyoming and south into Nevada. Combining both Great Basin and plateau cultural characteristics, the Shoshone lived in small bands subsisting on seeds, pine nuts, wild wheat, bitterroot, and camas. They also fished for salmon, conducted communal rabbit, sage hen, and antelope drives, and hunted for other game as it was available. Their mobility was greatly increased after obtaining horses in the late sixteenth century and the Shoshone people began expanding onto the northern Great Plains. The horse also gave the Shoshone additional options to their seasonal subsistence cycle. Groups east of the Boise River intensified their reliance on buffalo while Shoshone in the Boise area did not continue the traditional trip to buffalo country because the local salmon supplies were adequate to meet their needs (Wells 2000:18–20).
Glimpses of the Shoshone People
Long before any non-Native Americans came to the Boise Valley, the Shoshone People had been there for generations. Closely related to the Bannock People, the Shoshone in the Boise area were removed to the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in 1869.
Fur trappers were the first to encounter the Shoshone in Idaho. Lewis and Clark encountered a Shoshone band in the Lemhi Valley in 1805 and, during the 1810s and 1830s, fur trappers maintained a light but steady presence in southwestern Idaho. In 1834, the Hudson’s Bay Company built the first Fort Boise at the confluence of the Boise and Snake Rivers near present day Weiser and Nathaniel J. Wyeth founded Fort Hall on the Snake River. This was the first sustained non-Native presence in Shoshone territory in Idaho (Wells 2000:24–25).
The establishment of the Oregon Trail across Idaho brought thousands of Euroamericans into Shoshone territory and sparked conflict. During the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, tens of thousands of stock animals grazed on Shoshone lands and thousands of emigrants appropriated water, timber, and other resources without permission or paying for their use. Intermittent attacks with emigrants brought calls for the United States government to intervene (Madsen 2000:27–29). The 1863 Organic Act that created the Idaho Territory also brought the first Indian Agents to southern Idaho and ushered in an era of treaties. In 1864, a treaty was negotiated with Shoshone living along the Boise River where the Shoshone agreed to give up title to all lands within 30 miles on each side of the river, including the area that would become Boise City (Madsen 2000:43). Fort Boise was moved to the Boise City area in 1863. The Boise Basin gold rush increased hostilities from Shoshone in southwestern Idaho. Aggression from the Shoshone at this time came not only from trespassing but also from the horrible conditions caused by the loss of their most productive lands at the hands of Euroamericans. After over 20 years of sustained contact with whites, the Shoshone living near Boise were relocated to the Fort Hall Reservation in 1869 (Madsen 2000:43–54).
While no archaeological evidence of Native Americans has been identified in the River Street Neighborhood, this location was probably very important to the Shoshone and their ancestors given its proximity to the Boise River and the longevity of Native Americans in the area.
From Fortress to Town
In 1862, a small party of Euroamericans made the arduous trek from the former site of Old Fort Boise near present-day Weiser to the Boise Basin. They searched for gold. They found what they were looking for in August of that year.
The discovery of gold in the Boise Basin sparked a rush that brought people surging into the area. Mining camps popped up throughout the area in 1862–1863. By the summer of 1863, an estimated 15,000–20,000 non-Native Americans had arrived. Roads soon snaked into the Basin and small towns were forged. Idaho City was founded in 1862 and an assay office was built in Boise City to count all the gold pouring down from the hills (Bird 1934). Despite this surge, the Boise Basin gold fields were not open to all. Boise County passed a law in 1863 excluding African Americans and Chinese from prospecting. These laws did not stop all black miners, who continued to enter Idaho’s gold fields throughout the 1860s and 1870s, but they did deter many (Bird 1934:119; Mercier and Simon-Smolinski 1990:4–6).
By the 1870s, the Boise Basin was panning out. Cities that provided supplies to the miners like Boise and Walla Walla fared much better than towns founded in the gold fields. The gold rush had brought enough people that the Idaho Territory was founded in 1863. Fort Boise was founded that year to protect miners and Oregon Trail travelers from their trespasses in Shoshone country. Under much controversy, the territorial capitol was established at Boise in 1864 (Bird 1934:175). Steady growth occurred in Boise City during the rest of the 1860s and 1870s as land was cleared, irrigation ditches constructed, and agricultural fields planted. Log cabins gave way to frame buildings. Churches, schools, and substantial brick buildings were slowly built. By 1880, the town’s population had reached nearly 1,900 individuals.
“Can’t you hear the whistle blowing?”: The Railroad and River Street
Whispers of a railroad arriving in Boise began during the 1860s, but reached a crescendo during the late 1880s. Construction of the Oregon Short Line (OSL) Railroad across southern Idaho began in 1883 and, while several routes had been proposed, the line would not pass through Boise. The town’s citizens remained hopeful. Talk of constructing a line from Nampa to Boise began. An 1885 Boise City map depicts a “Railroad Reserve” along the southern edge of downtown Boise. Thoughtful land owners and speculators moved in to grab land before the railroad was a reality. Boise gained rail access when the Idaho Central Railway completed a spur track to Boise in 1887, but it would have to wait until 1925 for the Oregon Short Line mainline to reach the city (Bird 1934:252–253; Waite nd:6).
The 1890s brought real estate speculation and development schemes to the area that would become the River Street Neighborhood. John McClellan started this process when he platted his property in 1890. During the 1890s, the Riverside, Miller, and City Park Additions were platted in anticipation of the arrival of the Oregon Short Line Railroad. The River Street area was subdivided to provide parcels for warehouses and housing. It was envisioned that this would become a home for the workers employed at the various warehouses that flanked the railroad and businesses in downtown Boise. In fact, few opulent houses were built in the area (Demo 2006; Stacy 1995).
By the 1900s, the River Street Neighborhood had evolved into a mixture of commercial and residential properties. Idaho had become a state in 1890 and Boise was poised for growth. The town had nearly 6,000 residents and the construction of the New York Canal provided an infusion of people and money (Stacy 1995:7). The majority of houses in River Street were built between 1900 and 1930 (Demo 2006). Historical maps show that the completion of the Ridenbaugh Canal (1878) and Diversion Dam in 1909 for the New York Canal had greatly diminished the Boise River’s flow near River Street, but seasonal floods were still common and the land adjacent to the river would remain undeveloped for decades to come.
A Place to Live South of the Railroad Tracks
The River Street Neighborhood was carved from the riparian cottonwood forests that flanked the Boise River during the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a place where real estate speculation resulted in the creation of a neighborhood and community:
Opened in 1902, Riverside Park provided an attractive and convenient place for Boiseans to relax and enjoy the amusements. The park featured a bandstand, dance pavilion, theater and baseball field. While dances were frequent draws to the park, the baseball field and theater hosted some of the most memorable events. In the wake of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the San Francisco Opera Company performed at Riverside Park until a new venue could be secured back in San Francisco. The baseball field was home to several Boise teams and some of Boise’s most memorable games took place there.
Riverside Park remained open until 1912. Its location was mostly covered with warehouses during the early twentieth century, but portions of the park also became part of a Girl Scout camp and a Forest Service office that used to occupy the land between River Street and the Boise River west of Capitol Boulevard. Former residents recall playing at the Girl Scout grounds, which featured a softball field, into the 1960s (Click Here if you want to hear more about the recreational activities of River Street residents).
The seeds for a neighborhood at River Street had been sown during the first decades of the twentieth century. These seeds would mature in the decades to come. Click Here to read about the Neighborhood’s development during the twentieth century.
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