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The Gem State

It became a territory 150 years ago today — but it took another 27 years to win admission to the Union as the 43rd state.

It is the Gem State, the “14th most expansive, the 39th most populous, and the 7th least densely populated of the 50 United States.” Its motto is Esto Perpetua (“Let it be forever”).1

Idaho wasn’t admitted as a state until the 3rd of July 1890.2 But its name was given to a new territory 150 years ago today — the day that the Idaho Territory was created by federal law.3

The act was actually passed on March 3rd, but the Congressional officers who needed to sign it and send it to President Lincoln for his signature didn’t get around to it until the early morning hours of March 4th. Since it didn’t take effect until Lincoln signed it, the pre-birthday is today.4

The land that eventually became the State of Idaho was originally claimed by just about every major European power, based on early explorations in the area. But it was England that pressed its claim and continued to press its claim as the 19th century got underway. The fledgling United States wasn’t happy about that, but managed to negotiate a treaty — the Convention of 1818 — under which England and the U.D. agreed to share control over the area west of the Rocky Mountains while setting the northern border from Minnesota to the Rocky Mountains at the 49th parallel.5

It wasn’t a happy solution. Over the next 20-plus years, things continued to get tense. Settlers in the northwest created their own provisional government by 1843, and James Polk campaigned for the Presidency in 1844 on a slogan urging the American government to seize control north to Parallel 54°40′ — “Fifty-Four Forty or Fight!”6

A treaty between the United States and England in 1846 set the northern boundary between the United States and British Canada, for once and for all, at the 49th parallel,7 paving the way for the creation of the Territory of Oregon — including all of what is today Oregon, Washington and Idaho and parts of what became Montana and Wyoming — in 1848.8 That was followed by the creation of the Washington Territory in 1853, including what became Washington and parts of Idaho and Montana.9

When the new Idaho Territory was created, it included the eastern part of the Washington Territory and some of the western part of the Dakota Territory — and most of what is today Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. It was only a year later that the Montana Territory was formed and most of the southeastern part of the Idaho Territory was ceded to the Dakota Territory. In 1868, it lost some eastern land to the Wyoming Territory10 and then became embroiled in a major internal dispute over where the capital would be: Lewiston or Boise.11

That practically cost Idaho its statehood — a bill actually passed in Congress in 1887 splitting the territory between Washington and Nevada, and only the refusal of President Cleveland to sign it saved the day.12

On 6 August 1889, a constitutional convention ratified a proposed Constitution, it was approved by the voters at the general election in November, and that paved the way for Idaho’s admission as a state in 1890.13

And although it’s been amended many times — most recently in 2012, to guarantee the right to fish, hunt and trap14 — it is the only Constitution Idaho has ever had.

It began with a Declaration of Rights in Article I, including the right to religious freedom. But in keeping with the history of the region, its language was a little different that what might be found elsewhere:

The exercise and enjoyment of religious faith and worship shall forever be guaranteed; and no person shall be denied any civil or political right, privilege, or capacity on account of his religious opinions; but the liberty of conscience hereby secured shall not be construed to dispense with oaths or affirmations, or excuse acts of licentiousness or justify polygamous or other pernicious practices, inconsistent with morality or the peace or safety of the State; nor to permit any person, organization, or association to directly or indirectly aid or abet, counsel or advise, any person to commit the crime of bigamy or polygamy, or any other crime.15

That same concern — the anti-polygamy sentiment that was keeping Utah from statehood at the same time — was reflected in the provision limiting the right to vote, along with the general racial views of the time:

No person is permitted to vote, serve as a juror, or hold any civil office … who is a bigamist or polygamist, or is living in what is known as patriarchal, plural or celestial marriage, or in violation of any law of this State, or of the United States, forbidding any such crime; or who, in any manner, teaches, advises, counsels, aids, or encourages any person to enters into bigamy, polygamy, or such patriarchal, plural, or celestial marriage, or to live in violation of any such law, or to commit any such crime: or who is a member of or contributes to the support, aid, or encouragement of any order, organization, association, corporation or society, which teaches, advises, counsels, encourages, or aids any person to enter into bigamy, polygamy or such patriarchal, or plural marriage, or which teaches or advises that the laws of this State prescribing rules of civil conduct, are not the supreme law of the State; nor shall Chinese, or persons of Mongolian descent, not born in the United States, nor Indians not taxed, who have not severed their tribal relations and adopted the habits of civilization, either vote, serve as jurors, or hold any civil office.16

Other provisions reflect the landlocked nature of the state and its mining history — recognizing, for example, the “necessary use of lands for the construction of reservoirs or storage basins, …; or for the drainage of mines, or the working thereof … or any other use necessary to the complete development of the material resources of the State”17 and providing an entire article on water rights.18

Other key elements in the 1890 Constitution include:

     • Creating a Board of Pardons to consider requests for pardons from those convicted of crimes, consisting of the Governor, Secretary of State, and Attorney-General, rather than just the Governor.19

     • Creating a Supreme Court and a five-district District Court, and fixing the salaries of the Justices and judges at $3,000 a year.20

     • Limiting the right to vote to men,21 even though women had been allowed to vote for and be school officials in the Territory.

     • Requiring the Legislature “to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.”22

     • Limiting the work day to eight hours and forbidding the employment of children under age 14 in underground mines.23

     • Requiring all able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 to be enrolled in the state militia.24

And, in a harbinger of things to come at the national level, it expressly stated that “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people, and the purity of the home. The Legislature should further all wise and well directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.”25

The text of the original 1890 Constitution is online at Google Books, and today’s Constitution as amended is online at the office of the Idaho Secretary of State and at the website for the Idaho Legislature.


Image: Colton’s Map of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia & Montana (New York: J. H. Colton, 1865); digital image, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).

  1. Wikipedia (, “Idaho,” rev. 1 Mar 2013.
  2. See “An act to provide for the admission of the State of Idaho into the Union,” 3 July 1890, 26 Stat. 215 (1890).
  3. “An Act to provide a temporary Government for the Territory of Utah,” 3 Mar 1863, 12 Stat. 808 (1863).
  4. Today in History: March 4, Idaho,” Library of Congress, American History Project ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  5. See “British-American Diplomacy: Convention of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain”; html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  6. See generally “Oregon History: The “Oregon Question” and Provisional Government,” Oregon Blue Book ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  7. See “British-American Diplomacy: Treaty with Great Britain, in Regard to Limits Westward of the Rocky Mountains”; html version, Yale Law School, Avalon Project ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  8. An Act to establish the Territorial Government of Oregon,” 9 Stat. 323 (1848); digital images, “A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875,” Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  9. An Act to establish the Territorial Government of Washington,” 10 Stat. 172 (1853).
  10. Wikipedia (, “Idaho Territory,” rev. 26 Feb 2013.
  11. See John A. Mock, “Theft of the First Great Seal of the Territory of Idaho — and the Rest of the Story,” PDF ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  12. Wikipedia (, “Idaho Territory,” rev. 26 Feb 2013.
  13. Ballotpedia (, “Idaho Constitution,” rev. 1 Jun 2012.
  14. Right to hunt, fish, trap now protected in Idaho Constitution,” Oregon Live, posted 7 Nov 2012 ( accessed 3 Mar 2012).
  15. Article I, § 4, “Constitution of the state of Idaho” (Boise, Idaho : Idaho Secretary of State, 1891); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 3 Mar 2013).
  16. Ibid., Article VI, § 3.
  17. Ibid., Article I, § 14.
  18. Ibid.; Article XV.
  19. Ibid., Article IV, § 7.
  20. Article V, §§ 2, 6, 11 and 17.
  21. Ibid.; Article VI, § 2.
  22. Ibid.; Article IX, § 1.
  23. Ibid.; Article XIII, §§ 2, 4.
  24. Ibid.; Article XIV, § 1.
  25. Ibid., Article III, § 24.
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