Ethnic Groups of Idaho

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This entry was originally written by Dwight A. Radford for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
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the Idaho Family History Research series.
History of Idaho
Idaho Vital Records
Census Records for Idaho
Background Sources for Idaho
Idaho Maps
Idaho Land Records
Idaho Probate Records
Idaho Court Records
Idaho Tax Records
Idaho Cemetery Records
Idaho Church Records
Idaho Military Records
Idaho Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
Idaho Archives, Libraries, and Societies
Idaho Immigration
Ethnic Groups of Idaho
Idaho County Resources
Map of Idaho

Native American

According to the 1900 U.S. census, the following tribal members were residing in Idaho: Bannocks, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Colville, Cree, Crow, Flathead, Kalispell, Kootenai, Omaha, Seletze, Sheepeater, Snake, Spokane, and Umatilla.

Several agencies were set up by the federal government to administer to the affairs of Idaho’s Native American population. These records are available at the National Archives—Pacific Alaska (Seattle) and the Idaho State Historical Society. Northern Idaho Agency records are also available at the FHL.

Fort Hall Agency, Fort Hall, Idaho (1889–1952), records include school surveys and censuses, mining permits, grazing leases, ledgers and cards for accounts of individual Indians, records concerning owners of ceded land, irrigation, forestry, loans, and law suits. The Fort Hall Agency administered the affairs of the Boise and Bruneau band of the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Bannock tribal members from Wyoming came under the jurisdiction of the Fort Hall Agency in 1872.

Northern Idaho Agency, Lapai, Idaho (1875–1964) records include general correspondence and a decimal file, historical files, correspondence concerning Kutenai educational contracts, grazing and timber leases, ledgers for accounts of individual Indians, annuity payrolls, vital statistics, census records, Nez Perce tribal minutes, records concerning forestry, roads, and economic and social surveys. This agency administered the affairs of the Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai, and Nez Perce Reservations.

In researching tribal records in Idaho, two school records and one other major collection should not be overlooked. The Chemawa Indian School in Chemawa, Oregon, and the Fort Shaw School in Cascade County, Montana, enrolled students from the whole of the northwestern United States. For more details, see the Native American Records sections for Montana and Oregon. Two major Native American collections are the Major James McLaughlin Papers and the Pacific Northwest Tribes Missions Collection of the Oregon Province Archives of the Society of Jesus (1853–1960). For more details on these collections, see Montana—Native American section.

For further explanation of Native American landownership, see Oregon—Native American section.

Other Ethnic Groups

Idaho has its share of ethnic minorities. Because Idaho was a frontier society, many ethnic groups did not readily blend into the society at large. Eastern Idaho was overwhelmingly part of the Mormon intermountain empire, made up mostly of Mormon converts from England and Scandinavia. The fact that the Mormons were distinctive in their religion and culture separated them from the mainstream frontier society. Their court system was administered by the Mormon theocracy; therefore, their dependence on Idaho territorial law was minimal.

The first Chinese came to Idaho in 1864 to mine the Oro Fino gold fields. They were brought from California to alleviate a shortage of labor, and soon every mining town in the territory had an ethnic Chinese community. By 1870 there were 4,274 Chinese in Idaho, which constituted 28.5 percent of Idaho’s entire population. At one time, Boise had the largest Chinatown outside of San Francisco.

Idaho’s ethnic Chinese originally came from the city of Canton and province of Kuang-Tuang, which at the time was experiencing a great deal of political unrest, as well as severe weather conditions, which affected the economy and made migration to America attractive.

The Chinese paid taxes in Idaho, including miners’ tax, property tax, poll tax, and hospital tax. The Masonic lodge was very popular among the Chinese as both a social and a fraternal organization. Very few Chinese became Christians. No regionally organized anti-Chinese groups emerged in Idaho, unlike neighboring states. In 1880 there were 3,379 Chinese in Idaho. By 1890 the number had declined to 2,007, and in 1900, to 1,467. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the bulk of the Chinese population could be found in Boise County.

In the early 1970s the building belonging to the Hip Sing Association, a Chinese fraternity, was torn down in Boise, and a large collection of materials from the building was donated to the Idaho State Historical Society. The collection included both items and papers, and these papers, written in Chinese, are currently being inventoried.

The Japanese first came to Idaho in the decade following statehood in 1890, from which time they have constituted the state’s largest ethnic group. By the end of the 1890s, Japanese settlements were common features along the length of the Oregon Short Line Railroad, especially in Nampa and Pocatello. By 1920 the number of Japanese in Idaho had reached 1,569. World War II put the Japanese-American community’s loyalty in question in the minds of some Americans. With the relocation of Japanese-Americans to camps set up by the U.S. government, the history of this ethnic group entered a new period. One of the ten camps was in Idaho. This camp, located in Hunt, Idaho, opened in August 1942 and became known as Camp Minidoka. Most of the residents in the camp were from Portland and Seattle. The effect of relocation on Idaho continued to be felt after the war as many Japanese-Americans chose to remain in Idaho rather than return to their former homes.

Another group in Idaho, the Basques, came from the Spanish provinces of Guipuzcoa, Viscaya, Alava, and Navarre in the Pyrenees Mountains. Boise was the center of Basque immigration and probably has the largest Basque-American community in the American West.

Young Basque left their homelands for California in 1876 because of Spanish suppression. As the Basque people moved into southern Idaho, they sent word back to their homeland that jobs were available in the area. Basques came to the Boise Valley in their greatest numbers between 1900 and 1920. As their population grew, a serious religious problem surfaced. The Basques were Catholics who had found their homes in a predominantly Protestant society. However, the Catholic parishes in the Boise Valley were unable to minister to the immigrants as the Basques spoke very little, if any, English. In 1911, the Bishop of the Boise diocese arranged for a Basque-speaking priest to be sent to Idaho. This was the beginning of a viable Basque community in Boise, which centered around a few boarding houses in the southeastern portion of the city. Boise is still home to several Basque organizations (see <>).