Idaho Gold Is No Small Potatoes

Sean Brodrick

This week, I’m traveling in Idaho, looking at a prospective gold resource that has been dishing up some really rich drill results. The company that is getting the results owns one of the biggest land packages in Idaho, and it thinks it is onto something special.

Still, when I say “Idaho,” I get curious looks from some of my friends. That’s because when they think Idaho, they think potatoes. They haven’t heard of the Great Idaho Gold Rush of 1860.

I think this is partly because the Idaho Gold Rush is the pastrami in an overstuffed sandwich of incredible gold rushes of that time period. While some of the Idaho finds were very rich indeed, Idaho may seem like small potatoes (ouch!) compared to the HUGE California gold rush that started in 1848, the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858 and Canada’s huge Cariboo Gold Rush of 1862.

Idaho seemed to have trouble getting noticed. Back in 1860, when it was part of the huge Washington Territory, Idaho was a place people passed through on their way to bigger and better things. Between 1849 and 1860, an estimated 41,550 people crossed Idaho on route to Oregon to settle the fertile Willamette Valley and 200,000 people passed through on their way to California’s gold rush.

Back in the day, Idaho was a place people passed through on their way to bigger and better things.
Back in the day, Idaho was a place people passed through on their way to bigger and better things.

“Any Idiot Could Get $20 to the Pan”

When gold in California began to peter out, miners sought gold in other places, including Colorado, Nevada, Montana … and Idaho.  Idaho’s rugged mountains presented a real challenge to prospectors and travelers alike. Still, by 1860, a man named Elias Davidson Pierce asked the Nez Perce natives if he could prospect on their lands. They said no, so in true prospector tradition, Pierce did it anyway.

In early October, Pierce and his team built a mining camp in the north fork of the Clearwater River, and they quickly found gold on Orofino Creek near what would soon become the town of Pierce, the first gold rush town in Idaho. Piece said, “I never saw a party of men so much excited. They made the hills and mountains ring with shouts of joy.”

Soon, prospectors from all over the West swarmed into the mining districts in the Clearwater River watershed. Newcomers probed further and further south into the Salmon River drainage and discovered more rich fields.


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Placer gold was found in such rich deposits that it was said any idiot could get $20 to the pan or make upwards of $100 day. That was big money for that time. And there were plenty of idiots willing to give it a try.

By May of 1861, there were 1,000 miners in the newly founded Pierce City. Gold would also be discovered in other locations in Idaho, such as
Florence, Boise Basin, and near the Salmon River. Hearing tales of the yellow metal, Chinese prospectors marched in, and up to 8,000 Chinese laborers not only in Idaho’s gold mines, but also as laundrymen and cooks. The 1870 census reported there were 1,751 Chinese in Idaho City who comprised nearly half of the city’s residents.

Placer gold was found in such rich deposits that it was said any idiot could get $20 to the pan.
Placer gold was found in such rich deposits that it was said any idiot could get $20 to the pan.

Prospectors Find the Big One

On August 2, 1862, a party led by George Grimes discovered gold in the Boise Basin, deep in the rugged wilderness around the upper forks of the Boise River. It was a district that eclipsed anything that had been discovered in the Pacific Northwest.

And yet Grimes never got to enjoy his find — a week later irate natives ambushed the prospectors and killed Grimes. In fact, the Idaho Gold Rush is a litany of constant battles between prospectors and the natives who had the unimaginable bad luck to be living right on top of the gold the prospectors desired more than anything in creation.

Indian raids flared all along the Salmon River. But still that didn’t stop the prospectors. A note from Mr. William Purvine written in October at Grimes Creek noted that the placer deposits in the area were huge — “$80 to the pan being the greatest amount taken out at any one time.”

Heck, with money like that to be made, most prospectors would take on all the native nations combined.

By the end of 1862, prospectors poured into Boise. Competition for claims was fierce. In “Gold Camps and Silver Cities,” by Merle W. Wells, we read that a man named William Pollock arrived at the Boise Basin in a party of six miners, all experienced ’49ers. He wrote to a friend:

“We have six claims of 200 feet each, running up to within 70 yards of a rich quartz lead, so they say. At any rate, it prospects well, and looks as though when tested it would prove almost solid gold. You could not buy any of our claims for $3,000 down, and as for mine, I would not sell it for any price.”

As a historical note, $3,000 in 1862 would be worth about $63,710 in today’s money. And this is for a patch of frozen ground without a proven mine on it.

Conditions were harsh, too. Pollock added:

“The gold is generally course (sic) and about the size of a kernel of corn, and from that to $4 and $5 pieces. I think there is (sic) about 2,000 men here on Granite Creek or near here, and thousands more will find good diggings here in the Spring. The snow is at present about 4 feet deep, and keeps acoming.”

By the end of the winter, the snow was 10 feet deep. And still the miners kept acoming.

A Bonanza of Crime

Boomtowns sprang up across Idaho. Lewiston, founded in May 1861 where the Clearwater empties into the Snake, became the gateway to the northern gold country. By mid-1862, Lewiston had nine doctors, seven lawyers, three drug stores and six hotels. It also had 10 gambling halls, 25 saloons, and, as one letter writer put it, “about 20 places whose names might put the paper to blush.”

In just one remote mining camp, Florence, as many as 10,000 miners passed through in 1862, which was the peak of the rush for that district. While only a few thousand were mining, others came as support staff — bartenders, merchants, and carpenters. Historian Merle Wells writes that production in Florence during the height of the 1862 season very likely reached $50,000 a day and that the total for the year probably exceeded $6 million.

During the gold rush, boomtowns sprang up across Idaho.
During the gold rush, boomtowns sprang up across Idaho.

All that money and a rough crowd brought another bonanza — a bonanza of crime. There were one or two men killed every month, as well as non-fatal shootings, knifings, beatings and more that were too numerous to count. TV’s Deadwood had nothing on Idaho during the Gold Rush.

These were in addition to the ongoing battles with natives, mainly Shoshone, who were driven to starvation and desperation because hungry prospectors hunted the local game to depletion. It ended with the Bear River Massacre in 1863, when the U.S. army killed about 250 braves and an undetermined number of women and children. For the whites, the battle was a huge success: Dead natives don’t need to eat, so the raids on settlements stopped.

But all good things end. By the end of 1863 most of the placers in the early discoveries had been “worked out.” Some, like Boise Basin, contained more discoveries. Its rush didn’t end until 1866. And in 1882, a silver/gold/lead rush started in Coeur d’Alene.

Here are some of the big mining districts in Idaho and their results …

  • The big kahuna was Boise Basin in Boise County, which was discovered in 1862 and produced 2.9 million troy ounces (90.2 metric tonnes), mostly from placers.
  • The French Creek-Florence district in Idaho County began in the 1860s, and produced about 1 million troy ounces (31 metric tonnes) from placers.
  • The Silver City district in Owyhee County began producing in 1863, and made over 1 million troy ounces (31 metric tonnes), mostly from lode deposits.
  • The Coeur d’Alene district in Shoshone County has made 440 thousand troy ounces (13.7 metric tonnes) of gold as byproduct to silver mining.

Still, Idaho held much more. New discoveries of silver, lead, and quartz continued to draw miners until the end of the century.

Even better, this part of America, with its big, blue-sky, wide-open spaces, still contains treasure troves of mineral wealth waiting to be found. And that’s just what I’m checking out in my trip to Idaho.

Yours for trading profits,

Sean

P.S. I have gold and silver recommendations in my Crisis Profit Hunter newsletter, and it is blowing the doors off the S&P 500. The newest issue just came out this week. Get yours today — along with four special bonus reports packed with recommendations — for just $89 for one year.


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Your thoughts on “Idaho Gold Is No Small Potatoes”

  1. I appreciate your overview of the Idaho gold rush era. You are absolutely right in how overlooked this span of history is compared to other gold strikes.

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