Clearwater County is “Rich” In It’s History!
Content Credited to Clearwater Historical Society, Inc.
Miners came into this area in the 1860s hoping to strike it rich in gold. Gradually as the area was opened to homesteaders and towns were built, timber became the new green gold. Early settlers cut timber to build homes and heat those homes. As the 1900s were approaching the timber was being discovered as a great commodity for wealthy timbermen.
Charles O. Brown had worked in Pennsylvania and Michigan woods as a cruiser, scaler, buyer and seller of timberland. He heard about the abundance of timber in Idaho from Governor William McConnell in 1893, so Brown, his son Nate and Theodore Fohl, a German logger in Michigan, decided in 1894 to take a trip up there to see for themselves. The three men were amazed to see huge white pine forests with huge trees. The Browns and Fohl did not have the resources to take advantage of this so Brown started a campaign to get timber barons from the Midwest out to Idaho. Eventually he talked Edward Scofield, and later Frederick Weyerhaeuser into taking a look.
Edward Scofield sent his son George to meet with Brown who showed him around the Clearwater drainage timberland. Scofield quietly sent Warren McChord out with surveyors and cruisers to establish lines and find the best timber. Shortly after that Weyerhaeuser sent out his colleague John Glover and his cruiser James Johnson when Brown showed them around the homesteads at Bonville. Brown was immediately hired at $150 a month to act as Weyerhaeuser’s local agent to scout out available timberland.
Frederick Weyerhaeuser, his son Charles and John Humbird came out to Idaho to inspect their newly acquired land. Needless to say they were delighted to see the quality of timber on their fifty thousand acres. This became the Clearwater Timber Company, organized at the Pioneer Hotel in Pierce City, Idaho November 1900. It had a capitalization of $500,000 and would eventually acquire more than two hundred thousand acres of one of the finest stands of timber in the country. Weyerhaeuser’s son Charles and his partners in the Pine Tree Lumber Company incorporated Potlatch Timber Company in 1903.
While this big business logging was developing there were still many loggers supplying timber to small sawmills running all over the
region. Men floated hundreds of cords of wood and logs down from the upper reaches of the North Fork of the Clearwater River to Ahsahka, Idaho and other points on the Clearwater River including Lewiston, Idaho. The first logging camp for Potlatch Timber Co. was placed just above Ahsahka to supply Potlatch with timber to build the dam for the new mill going in on the Clearwater River at Lewiston.
Elk River, Idaho had the first all-electric sawmill built in 1911 to replace the obsolete steam-driven single-belt mill at Potlatch, Idaho. By 1912 Elk River had a larger population than Orofino and the Elk River Sentinel newspaper had an article stating that this new, well populated town should replace Orofino as the county seat.
The log drives run by Potlatch began in 1928 and ran the North Fork and Clearwater rivers every spring except during World War II, from the upper North Fork of the Clearwater River down to Lewiston’s mill, through 1971.
Logging Camps labelled with a letter (Camp T) were camps that used the rivers to move logs to the mill. Camps with a number (Camp 60) housed the loggers that supplied logs to the railroads and logging trucks to move logs out of the forests to the mill.
The 1855 Treaty with the Nez Perce Indians created a reservation that covered a large area in northern Idaho, north-eastern Oregon and south eastern Washington, into Montana. Then, because of the gold strike and invasion of miners onto the reservation, a new treaty was written reducing the reservation to a tenth of its original size.
Gold Rush History
Captain E.D. Pierce heard that gold could be found above the Clearwater River on its tributaries, so he and a group of eleven men quietly and illegally entered the Nez Perce Reservation in search of riches. Canal Gulch held the first discovery and Pierce said “they found gold in every place in the stream, in the flats and banks…” The men built cabins and laid out a plan for the town and named it Pierce City. A January 1861 meeting of miners established the Oro Fino Mining District of the Washington Territory, from Quartz Creek up Orofino Creek, including all the creek’s
tributaries. A big strike was found on Rhodes Creek shortly after that and it was added to the Oro Fino Mining District during a miner’s meeting.
The gold was discovered in the Territory of Washington so the Washington Territorial Legislature included this area in Spokane County. Shortly after the mining began Washington Territory established Shoshone County to cover the mining area that was growing so quickly. Idaho Territory was established in 1863 and Shoshone County became part of Idaho Territory.
Gold was discovered on Moose Creek in 1862 by wandering prospectors up the headwaters of the North Fork of the Clearwater River several miles northeast of Pierce. The second rush to that area brought about Moose City. They worked that region for twelve to fifteen years.
A day’s work on his claim a man could make up to twenty-five dollars or about two ounces of gold.
The miner’s committee ended its exclusion of the Chinese from the Oro Fino Mining District in 1865. As the white population abandoned Pierce City and Oro Fino, the Chinese became the majority influence in Pierce City for the next twenty-five years. Pierce City probably would have disappeared, as many Idaho ghost towns if the Chinese hadn’t moved in. The elections in 1885 showed that only seven votes were cast in Pierce City.
The “History of North Idaho,” printed in 1903, related a tale that took place in Pierce City in September of 1885 when a merchant was found dead in his business. Five Chinese men were held for the crime. Apparently, the Chinese men wanted to eliminate the only white merchant in town so they would have a monopoly on goods and because they were angry at David M. Fraser for taking the side of the Indians when the Chinese paid with bogus gold dust. It was decided that seven men would take the guilty Chinese men to Murray, but when they were only four miles out of Pierce City a mob met them, seized the prisoners and hanged them from a pole between two trees. No punishment was ever meted out to the lynch mob.
Nez Perce Indians
The Nez Perce Indians, who call themselves Ni Mii Puu (pronounced Nee Mee Poo) meaning The People, have been on this land for thousands of years. They roamed over hundreds of square miles hunting, gathering berries, fishing, and digging for roots while living here. The population was in the tens of thousands until Euro-American diseases killed thousands in epidemics.
The horse was acquired in the mid-1700s and the Nez Perce became excellent breeders of the well-known Appaloosa Horse. The Lewis and Clark Expedition left their horses with Chief Twisted-Hair in the fall of 1805 while they continued to the Pacific Coast by canoe. When the expedition returned in the spring of 1806, the Nez Perce helped geld stallions. The Corps found the Indian method superior to theirs. The process was quicker and less stressful for the horse. The survival rate was much better.
Missionaries like Henry H. Spalding and Marcus Whitman brought Christianity into this region in the 1830’s. Spalding started a mission on present day Lapwai Creek at Spalding, Idaho. Whitman established a mission in Walla Walla Valley in Washington State.
The Treaty of 1855 gave the Nez Perce land for a reservation. The Nez Perce Indians were the only tribe in the Northwest to ally with the Americans even before the 1855 Treaty. Then gold was discovered in 1860 by E. D. Pierce, bringing gold-hungry miners onto the reservation illegally. Rather than try to keep non-Indians off the reservation a new treaty was proposed. The 1863 Treaty took away about 90% of the reservation land and created a split in the tribe between Treaty and Non-Treaty Indians.
Chief Joseph (the elder), Chief Looking Glass (the elder), Chief Big Thunder, and Chief White Bird were some of the Chiefs who would not sign the treaty. The invading Euro-Americans were still not satisfied so a third agreement was made which brought in Alice Fletcher in the early 1890s. Miss Fletcher allotted land to each tribal member according to age, status in the tribe and gender. The land not allotted to an Indian on the reservation was then opened for non-Indians to homestead.
Lewis and Clark
September 1805 the Lewis & Clark Expedition was struggling to get over the Bitterroot Mountains before they starved. Captain William Clark and six men were sent ahead of the main Corps to hunt for food because none could be found in the dense forest they were traveling through. These men came onto the Weippe Prairie September 20, 1805 where they found 3 Nez Perce boys. Clark gave the boys ribbons to take back to the village and announce their arrival. The Nez Perce supplied food to the starving men and Clark sent food back for Lewis and the others still on the mountain trail.
Clark was guided down to the Koos-koos-kie River (Clearwater River) where he met Chief Twisted Hair and they camped for the night. “I am very sick to day and puke which relive me.” Taken from William Clark Journal September 21, 1805.
Local legend tells that he cut down a tree on this side of the river but found the grain to be twisted, so abandon it and continued down to the confluence of the North Fork and Clearwater Rivers. The men crossed the Clearwater River, went down a short distance and found many large pines that would make good canoes so decided that is where they would camp. They then returned to the village on the Weippe Prairie to meet Lewis and his group.
“Sept. 25th I with the Chief & 2 young men went down to hunt timber for Canoes— proceeded on down to the forks 4 miles N 70° W 2 miles S. 75° W 2 miles, halted young men Caught 6 salmon, the forks nearly the same size, Crossed the South fork & found Timber large Pine in a bottom Processed up the South Side 3 parts of Party Sick Capt. Lewis very sick hot day\”Clark\’s journal.
Despite the sickness they had to cope with because of the different food they were eating, the Corps spent 2 ½ weeks making 5 canoes. The Nez Perce showed them how to burn out the logs which saved time. The trees they cut down were thought to be 4 to 5 feet in diameter.
“Friday 27th. A fine warm morning. All the men, who were able were employed in making canoes. About 10 o’clock the men came in who had gone to look for horses, he had found one of them and killed a deer. I feel much relieved from my indisposition.” Taken from journal of Patrick Gass.
The Nez Perce originally discussed killing these strange men with their heads on up-side-down, but an old Nez Perce woman who had been helped by white settlers ask that they be spared. (The Corps heads seemed upside down because they had more hair on their chins than the top of their heads.)
The Corps left their horses with Chief Twisted Hair to care for over the winter and started down the Clearwater River for the Pacific Ocean.
The return trip in 1806 brought the Corps of Discovery up the Clearwater River to Canister Creek (Jacks Creek at Lenore, Idaho) near where they had camped the year before. They went up onto the Camas Prairie (south side of the Clearwater River), down to the Creek Small (Little Canyon Creek at Peck, Idaho) then up across the prairie and down into the Nez Perce’s’ Camp (Kamiah, Idaho). The Corps camped down and across the river (Long Camp) to wait for the snow to melt enough to allow passage across the mountains. “Tuesday 24th … The day keeps cloudy, and the mosquitoes are very troublesome…” Taken from Gass journal June 24, 1806.
They first started out to cross the Bitterroots June 14th, but had to turn back because the snow made it too difficult to find the trail. “Tuesday June 17th 1806 …This Mountain we ascended about 3 miles when we found ourselves enveloped in snow 8 to 12 feet deep even on the South Side of the mountain. I was in front and could only pursue the direction of the road by the trees which had been peeled by the natives for the inner bark of which they Scraped and eaten…” Clark journal.
The Corps camped on the prairie until June 24th then tried again with 3 Indian guides. This time they were successful at crossing the Bitterroot Mountains and were well on their way back through the Louisiana Territory, to the United States and home.
The Nez Perce Indians were invaluable to the Corps of Discovery on their trip west to the Pacific Ocean and on the journey home. “Tuesday May 27th 1806…Hohâstillpilp told us that most of the horses we saw running at large in this neighborhood belonged to himself and his people, and whenever we were in want of meat he requested that we would kill any of them we wished; this is a piece of liberality which would do honor to such as boost of civilization; indeed I doubt whether there are not a great number of our countrymen who would see us fast many days before their compassion would excite them to a similar act of liberality.” Taken from the Captain Lewis journals.
The area now called Clearwater County in Idaho was originally inhabited by various bands of Nez Perce Indians. They had permanent villages along the Clearwater River at the western edge of the county. Hunting and fishing parties traveled in and out of the area and favorite root gathering spots were found in places like the Weippe Prairie and Musselshell Meadows, above the Clearwater River.
It is reported by some that the men of the Lewis and Clark Expedition’s Corps of Discovery (1805-1806) were the first white men and black man in Idaho. The expedition came into this area Sept. 20, 1805. They met the Nez Perce Indians on the Oyaip (Weippe Prairie) where the Nez Perce fed the starving men. Originally, the Nez Perce, unsure of this expedition’s intent, discussed killing all of them, but a Nez Perce woman named Wat-ku-ese told them that white people had helped her when she had been captured by another tribe. She asked that the Corps be spared.
The Corps of Discovery moved down to the Koos-koos-kee (Clearwater River) to camp and make 5 canoes. Many of the Corps men were sick and weak from the dramatic change in the foods they ate, so they used the Indian’s methods of burning out the logs to save energy and time. Five canoes were made and the expedition left this area (Orofino) on Oct. 7, 1805 on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
May 5, 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to this region and the Nez Perce welcomed them. The expedition came through near here (Orofino) to collect the horses they left with Twisted Hair the previous year. They also picked up supplies they had stored for the return trip. The Corps stayed at Long Camp near Kamiah until June 23, 1806, waiting for the snow to melt enough to allow passage through the mountains. During this time, the Corps and Nez Perce shared medicines, games, dancing and much more particular to the two cultures. Nez Perce guides helped Lewis and Clark get back over the mountains on their return east to the United States.
Except for missionaries, few white men were seen after the Lewis and Clark Expedition until the winter of 1859 when Captain Elias D. Pierce found gold. Due to restrictions on what had become part of the Nez Perce Reservation, he could not legally come into the area. However, he returned quietly in the winter of 1860 with a party of 12. They camped on Canal Gulch near what is now the town of Pierce. One of the men made a significant gold discovery. That winter, 1860-61, Pierce City and Oro Fino City were established only two miles apart. Pierce City was to become Idaho’s second oldest town, though it was originally in Washington Territory. Oro Fino City burned down in 1867 and was not rebuilt. The town of Greer on the Clearwater River had a ferry that crossed the river making transport of goods up to the prairie for the mining settlements possible. The Nez Perce Indians also traded produce and beef with the miners for gold dust.
This region was originally in Washington Territory so the Washington Territorial Legislature included this area in Spokane County when gold was first discovered. The Washington Legislature established Shoshone County in 1861 with Pierce City as the county seat because of the population grew. Farmers and ranchers soon began moving onto the Weippe Prairie where the towns of Weippe and Fraser are today, not far from Pierce City.
The treaties made with the Nez Perce changed the reservation boundaries, reducing it to about one tenth of its original size. The Nez
Perce Reservation allotments were completed by Alice Fletcher in November 1895 and homesteading on the unallotted land opened Nov. 18, 1895. The town of Orofino on the Clearwater River, not to be mistaken for the old Oro Fino City near Pierce, was platted in 1898 from a portion of C. C. Fuller’s homestead.
The Northern Pacific Railroad began laying tracks up the Clearwater River and by 1899 the railroad had completed tracks and a depot in Orofino. Some of the towns along the Clearwater River were named by the railroad for people who worked on building the line. The increase in population and promise of a transportation system encouraged more settlers to come.
The original Shoshone County included parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington and travel from this area to the second county seat in Wallace took a person through five counties and two states.
Various proposals to split south Shoshone County to form a new county began. The Idaho Legislature passed an act authorizing annexation of south Shoshone County. The area was annexed to Nez Perce County in December 1904 by a vote in a general election. February 27, 1911, the Idaho Legislature voided the act and established Clearwater County with Orofino as the county seat.
Timber became a valued commodity and changed the major industry from mining to logging. Other new towns sprouted up because of the logging such as Headquarters and Elk River. The railroad soon reached out to these towns and brought millions of board feet of logs out to mills that popped up everywhere. Elk River built the first all-electric sawmill. Headquarters fed and housed Potlatch and Camas Prairie Railroad men making it a busy hub for logging.
Clearwater County was formed February 1911 and continues to grow and change. Come see the Clearwater Historical Museum’s collection of homestead, logging, mining and Nez Perce artifacts. Our surrounding communities continue to give generously so that the legacy can be shared with others.