Idaho History July 8, 2018


(Part 1)

View of old Florence, Idaho


Copyright Idaho State Historical Society 2012
source: Idaho State Historical Society
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The History of Florence, Idaho and the 1861 Discovery of Gold

In August of 1861, gold was discovered in the small creeks and gulches around the Florence Basin. Miners began trickling into the area. What started as a small tent city with 50 residents grew into a bustling, strategically placed (in the center of the new gold diggings at the head of Baboon Gulch) city of 9,000 by the following year. This “boom” ultimately lead to the establishment of the Summit Creek Mining District.

By late summer this quick growing town boasted a sawmill, ten butcher shops, seven bakeries, eight lawyers, six gambling saloons, a few “hole-in-the-wall doggeries” (saloons), a dance house, Masonic Hall, and a jail. A few of the log cabins, particularly the saloons, had fancy fronts and glass windows but others let in the light through muslin coverings. In preparation for winter the miners began constructing cabins with logs dragged to the site on hand sleds from over a mile away.

What began as not much more than a meek miner’s camp swiftly turned into a thriving town, with two main intersecting town streets named Main and Miner and a third named Pine.

… and her name is Florence

Although how this mining town originally received her name remains shrouded in controversy, in November of 1861, Florence received her name. By December the town was laid out and a city government established.

Incredible amounts of gold dust were produced in Florence and in 1862 alone, six to seven million dollars worth of gold had been extracted. By the summer of 1862 this little miners camp had flourished into a boomtown.

Winter in the wild, wild west

The winter of 1861 & 1862 at Florence became known as the worst on record. It snowed 113 days in a row. Snow depths of 10 feet were reached. Miners were forced to stop mining when their rockers froze. Supplies ran short and miners lived for weeks on a diet of flour and water or “spruce tea” made by melting snow.

John Clark’s Hotel, Old Florence. Photo courtesy of Idaho County Bicentennial Museum.

Although the deep snow kept pack trains from reaching Florence, some supplies did make it –packed in on the backs of men referred to as “Boston Jack-asses.”

After the long winter, the first pack train did not reach the town until May 16, 1862. In addition to having brutal weather, Florence was considered one of the roughest towns in the West during the winter of 1862-1863. Alonzo Brown, a store keeper who once lived in Florence, said: “Men had a habit of getting drunk at the saloons and shooting into stores and tents as they went by. I slept in the store on the floor, and to protect myself from the stray bullets fired by drunken men, I piled up a stack of flour as wide as my bed and about four feet high and made down my bed behind the flour. The town was filled with the worst element of the Pacific Coast, and thieves and gamblers from the East.”

“Not infrequently some drunken ruffian draws his revolver and begins to shoot in the midst of the vast crowd, often killing or wounding some one and creating a fearful stampede…There is no law here, or none that sees, abates, retards or punishes crime. Scarcely a day passes that someone is not killed or wounded.”
-P.W. Gillette (diary) June 15, 1862

The riches of Florence attracted not only men looking to make a fortune in gold, but also the ruffians who followed in their wake—dishonest gamblers, outlaws and thieves. Men referred to as highwaymen held up travelers stealing all their valuables on the main travel route between Lewiston, Oro Fino and Florence.

One such highwayman, the legendary Henry Plummer, is rumored to also have been in Florence. In the spring of 1862, two of Plummer’s pals, Cherokee Bob Talbotte and Billy Mayfield drifted into Florence. They brought with them a “woman of ill-repute” known as Red-Headed Cynthia. Both of the men were interested in the fiery redhead and a showdown of sorts seemed inevitable. When confronted by the two men regarding her alliance, Cynthia chose Bob, now a business man and owner of the newly acquired Boomerang Saloon. Billy left town the next day, never to return.

Little did Bob know that within a few short months he would lie in a grave on “boot hill”, mortally wounded in a gunfight at age 29, defending the reputation of the red-haired beauty.

Cherokee Bob had taken over the Boomerang Saloon when he first arrived in Florence by throwing out the owner, and claiming the owner’s deceased partner was in debt to him.

It was here Florence’s highwaymen would gather in order to gain information about the plans of wealthy travelers and shipments of gold dust. It wasn’t long before Florence’s most notorious resident and outlaw, Cherokee Bob, met his bloody fate.

On January 2, 1863, Orlando “Rube” Robbins and Jakey Williams shot and mortally wounded Bob during a gunfight on the street in Florence. He died three days later. The men were hastily tried for the act four days later and cleared of the crime. Robbins later became a well-known deputy US Marshall in the Boise area and was often referred to as the “Wyatt Earp of the Boise Basin”.

(see also Henry Plummer)
(see also Orlando “Rube” Robbins)

Although the Civil War was being fought thousands of miles away at the same time Florence was booming, the Florence gold rush had an impact on the national economy during the Civil War years. With the South providing the largest export item in the United States, cotton, the North faced a devastating loss of revenue. The North turned westward in search of resources to fund the war and aid the failing economy. Gold became the answer and Idaho gold mines were a key producer. Many historians believe that Idaho gold mines directly contributed to the victory of the war by the North.

The Civil war also had quite an affect on the residents of Florence. In 1862, Main Street in Florence was referred to as the “Mason-Dixon line” by Southern sympathizers and understood to be the dividing line between the factions. As the 4th of July neared, tensions between the two sides intensified. Fearing a fight, residents came up with a plan to avert bloodshed. Two committees were formed — one of southern sympathizers and one of northern — and hired Charles Ostner. A miner and former Heidelberg, Germany art student, Ostner was given the task to prepare a fitting tribute to the country to be unveiled on Independence Day, 1862.

Residents brought snow and piled it in the center of Main Street. Every night the growing pile of snow was drenched with water creating a large block of ice. Hidden behind a tarp, Ostner went to work and on the 4th of July hostilities were avoided when his work was unveiled: a sculpture of George Washington on horseback; an American symbol that proved satisfying to both factions.

Old Florence 1896

Idaho Firsts in Florence

Idaho County’s 1st County Seat

In December 1861 the territorial legislature created Idaho County and Florence became the first county seat. By 1875, Mount Idaho, built largely as a stop for traffic to the gold fields, was developing into a prosperous town, promising to be a more permanent settlement than Florence, and in 1875 won a special election for county seat. In 1902 Grangeville was designated as the county seat and remains so today.

Jaspar Rand served as the Florence City Justice of the Peace in 1862. Justice Rand handled cases varying from cattle theft and murder to performing wedding ceremonies. Because of the frequency of claim jumping and theft, a vigilance committee for Florence was suggested as early as February 1862. According to Florence court records, thirtytwo cases were held in November and December of 1862 and fifty-eight from January to August of 1863.

First Library in Idaho

Sitting wrapped in a blanket by the fire with a good book provided a welcome diversion from the dark, long, and cold wintry evenings in the remote mining camp. In the winter of 1862-1863, one enterprising Florence store owner operated a rental lending library as part of his business, offering about 115 books for loan, including novels, drama and poetry, and non-fiction such as history and politics. Sixty-two men and one woman borrowed books, paying $3 a month for the privilege.

In 1868, $150.00 was raised to finance a library to serve the continued desire for reading materials by Florence’s residents.

First Public School in Idaho

(click image for larger size)
School in New Florence, 1898. Ace Barton Collection.

The first public school in Idaho was located at Florence in 1864. At the first session of the territorial legislature the public school law of California was adopted with minor changes to fit conditions in Idaho. Major Frank Fenn’s father, who was a member of the assembly, returned to Florence that winter and formed a public school district there. A small, 12′ x 14′ hewn-log building with a whipsawed board floor and shingled roof was erected as a schoolhouse. Mrs. J.H. Robinson from Ohio was the first school teacher and was paid $100 per month for teaching six scholars including Major Fenn, two of his siblings, and three other young boys.
— Idaho Daily Statesmen 1905. Major Frank Fenn, prominent Idaho legislator, military leader and Forest Service Officer

(see also Fenn Family Idaho County)

First Masonic Hall in Idaho

In 1862, at the reputed cost of $10,000, the first Masonic Hall of Idaho was built in Florence by Masons with help from a few Odd Fellows. Although no Masonic Lodge was ever formed, it served as a Masonic “Club,” and was shared with the Odd Fellows.

Idaho’s First State Wagon Road: The Milner Trail

In 1890 the Milner Trail, originally built by Moses E. Milner in 1862, was reconstructed becoming part of Idaho’s first state wagon road from Mt. Idaho to near Payette Lake.

Today much of the road remains in its original location. In fact, Forest Service Road #643 traveling through the old Florence townsite, was the original Milner Trail and also served as the main street of Florence.

The Milner Trail ascended from Mount Idaho south along the hogback ridge to the Adams Way Station and into Florence, avoiding the great elevation changes of White Bird Hill and the high ridge above Florence.

The Milner Trail between Mount Idaho and Florence was authorized in 1864 by the territorial legislature as a toll trail, with charges of $3 per wagon and horse or mule, $1 per horseman and 50 cents per loaded pack animal. …

Chinese Miners

Typical of Idaho mining towns, the original laws of mining districts denied Chinese the right to own or operate mining claims. Chinese miners began coming to Idaho in 1864 as the richest claims were worked out and the Idaho legislature passed an act allowing Chinese to mine in Idaho if they paid a monthly license fee. White miners and the Summit Creek Mining District voted to officially admit Chinese to the mining district in 1869 (when the best deposits had been exhausted). In 1870, Florence had twenty-one male and one female (a prostitute) Chinese residents and by 1874, the Chinese dominated the camp. In 1885, two-hundred Chinese worked in Florence. They remained in the Florence Basin until the late 1890s. …


Old Florence Meets New Florence

(click image for larger size)
Forlorned Old Florence, 1907. Rodney Gilsan photo

Florence’s prosperity was brief, and by August of 1862 many left the area in search of richer claims. In the summer of 1865, the remaining residents of Florence were burning unoccupied houses for firewood and much of the ground was placer mined. By that winter only one man was in residence at Florence, a gambler named Billy Courtney who was hired to keep the snow shoveled off the roofs of several buildings in town.

Although the big rush was short-lived, mining activity continued in the Florence Basin. By 1865 Chinese miners had entered the basin, remaining until the late 1890s. In 1896, promises of renewed quartz and placer mining brought hopeful miners back to the basin for a second big boom.

(click image for larger size)
Residents standing amidst placer piles in the streets of New Florence, 1896. Idaho State Historical Society photo.

Due to friction between the new wave of miners and the owners of the original townsite, a new town was established about one-half mile south of Florence. New Florence was located where roads leading to the major mines of the Summit Creek mining district converged with the Milner Trail, by then a state wagon road.

Resident of New Florence 1898, Ace Barton Collection.

In 1924, the Submarine Gold Placer & Quartz Mining Company shipped in a large steam shovel to work the placer grounds in 1924, literally obliterating much of what was left of Old Florence. By 1933, of the original buildings, only one remained partially standing – a hurdy-gurdy house.

Sheep grazing in New Florence, 1926. K.D. Swan photo.

All prehistoric and historic artifacts and structures, either on the ground surface or buried underground, are protected by various laws and regulations. If you find evidence of past use of the area by prehistoric or historic people, please do not disturb or remove the artifacts, sites or features.

source: Nez Perce National Forest
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1861-1862 Old Florence

Winter in Old Florence – Tough Times in the Early Idaho Mining Boom Town

The first miners arrived in Florence in the fall of 1861. Some were well provisioned, but many of the later arrivals were not and by late January food shortages were severe. Seven to ten foot snows kept pack trains from reaching Florence. Supplies that did make it there were packed in on the backs of men referred to as “Boston Jack-asses”.

… there was very hard times here this winter on account of no groceries being in camp. Flour was worth two dollars per pound, bacon, three dollars, coffee, three, sugar, three, tea, three. There was no beef to be got; no butter or syrup. Mining, there was none of it. Shovels sold for forty five dollars each, picks, sixteen, lumber fifty cents a foot, nails three dollars per pound, wages ten dollars per day and board yourself. This will be a lively place next summer….there have been two or three killed already, and shooting to no end….the snow is about seven feet at present.
—Letter from Charles Hay, Florence City to H.C. Crockett, dated April 25, 1862.

The deep snows buried the small, hastily built log cabins. People had to shovel out steps down to their homes, and the only light came in through the chimneys. One man who was a child in early Florence remembers that once the snow was packed, people dug tunnels to pass from one side of the street to the other.

source: U.S. Forest Service – Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests
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1861-1862 Florence

Florence, Idaho County, Idaho

by Penny Casey

Gold in northern Idaho was discovered by E. D. Pierce and company in 1860 while en route to the mines of present-day Montana with supplies. On the way, the men had to pass through the Nez Perce Indian Reservation near the Clearwater River. While they camped, the men looked for gold. Their discovery was near present-day Pierce, Idaho. The men returned to Walla Walla and reported their discovery. The intention, as usual, was to keep the gold discovery a secret so that only a few men would go into the country and do more prospecting. There was opposition to Pierce’s desire to prospect gold on the reservation. But despite the opposition by a large group of white men, Pierce and his company of men went anyway. They used the Indians as guides and to help keep the peace between themselves and the rest of the tribe. But, as is the case in all of the previous gold discoveries, the news leaked out. The Nez Perce treaty was renegotiated to allow some whites to mine gold. However, the few whites became an onslaught as the word was passed about the new discoveries.

By spring of 1861 hundreds of men were mining Canal Creek and the regions around the camps of Pierce and Oro Fino City. As spring passed into summer scores of men drifted south hoping to cash in on early discoveries at such places as Elk City.

More gold was discovered at the present site of Florence by John J. Healy who arrived in September. He and a handful of other men quickly filed claims and reaped the rewards of being the first to find the precious metal. By October, the situation was quickly changing for the miners. Snow was falling and was more than a foot deep by mid-October. The lucky miners left by November and December and thereby avoided some of the devastation that followed due to severe winter weather.

The winter of 1861-62 was one of the worst in the Pacific Northwest for some time. Deep snow clogged the passes making the transportation of supplies into the camps limited if not impossible. Sub-zero temperatures killed scores of men either traveling into the mines or trying to leave. If the extreme temperatures did not kill the ill-prepared men, starvation became their companion. Gold fever was so intense that many men did not take enough food and supplies with them. These were mostly veteran miners who probably figured that, like in past gold rushes, supplies would be forthcoming. Sadly, that was not the case for these unfortunate gold seekers.

Men in the mines were not the only ones who suffered during this winter. Miners who had returned to Walla Walla to spend the winter did not find much solace there either. Firewood became so scarce that furniture and fence posts became fodder for fires as citizens strived to keep warm in poorly constructed houses. The extreme cold killed scores of people throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many cattle ranchers lost more than half of the stock due to range grasses being deep beneath the snow, while others lost all of their herds.

photo by Penny Casey
E.A. Parisot Grave at Bullion Mine (his son Raymond’s ashes were spread on it in 1977. Picture taken 1979

source w/more photos:
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1862 Florence

“The town is alive with people today (Sunday)…. The saloons are full of people. Many are gambling, hundreds drinking, while some are simply idling away the time and listening the alluring chink of coin on the gaming tables… There is no law here, or none that sees, abates, ******s or punishes crime. Scarcely a day passes that someone is not killed or wounded.”

by P.W. Gillette on June 15, 1962

source: Idaho Gold Gettr Treasure Net
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1862 Florence

Letter sent from Charles Hay, Florence City, Idaho to Edwin Crockett, April 25, 1862

from the J. Marion Casey Sebring collection of random pieces of paper and pictures that have been sitting in boxes for 100+ years, courtesy Heather Heber Callahan

letter scanned and posted at FB:
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1862 Florence

Fabulous Florence Idaho

One of the roughest and toughest mining towns in the west.

Florence Idaho was a place where only the strongest could survive. A lot of gold was found and a lot of gold was stolen. The winters were tough and the miners and criminals were tougher.

When asked by some greenhorns about coming to Florence one seasoned miner asked the men these 3 questions.

1. Are you a good rifle shot?

2. Would your scalp sit entirely easily on your cranium if it’s adhesion depended entirely upon the bursting of a cap or the igniting of the powder?

3. Can you stand as much cold as would freeze a moose in the most northern part of the State of Maine?

Another Florence miner in a 1862 letter wrote;

Society here is in a most woeful condition. Scare a week passes without a shooting or stabbing affray. On the evening of the 10th one of the most atrocious murders ever recorded in the annals of crime. During the afternoon a shooting affray occurred between two men named Finnigan and McGuire, in which the latter was shot twice and struck in the head with a pistol in the hand of Finnigan. When the crowd interfered, McGuire was taken to the Fashion Saloon, his wounds dressed, and put to bed in a room over the saloon. After dark, Finnigan slipped into the room and cut McGuire’s throat, leaving his knife in the wound.

The next day the miners turned into a vigilance group committee and hanged Finnigan.

Idaho Bureau of Mines and Geology

source: Old Idaho Prospector
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1863 Florence

[O]n April 22nd, [1863] the “Golden Age”, in Lewiston, announced that rich new gold fields had been found near Florence and Warren’s Camp. The reports out of Warren’s “were so extravagant,” the newspaper said, that they “did not wish to use them at present.” They would wait for some confirmation.

From Florence, a local claimed that “two thousand men could get constant employment there during the summer.” Moreover, if enough men did show up, “More gold would be taken out this season than was taken out last year.”

source: South Fork Companion
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Government Appoints Postmasters and Creates Post Offices in Idaho Territory

May 4 South Fork Companion

On May 4, 1863, the Evening Bulletin in San Francisco published the following brief item: “Post Office Matters. … The following appointments have been received: Charles Welsh, Florence City, Idaho Territory; John Flanagan, Elk City, I. T.; Joseph Patty, Orofino, I. T. … New offices have been established at the following places: Durkeeville, Idaho Territory – Clark H. Durkee, Postmaster; Mount Idaho, I. T. – Loyal P. Brown, Postmaster.”

In the spring of 1863, Florence City (or just Florence), Elk City, and Oro Fino (now Orofino) were still flourishing gold towns. But soon, the fields played out and the towns withered. Ironically, Florence was county seat of Idaho County for a time, but it’s now a ghost town.

source: South Fork Companion
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Improved Weather Allows Mining to Begin Around Florence

May 15 South Fork Companion

On May 15, 1863, the owner of a claim near Florence wrote to a friend in Lewiston and said, “We are having excellent weather now, and, the snow is rapidly disappearing. We expect to commence sluicing tomorrow.”

This was a turnaround from the previous month, when the snow was three feet deep. Then, continued cold weather had produced little run-off, so there was no water for placer mining. That had not, however, kept prospectors from searching for new, rich ground. Some of those men had been successful, and had just been waiting for a chance to start.

According to the letter writer, that time had finally come: “Miners around Florence are beginning active operations, and in a short time few can complain of hindrance from snow. Present indications are that our claims will pay much better than they did last season.”

source: South Fork Companion
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Florence Miners Doing Well and Feeling Optimistic

June 13 South Fork Companion

On June 13, 1863, The Oregonian reported that, “We were permitted yesterday to read a letter from Florence, written by an entirely reliable gentleman there, who says that the prospects of the miners in that vicinity are highly encouraging and even brilliant.”

With so many prospectors drawn out of the area by other rushes, those who remained around Florence could take their time searching. They continued to find good to excellent gold placers for the rest of the season. The item went on, “Wages were high; men would not work for less than $150 per month, and there was a spirit of confidence in the mining resources of the region far beyond what has heretofore been entertained.”

However, although the writer might have been “reliable,” his judgement of the region’s potential fell short. While output continued for a number of years, the mines were mostly small. Many passed into the hands of Chinese miners, who patiently worked claims that whites had no interest in.

But the end of summer, only a few hundred people remained in and around Florence. Most of the rest had moved on to Boise Basin.

source: South Fork Companion
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1862-1890 Florence

Fabulous Florence, Idaho


While Florence, Idaho is a ghost town now it was a rip roaring place at one time. According to one resident P.W. Gillete’s diary dated June 15, 1862:

“Here the congressman, legislator, judge, divine, doctor, lawyer, merchant, farmer, laborer and sailor mingle in the same crowd, wear like slouch hats, blue shirts and ragged or patched breeches. Nearly all of this vast horde of gamblers, roughs and desperadoes are from California. There is no law here, or none that sees, abates, retards or punishes crime. Scarcely a day passes that someone is not killed or wounded. There has been strong talk of establishing a vigilance committee, but as yet nothing has been done. The decent people of Florence endure these outrages with remarkable fortitude.”

This Florence he is writing about was a bustling mining town in the 1860s, located about 50-miles south of Grangeville.

Florence experienced a gold rush which caused its population to boom from 50 to 9,000 people in one year. Gold was discovered in the Florence Basin in August of 1861. By winter, more than 3,000 prospectors flocked to the area. In that year more than one million dollars worth of gold had been produced from placer mining alone. And that was in 1860 dollars! By June 1862, the population peaked to 9,000, producing $7 million worth of gold that year. By 1863, the rush was over. Mining activities continued for the next 20 years with a mixed population of Chinese and white.

Following a moderately inactive period at Florence in the 1880s, modern technology for quartz mining revived the area in 1895. People once again converged on Florence and population rose to about 1,000 in 1897. Disorder between owners of the Old Florence townsite and new gold-seekers press the founding of New Florence, 1/4 mile south. The old townsite was torn down for salvage wood and was mined for scraps of gold which may have fallen through the floorboards of a number of structures.

By 1897 only a few buildings were standing in Old Florence. By 1900, the mining boom had diminished and only occasional stamp mills persisted in their operation. Some minor booms did occur between 1900 and 1940, but none was comparable to those of the 1860s and 1890s.

It is estimated that between 1860 and 1866 close to $15-million worth of gold dust was taken out of Florence. Gold dust refers to gold that is extracted by placer mining, and placer mining is where miners sift soil generally in river and creek beds looking for flakes of gold. That is distinguished from hard rock mining also called quartz mining which locates gold in quartz rocks then has to crush the quartz rock to release the “flakes” of gold. Quartz rock was crushed in stamp mills. Once the flakes of gold are released from the quartz” then miners could use washboards and like contraptions to wash away the rock and retrieve the gold flakes.

Idaho became a “Territory” in March of 1863. Not a state but a “Territory”. Statehood will come later.

Staple foods of the 1860s were sourdough bread or flapjacks, beans, bacon, tea and whiskey.

Chinese played a significant role in Florence between 1864 and 1890. In 1870, 50% of the population of the area was Chinese.

The richest single claim in Florence appears to have been that of Jacob Weiser (for whom the Weiser River was named) and his partners. The gold was reportedly two inches thick on the bedrock. The claim yielded some $20,000 in just eight days of cleanup. One pan from the claim yielded $151.50 and two men with a rocker acquired $1.800 in just three hours — that would be roughly $2,800, and $333,500, respectively, at current gold prices. Weiser sold his interest in the claim for $10,000 and left Florence with a mule-load of gold dust worth about $30,000 which would be worth more than $500,000 at current prices.

Florence, Idaho was originally settled as a mining camp in the winter of 1863. Today it is a ghost town.

source: Mike & Joyce Hendrix

Link to Florence Part 2

Link to Florence Part 3

Link to Florence Part 4

page updated July 30, 2020