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Getting Territorial: University historians illuminate Idaho's past

2013 marks the sesquicentennial (150 years) of Idaho’s territorial status. Included in this celebration are the recognition of the Homestead and Morrill Act, laws that not only helped establish the foundation of the State of Idaho, but played a role in the creation of the University of Idaho.

Three Idaho historians were asked to contribute pieces on the topic, published in the March 2013 edition of Idaho Landscapes, the state’s only peer-reviewed magazine for popular scholarship. This magazine, the print companion to Idaho Yesterdays, is published jointly by the Idaho State Historical Society, Idaho State University, and Boise State University. This month’s edition of Idaho Landscapes celebrates the dynamic landscape of Idaho and the federal policies that shaped it into what it is today.

History professor Adam Sowards’ piece, entitled “Making the Idaho Landscape of 1863”, is the opening piece focusing largely on the factors at play which led to the creation of the Morrill Act.

“I approached it basically as what were the main forces that shaped the Idaho landscape leading up to the territorial period beginning in 1863,” said Sowards. The piece begins by painting a scene of Native life and their relationship with the landscape, and how fur company brigades and gold rushes led to the commoditization of that land as new forces took over and the Nez Perce Treaty of 1863 was signed.

Historic photo of Morrill Hall
Historic early photo of Morrill Hall on campus

“Although the mountains and plains, the bird of prey and elk, the rivers and forests can seem straight from nature’s hands, they are more than that. They are the products of history and choices,” Sowards wrote.

In his piece Sowards also recognizes the intimate relationship between the dispossession of Native lands and the expansion of the American state.

“We can, should, and will celebrate the landscape of 1863. But we would be wise to temper our reverie with humility and with our eyes wide open to the profound and sometimes tragic ways Idaho had already changed by that momentous date,” he wrote.

Dean Katherine Aiken and Head of Special Collections of Idaho Library Garth Reese also contributed to this month’s edition of the Idaho Landscapes magazine with their article, “The Homestead and Morrill Acts: Idaho’s Federal Policy Foundations.”

A group of turn of the century horticulture students
A group of turn of the century horticulture students

The Homestead Act was signed into law by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862. The law brought opportunity for the individual, as it stated that any loyal head of family, veteran, or United States citizen 21 years of age could (with a small filing fee) claim 160 acres of land. After filing, homesteaders had six month to occupy and begin to make improvements such as a 12x14 foot building and cultivation of crops. After five years, individuals could take out final papers on the land if they had fulfilled all the conditions. This led to a large westward expansion, especially into the rugged landscape of Idaho.“

In Idaho, there were 60,221 homesteads. Of 52,960,640 acres in the state, 9,733,455 or about 18 percent of the state is homestead,” Aiken and Reese wrote.

Another crucial Act established at this time was the Morrill Act, “An Act donating public lands to the several states and territories which may provide colleges for the benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.” Essentially, this created land-grant universities, such as the University of Idaho.

The land-grant university democratized higher education, making learning accessible to a wider scope of individuals. The first graduating class of the University of Idaho in 1869 included two men and two women. In 1899, the 13 graduates included Jennie Eva Hughes, U-Idaho’s first African American graduate.

“The institution continues to embrace the sentiments recorded on its Administration Building’s cornerstone that echo Justin Morrill’s ideas: ‘Erected by the Commonwealth of Idaho for the training of her future citizens to their highest usefulness in private life and public service.’”

Both the Homestead and Morrill Acts were central to Idaho’s transition from territory to state. Learning about and celebrating the historical landmarks of the past 150 years gives us a much richer sense of the land we live and learn in. To learn more about sesquicentennial celebrations, publications and Idaho’s history, visit the Idaho State Historical Society website at

Article by Lisa Laughlin


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