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The 43rd state: Idaho marks 130 years since gaining statehood

Retired Idaho State historian Keith Petersen says the Gem State we know today nearly looked very different.

BOISE, Idaho — On July 4, Idahoans will celebrate our country’s independence, but the day before marks an important date in the Gem State as well.

Exactly 130 years ago, on July 3, 1890, Idaho officially became the 43rd state in the U.S.

Retired Idaho State historian Keith Petersen says statehood came after 26 years of Idaho as a U.S. Territory. Congress ultimately approved an Idaho State Constitution just before Independence Day. 

But this was no easy feat, Petersen said. There was a lot going on in the Idaho territory in the 1880's.

"In the territorial period, it set up really serious divisions between North and South Idaho, and many times in the 27-year period of Idaho territory, the north tried to break away from Idaho," Petersen said."At the same time, Nevada was making a play to annex much of southern Idaho. People started thinking that if the north goes Washington and the south goes to Nevada, there won’t be an Idaho worth fighting over."

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Petersen noted that the Gem State we know today nearly looked very different.

"The most serious action came in 1887 when actually both houses of the United States Congress passed a bill which would have allowed the Idaho panhandle to secede from Idaho and join Washington, but President Grover Cleveland refused to sign it so it was pocket-vetoed," he said.

But when Cleveland left office, the tide shifted. 

Because members of the LDS church in Idaho turned out in large numbers to vote - and voted primarily as Democrats in those days - Republicans passed the "Idaho test oath," also known as the "Mormon test oath."

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"It’s complicated, but basically disenfranchised all Mormon voters, so what happened in the same period, Idaho became a really dominant Republican state politically because Mormons were no longer able to vote," Petersen explained. "At the same time in 1888, Republicans won the presidency and both houses of the United States Congress. So the Idaho Republican Party had strong allies in Washington, D.C. suddenly."

"All of a sudden, the idea of Idaho perhaps becoming a state gained great momentum," he added. 

Gaining statehood was important for several reasons, including securing more funding for the then-territory, but it also allowed Idaho to have representation on the national level for the first time.

As a territory, Idaho had one non-voting member of Congress, but that changed when Idaho became a state during the term of President Benjamin Harrison.

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"So once you become a state, you have two senators and then however many representatives your population supports, but that ability to have a voice in national affairs is a primary reason for wanting statehood," Petersen said. "By 1890, statehood was not unanimously popular but it was a vast majority of Idahoans who voted for the Constitution."

The next 130 years took Idaho from a fledgling state with only Idaho 88,000 residents to the Gem State we know today, with a population of nearly 1.8 million.

Happy birthday, Idaho!

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