The misguided impression that Idaho is a backwoods state full of grizzly survivalists is something the locals are keen to fix. While it is true Idaho has a thriving farming industry and most people love the outdoors, it’s also home to the world’s largest Basque community outside of Spain, a strong Mormon population, and a lively cultural arts scene in Boise and its college towns.
Native American tribes such as the Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Shoshone, and Bannock have lived in Idaho since the beginning of time. Their cultural presence is still evident in repositories of history like the Idaho Historical Museum (610 Julia Davis Drive, Boise) and the remaining tribes’ reservations. As the absolute last American state to be settled by Europeans, Native American culture has lingered a long time.
The first Europeans arrived in Idaho when the Lewis and Clark Expedition entered the area in 1805 at Lemhi Pass. This remarkable trail of pioneering exploration is still a major tourist attraction today, and visitors can hike portions of the original route through Idaho.
First lured to the state with the promise fur trading, The North West Company dominated the market in the Snake River Basin in the early 1800s, but the industry never really took off due to the difficulties of transporting goods through the rugged Rocky Mountains. Instead, it was missionaries who made the most inroads in the 1800’s. Cataldo Mission (Interstate 90, Kootenai) is the oldest standing structure in Idaho, built in 1850 to convert the Native Americans.
In the mid-1800s, thousands of pioneers passed through Idaho along the Oregon Trail en route to the Pacific California Gold Rush spots. Few people stopped and took up residence in Idaho until gold was found here in 1860. This gave rise to boom towns like Custer and Bonanza, which still stand today as national preservation sites.
Mining continued to be the main economy driver in Idaho well into the 20th century. Eventually, potato and wheat farming also took root in the southern portions of the state, and in 1936, Sun Valley Resort opened as one of America’s first ski resorts. This sparked a new tourism boom that remains a major part of the state’s income today. Old mining towns have been transformed into resort destinations or preserved for their heritage. Urban hubs like Boise have slowly grown into proper cities with all the cultural trimmings attracting a new wave of emigrants looking for a safe, healthy place to live.
Idaho is a mixed bag in terms of culture. As one of the last states in America to be settled by Europeans, it doesn’t seem to have any one dominant heritage. There is a strong farming community in the southern region of the state where wheat, potato, and barley are grown on massive farms. The south is also where all the major cities are located and as such, has the most ethnic diversity in this predominantly white state.
Northern Idaho is much less populated and known for its stubborn individualists. The concept of personal liberties is taken very seriously, a throwback to the pioneers who mined, farmed, and traded in the state’s infancy. Overall, most Idahoans are very friendly and fairly conservative. Only Utah is home to a larger Mormon population, but Boise has a well-known openly gay community. Travelers who come to Idaho to enjoy its majestic natural beauty are rarely disappointed by the diverse scenery or people.