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The Boise River did not appear on maps until the 19th century.  Indeed, the geographical area now known as Idaho was the last of the fifty states to be entered by Euro-Americans.  Lewis and Clark traversed northern Idaho in 1805; it was the fur trade that brought Americans and Canadians to the Boise River region in southern Idaho, in the persons of traders and trappers for Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Fur Company, and John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company.  Parties of overland Astorians led by Wilson Price Hunt and Donald Mackenzie came through the Boise River region in 1811, followed by Robert Stuart a year later.  In his journal, Stuart described the river as "well Timbered, contains many Beaver, and is the most renowned Fishing place in the Country...the resort of the majority of the Snakes [Shoshone Indians], where immense numbers of Salmon are taken...."  John Reed established an ill-fated, short-lived fur-trading post at the mouth of the river in 1813, and mapmakers soon after began calling the stream "Reed's River" in his memory.  Some traders and trappers used Native American names for the river; others called it the Wood, or Wooded River, for the cottonwood trees on its banks that so distinguished it in the otherwise bleak desert landscape.  French Canadian trappers favored the French translation of Wood River, "Rivière Boisée."  In the crucial years of the early 1840s, when overland traffic to Oregon picked up, early travelers and emigrants encountered Francois Payette, the French Canadian who managed Fort Boise, established in 1834 by Hudson's Bay Company as a fur trading post.  Built about a mile away from the site of John Reed's earlier fort, Fort Boise was an important landmark on the Oregon Trail.  Eminent Idaho historian Merle Wells credits Payette with impressing the French version of the river's name on the minds of all who passed through.  John C. Frémont's widely-read reports of his Western explorations in the 1840s helped establish the name Boise in the public mind. 

Reproduced on this website are portions of  maps showing the Boise River as depicted by American and British cartographers, 1802-1879.  The full maps--either in original, facsimile reprint, or photostat form--are held by the Special Collections Department.  Consult the Checklist of Maps of Western Exploration for a fuller list of early Western maps in the Special Collections.

Click on the thumbnails to see the Maps described below

Use your browser's scroll bars to move up and down the maps

All of Idaho was "Open Country" on British cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith's "Map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America." (1802).  The Columbia River (River Oregan) had been charted as far as Point Vancouver, but between that point and the Rocky Mountains the interior was unexplored and unknown, save for the advice of the Indians that it took nine days (eight nights) to descend the Columbia from the mountains to the sea.  Within a decade, much of the blank space on this map would be filled in.

Lewis and Clark did not visit southern Idaho, but on May 29, 1806, on their eastward journey home, a Nez Perce Indian named Hohastillpelp (Hohots Ilppilp) sketched out for them a remarkable map of the Columbia-Snake River system.  The view is from the west; south is to the right.  Starting at the top right corner, at Salmon Falls on the Snake River, it is possible to follow the flow of the Snake northwesterly past the Boise (highlighted in red, with the Owyhee opposite it), then past the two forks of the Payette (in the thumbnail at left), the Weiser [Nemo], and the Salmon, to its juncture with the Clearwater [Kooskooskee] where it turns due west to meet the Columbia (at the bottom of the map).  Clark, who transferred the map to paper and annotated it, called the Snake "Lewis's River."  The dotted lines in the top left quadrant of the map represent Lewis and Clark's westward path across the Bitterroot Mountains to the Clearwater River in 1805.  This map remained in possession of Clark's heirs until the 20th century.  It is now part of the Coe collection in Yale University's Beinecke Library.

William Clark incorporated the Nez Perce knowledge of the Snake River into the map he prepared for Nicholas Biddle's edition of the expedition journals, 1814.  This map is oriented in the traditional manner, with north at the top.  "Cop-pop-pab-ash" was the name Clark affixed to the Boise River, highlighted in red on the digitized map.  Like other cartographers in the early years of the 19th century, Clark drew an exaggerated Willamette River (Mult-no-mah on his map) extending far into the Great Basin.  

David Thompson, one of the great explorers of the West, worked first for Hudson's Bay Company and later the Northwest Company, building several fur trading posts. In 1811, he became the first white man to descend the length of the Columbia from Canada to the sea.  He was well aware of the demise of John Reed and his party in 1814 at Reed's fort at the mouth of the Boise River, and incorporated that information onto a large manuscript map he made about 1818.  Now at the British Museum, it was not published until the 20th century.  Thompson called the Boise "Reid's River."  The prominent landmark is Squaw Butte, near Emmett.

William Kittson was part of Donald Mackenzie's successful Snake River trapping expedition for the North West Company, 1819-20, leading a party of men from Fort Nez Perces (Walla Walla) to meet Mackenzie on the Boise River in the Spring of 1819.  He also was part of Peter Skene Ogden's Snake River expedition of 1824-25 for Hudson's Bay Company.  In 1825 he drew a map based on his travels with both parties.  Familiar names like Wazer (Weiser), Payette, and Owyhee appear on this portion of the map, though the Boise is still "Reed's River."  Kittson's map rested in the Hudson's Bay Company archives until its first publication in 1950 in Peter Skene Ogden's Snake Country Journals, where it can be seen in full.

Each new edition of the Arrowsmith map of North America reflected the latest geographical knowledge of the West.  The 1837 map (titled "British North America"), reproduced here in part, is strikingly different than the 1802 edition, above.  Three names are offered for the  Snake River (Saptin, Lewis's, Great Snake), and further north, Coeur d'Alene is translated "Pointed Hart." The Boise River, still bearing Reed's name, is highlighted in red.  Mexico's northern border, before the war with the United States, was not far south of the Snake.  When this map was drawn, the Oregon Country was, by treaty, jointly occupied by the U.S. and Great Britain.  As his legend indicates, John Arrowsmith, in London, was indebted to Hudson's Bay Company for much of his information.

American settlers began pouring into the Oregon country in great numbers in the early 1840s, and in 1843 Lt. John C. Frémont of the U.S. Army was assigned to survey the emigrant trail.  Charles Preuss, Frémont's assistant, compiled the "Topographical map of the road from Missouri to Oregon," published in 1846.  The Oregon Trail passed through what is the city of Boise today (Boise Avenue).  This is the section of the map showing the route along the Boise River.  The notes are Frémont's words.  Though thousands of emigrants passed through the Boise River valley in the 1840s and 50s, there was no real settlement here until gold was discovered in the Boise Basin in 1862, giving rise to Idaho City and Boise City.

Platted in 1863, Boise City was a town of fewer than 2,000 souls when this map, "Territory of Idaho" was published in 1879.  Boise City was not only the territorial capital but the seat of Ada County as well.  The Boise River and the small irrigation ditches that watered the immediate vicinity were the city's lifeblood; large-scale irrigation works to water the entire valley would not come until the federal government built them in the 20th century.  Noticeably absent on this map are the cities of Nampa and Caldwell and Canyon, Gem, and Elmore counties, not yet established.  Rocky Bar was the seat of Alturas County, which covered most of central Idaho.  Also absent from this map is the north fork of the Payette river and Payette Lake.

For much more on the Boise River, see the website mounted by the Boise city historian's office:

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