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About Nez Perce County

Named for the Nez Perce Indians, Nez Perce County was established in 1861 in what was then Washington Territory. Idaho Territory was formed in 1863, and Nez Perce County was formally created by the Idaho legislature in 1864. Within the original boundaries lay the present day Idaho counties of Latah, Benewah, Kootenai, Bonner, Boundary, Lewis and part of Idaho County. The current boundaries were established in 1911.

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Lewiston, the county seat, was founded at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers as a supply outpost for gold miners. The site was the last practical port for the steamboats carrying miners and supplies from Portland to this isolated area. Although the actual mining took place in the wilderness of the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers to the east, Lewiston flourished during the mining era.

The town was named in honor of Meriwether Lewis on the day it was founded. [Tradition has this occurring on May 13, 1861]. The famous explorers of the Northwestern United States, Lewis and Clark, camped on the north bank at the confluence of the Clearwater ( Koos kooske) and Snake [Lewis] Rivers on October 10,1805. Tsceminicum is the name given to the "meeting of the waters" by the Nez Perce [Ni Mii Pu].

The area chosen as the best site for Lewiston was also part of the Nez Perce Reservation, but the Indians were definitely opposed to a permanent settlement. Because of this resistance and scarcity of lumber, the town was first established in tents, inspiring one reporter from Portland to dub it "Ragtown."

As the desire for a permanent settlement became stronger, the settlers prevailed upon William Craig and Robert Newell for intervention on behalf of Lewiston. Craig and Newell had wives of the Nez Perce Tribe and were respected by the Native Americans. Some building began to take place, and in 1863 a new treaty was negotiated placing Lewiston outside the boundaries of the reservation.

In late 1862, with the discovery of gold in the Boise Basin, miners began to leave Clearwater country for what they hoped were richer fields farther south. Lewiston's population dropped from several thousand to 300. Despite this decline, Lewiston became the first capital of the newly organized Idaho Territory in 1863. This prestige was short lived because in 1865 the territorial legislature voted to relocate the capital to Boise.

After the gold rush, Lewiston's growth was slower and perhaps more healthy. The settlement prospered. For one thing, it continued to serve miners who remained in Clearwater country. Also the surrounding area developed an agricultural economic base. Both hinged on the city's location at the confluence.

For about 80 years, many small towns dotted the map of Nez Perce County. Each town had its own services- a bank, post office, grocery store or hardware store. Lewiston businesses usually supplied the stores in these small towns. As transportation improved, townspeople and rural residents could more quickly and inexpensively drive to Lewiston. Although some businesses in Culdesac, Lapwai and Peck closed, adjustments to the changes kept these towns alive. However, towns like ZaZa, Sweetwater and Spalding, by-passed by main roads or abandoned by their residents, faded into history.