State Research Guides: Idaho

By Leslie Stroope Premium

How did a place whose identity is linked with potatoes come to be known as the Gem State? Blame it on a bad translation. When Congress designated Idaho Territory in 1863, its name was chosen because of the erroneous belief that Idaho was a Shoshone word meaning “gem of the mountains.” Given Idaho’s natural resources and topography—which proved to be a perfect breeding ground for disease-resistant russet potatoes—the description fit, if not the actual nomenclature. The nickname is apt for family tree research, too: You’ll find the state’s genealogical gems are as plentiful as its potatoes.

Gold standard

In the 1840s and 1850s, Idaho was merely a stopover for migrants on the way to California’s gold fields. Utah Mormons founded the first permanent white settlement, Franklin, in 1860. When the cry of “Eureka!” came from newly discovered gold fields in northern Idaho later that year, former passersby returned to seek their fortunes.
Prospectors and the promise of abundant land fueled a population boom: Idaho grew from less than 17,000 residents in 1863 to nearly 90,000 by statehood in 1890. In particular, Mormons and Confederate refugees flocked to the state, helping to build its mining, forestry and agriculture industries.
Idaho’s early immigrants—Brits, Germans and Scandinavians—were joined in the 1880s and ’90s by Basques (from Spain and southwestern France), who came to Boise and took jobs as shepherds, miners and loggers, and eventually settled permanently in the Columbia Basin.
As the population grew, Idaho’s first two land offices opened in Boise and Lewiston. You can search for your ancestor’s land records from the 1870s to 1960s at the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) General Land Office Records Web site or via microfilmed Idaho tract books (1868 to 1913) available through the Family History Library (FHL). For copies of original land patent applications, contact the BLM’s Idaho office (click on Information, About BLM and Freedom of Information Act). NARA’s Pacific Alaska region in Seattle holds many original Idaho land records. For county records, contact the county recorder.

Military gems


The new crop of settlers found themselves neighbors with the native Nez Percé, Couer d’Alene, Salish/Kalispel, Kutenai, Shoshone and Northern Paiute tribes. Tensions mounted as settlers eyed tribal lands for cattle ranges, and the US government pressured the Nez Percé to relocate to reservations. Members of the tribes originally agreed to relocate, but battles soon erupted between the Nez Percé and the US Army. The tribe held off US troops for five months in 1877 before surrendering. The FHL has enlistment registers from 1798 to 1914 for soldiers who fought in these battles; both NARA and the FHL hold indexes of pension applications filed between 1892 and 1926 (look for your ancestors’ Indian Wars records between 1817 and 1898).
NARA holds the original Bureau of Indian Affairs census records from 1887 to 1952, which include deaths, marriages, births, school and family registers. These also are available on FHL microfilm and at the Idaho State Historical Society Library and Archives (ISHS). NARA’s Seattle branch and ISHS hold records for two reservations: the Northern Idaho Agency at Lapwai from 1875 to 1964 and records for the Fort Hall Agency from 1889 to 1952.
Although no Civil War battles were fought on Idaho soil, some veterans migrated to and died in the Gem State. To find their service and pension records, start with the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, an index of 6.3 million Union and Confederate soldiers. Next, browse ISHS’ PDF index of Union and Confederate soldiers buried in Idaho. Microfilmed service records are at the FHL and originals are at NARA.

Census jewels

You’ll find Idahoans enumerated in an array of federal census records, beginning with Oregon Territory in 1850, Washington Territory in 1860 and Idaho Territory in 1870. Some southern Idahoans show up in the 1860 and 1870 Cache County, Utah, enumerations. All these and later US censuses through 1930 are on microfilm at the FHL, NARA and major libraries, as well as on ($155.40 a year) and HeritageQuest Online (free through subscribing libraries).
You also have a rare gem to make up for the ruined 1890 census: ISHS has reconstructed that enumeration using local newspapers and federal, state and local government records. You can download the index, which lists records by first and last name.
Use city directories to follow your ancestors between federal enumerations. The FHL has microfilmed directories that name heads of household dating back to 1902 for Boise and 1905 for Pocatello. has searchable head-of-household lists for Boise City (1891).

Vital treasures


Mandatory birth and death reporting in the Gem State started at the county level in 1907, four years before statewide registration. Some midwives even recorded births as early as the 1870s. Statewide marriage records began in 1947. For pre-1911 birth records, check with the county recorder, as well as on FHL microfilm and at ISHS.
For official copies of births and deaths from 1911 on, contact the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics. Only immediate relatives can request birth records less than 100 years old and death records created less than 50 years ago, so when making a request, be sure to include the reason and your relationship to the person. You must also provide a picture ID or two other forms of identification.
The FHL has indexed Idaho death records from 1911 to 1950 on CD, as well as microfilmed death certificates (1911 to 1937) and other indexed death records (1911 to 1932). Online, you can search a 1911-to-1951 Idaho death index on, and the Brigham Young University-Idaho library’s State of Idaho Death Index covers deaths from Boise’s Bureau of Health Policy and Vital Statistics from 1911 through 1956. And check out Eastern Idaho Death Records, an index of funeral home, obituary, cemetery and headstone records for people who died in southeastern Idaho. To find where your ancestor may be buried, consult Cemetery Records of Idaho, a 12-volume, indexed collection of tombstone inscriptions on FHL microfilm.

Marriage records are available in many places online, too. has a searchable database covering 1842 to 1996. Search 180,000-plus pre-1900 Idaho marriage records in the Western States Marriage Index. Results will tell you when and where the wedding took place, as well as the couple’s place of residence. also offers a searchable vital-records database containing transcribed territorial and statehood-era birth, marriage, divorce, death, jury list and homestead records for Idaho County from 1886 to 1903.
Divorces and annulments were filed in Idaho’s district courts from 1864 until statewide records began in 1947. For earlier records, check with the county clerk from your ancestor’s area. Some records also are on microfilm at ISHS and the FHL.

Pearls of wisdom
Ancestors proving elusive? Try these additional tips and resources:

  • Tax records and newspapers may provide clues. The FHL and ISHS hold microfilmed county tax records dating back to 1865. County courthouses also might hold these records. has a searchable database of Idaho County newspaper tax lists (1886 to 1893), too. ISHS maintains microfilmed newspapers back to the 1860s; at, you’ll find scans of the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman and eight other newspapers back to 1864.
  • Because boundaries shifted early on, consult the Idaho GenWeb Project’s Idaho County Selection table, which lists county formation dates, parent counties and more. 
  • From 1913 to 1930, Idaho gave small monthly pensions to mothers whose husbands were dead, jailed or in a mental institution, and orphans under age 15. ISHS has a downloadable index to these records. You can order copies of the records for a fee. Whether your Idaho kin were pensioners, pioneers or potato farmers, all these Gem State resources will surely translate into genealogical discoveries.

See our Fast Facts and Key Resources for researching Idaho ancestors.
From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine

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