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Posted on July 24, 2014 at 4:13 PM by GayDawn Oyler
Ariel view of Montpelier. Photography by David C. Chamberlain of "DCC online Photography."
Around 1810 the first European and American explorers/trappers began traveling into what is now southern Idaho, trapping beaver and seeking to trade with the nomadic American Indians. One of these frontiersmen, Donald Mackenzie, led a party into the Bear Lake Valley in 1818. He named the Bear River.
The Shoshone and Bannock Tribes were the principal tribes living in what is now southern Idaho. However, the Gros Ventre and Blackfoot Indians of the northern plains made periodic excursions into the area.
For several years, British and American fur-trading companies sponsored rendezvous in various locations including Bear Lake Valley. They, like a traveling general store, brought trade goods to these mountain locations to barter for furs. Several hundred trappers and Indians came great distances to attend these often raucous rendezvous.
In 1829 and 1832 they held rendezvous in Teton Valley near what is now Driggs, 95 miles north of Montpelier. They named the location Pierre’s Hole after one of the trappers/traders.
Nathaniel J. Wyeth was one of the merchants trading at Pierre’s Hole. Following disappointing business deals, Wyeth traveled west across the Preuss Mountains and entered the Bear River Valley above what is now Montpelier. He was en route to build his Fort Hall trading post near Pocatello.
Osborne Russell, who had joined Wyeth and his trappers, wrote his observations when he first saw Bear Lake Valley on July 2, 1834. He said they “fell onto a stream called Bear River which emptied into the Big Salt Lake. This is beautiful country. The river, which is about 20 yards wide, runs through large fertile bottoms bordered by rolling ridges which gradually ascend on each side to the high ranges of dark and lofty mountains upon whose tops the snow remains nearly year round...”.
Exhibit at the National Oregon California Trail Center in Montpelier.
In 1841 the first immigrants to Oregon’s Willamette Valley passed through what is now Montpelier before turning north along the Bear River to Soda Springs. For nearly two decades, most Oregon Trail immigrants heading to Oregon and California passed through Montpelier.
In 1862 Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church) headquartered in Salt Lake City, received favorable reports as to the valley’s settlement potential. Young was anxious to locate arable land in the Intermountain West where the swelling flow of Church converts from Europe and America could successfully settle.
Charles C. Rich, a member of the Church’s ruling Quorum of Twelve Apostles, wrote that the (Bear River Valley) country possessed an abundance of water for irrigation; there were favorable locations for towns, good soil, abundant grass hay, plenty of fish and game; and a climate favorable for hardy grains and vegetables. He felt it was well worth an attempt at colonization.
The federal Preemption Act of 1841—squatters rights—allowed a person to claim up to 160 acres of un-surveyed federal land and later pay a small fee per acre to the federal government for clear title. The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed conversion of 160 acres to a settler who improved the property and lived on the land for five years.
The Church’s Indian policy was that of peace and providing food and other help to the Indians. Young negotiated with area Shoshone and Bannock tribal chiefs about Bear Lake Valley settlement. The chiefs agreed that Church immigrants could settle on the north end of the lake but not on the lake’s south shore where they held their traditional encampments—a place now known in Utah as Rendezvous Beach.
On August 23, 1863, Young asked for an advance party of several families and workers from Cache Valley, Utah, to follow Charles C. Rich and build a wagon road—46 miles—across the mountains from what is now Preston to the north end of Bear Lake Valley. On September 18, the party left with nine wagons. They took eight days blazing a trail, removing trees and rock and filling ravines sufficient to make the road passable by horse-drawn wagons. A second group of settlers followed in October.
When the party arrived at what is now Paris, they stopped and built 20 cabins of aspen logs with pole roofs covered with sod for the settlers who would remain there for the winter. In addition, they built animal shelters and corrals and cut sufficient meadow hay to last the winter.
When spring arrived and the snows melted sufficiently to allow passage over the new mountain road, 700 additional settlers came into the valley—of which 15 families chose to travel 10 miles northeast of Paris to start a new community. In addition to Paris, the settlers established seven other settlements.
In May 1864 Brigham Young, accompanied by other Church leaders and families, visited the new Bear Lake Valley settlements. Charles C. Rich took the opportunity of Young’s visit to ask for his advice to the settlers for naming certain of the new communities. For the 15 families who settled north of Paris, he suggested they name their mountain-surrounded community Montpelier, the capitol of his home state of Vermont.
One of the first things settlers did was to build temporary shelters—many were “dugouts,” rooms dug into a hill with dirt walls on three sides and covered with brush and grass. Some slept in their wagons.
Charles Rich and his son Joseph, both of whom had experience surveying other Church settlements, surveyed most of the new Bear Lake settlements. As was common in settlements started by Church members, they used the North Star to lay out the townships on a north-south and east-west axis in 10-acre blocks separated by streets six rods wide—96 feet. They subdivided each 10-acre block designated residential into one-acre home sites.
Moving out from the center of town, they platted five and 20-acre lots. The settlers drew for their lots.
Even though they had their own land, the pioneers worked as a community for the common interests of all. They cut trees to build a community corral on one of the city lots. Each night they herded all of the livestock into the corral, and the men would take turns standing guard against predators. After building their shelters, the settlers prepared and, later, planted a community garden and built a log meetinghouse for public gatherings and church services. They worked together to divert water from streams and construct canals and ditches to irrigate their land.
They augmented the food supplies they brought and later raised in their gardens with wild game and native plants and fruits such as dandelions, pigweeds, thistles, fir greens, sego lily roots, chokecherries, serviceberries and native currants.
As soon as they were settled, they moved out of their dugouts and wagons and built their first houses of logs hauled down from the mountains. The homes usually had one room with a single window covered with oilcloth and a slab door with leather hinges held shut with wooden pegs. Pioneers slept in bunk beds on mattresses filled with pine needles or dry grass. At one end of the room was a fireplace for warmth, light and cooking.
They dug food cellars to keep their food cool in the summer, but not allow it to freeze in the winter; gathered wood for fuel; and harvested and stored grass hay for their livestock. They dried fruit and preserved the meat by drying it or placing it in crocks of salt brine. They plowed the ground and planted crops that would mature in the high-mountain climate, such as grain and alfalfa hay.
They used a commercial system that had proved effective in other Church settlements. They formed an organized barter system. Under the Church concept of tithing, each person donated 10 percent of their increase and labor to the Lord. Local Church leaders managed a “tithing house” which served like a central bank with goods and labor as “currency.”
In 1881 the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) began building a connection between the railheads at Granger, Wyoming, and Huntington, Oregon—a distance of 472 miles. The rail line angled from Granger in a northwesterly direction through Montpelier, Soda Springs, Pocatello and Caldwell before connecting with the rail line in Huntington.
In 1882 when the construction crews reached Montpelier, OSL built a depot, repair shops, roundhouse and freight division point with stockyards where they unloaded livestock for feed and water.
Many of the railroad employees and those that came with them were of a temperament opposite in life style to those of the more conservative settlers. For a time, this created a culturally divided community with each side viewing the other with suspicion. However, the mutual economic benefits coming from the railroad and other factors served to persuade residents to overlook differences and work together to build the community.
OSL completed the railroad to Huntington on November 17, 1884, creating another transcontinental railroad. Railroad interests completed the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory Point near Corinne, Utah. The rail line opened Montpelier and all of southern Idaho to the commerce centers of Omaha, Nebraska, and Portland, Oregon.
In 1890 when Idaho became a state, Montpelier was the ninth largest city.
On July 13, 1891, Montpelier became an incorporated village.
Where in the World is Montpelier?
The settlers thought they lived in Utah Territory. In fact, their leader, Charles C. Rich served in the Utah Territorial Legislature.
However, in 1872 the federal government performed a land survey of the 42nd parallel, the dividing line between Idaho and Utah Territories. The survey proved the settlers, as well as the two territorial governments, were incorrect. The boundary between the two territories ran a mile south of Franklin in Cache Valley and through the center of Bear Lake with the northern half, including Montpelier, located in Idaho Territory and the southern half in Utah.
The practical effect of correcting the error was to significantly change Idaho’s official 1870 Census numbers and cause Bear Lake Valley citizens to travel more than twice the distance to do their territorial business.
Amenities and Attractions Today
Bear Lake State Park, comprising 966 acres, has two locations on the east side of the lake. The North Beach Unit, located at the top of the lake, offers a 2-mile-long beach. The East Beach Unit has a 1½-mile-long beach. Both facilities have ramps for boaters and water skiers. The lake is 20 miles long and up to 8 miles wide.
Anglers can fish for native cutthroat and lake trout. In the winter, anglers come with nets to catch Bonneville cisco—one of three species of white fish of the Salmon family indigenous to Bear Lake. The cisco live in the deep cool water until they rise in schools each January to spawn over the limited rocky areas of the lake.
The 19,000-acre Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge starts a few miles south of Montpelier and comprises most of the wetlands bordering the north shore of Bear Lake. This refuge provides habitat for various species of duck, goose, Sandhill Crane, Trumpeter Swan and White-Faced Ibis.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages the Montpelier Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near the city of Montpelier. It comprises 2,100 acres of mule deer and elk habitat. The Georgetown Summit WMA is located north of Montpelier and provides 3,349 acres of elk and mule deer habitat.
The city’s most spectacular amenities are the outdoor recreation options available in the nearby public lands. Fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, biking and ATV riding are prominent summer activities, while Nordic skiing and snowmobiling are winter favorites. Many people come from long distances to enjoy these activities.
Oregon Trail immigrants cut a wide swath as they passed through Bear Lake Valley. Wagon ruts are still visible on some parts of the trail. The National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier is an interpretive center providing a history of life on the Oregon Trail.