Spotted a Confederate flag on a pickup within two hours of arriving in Boise, Idaho, this month. Although a long way from the South, it is a population center with a diversity of views and transplanted southerners. And, frankly, just a few weeks ago we spotted a similar flag on a similar pickup in Olympia, Washington, by all measures very liberal area. More interesting to this project, then, was the second confederate flag spotted.
This was on the back of an import sedan in Idaho City, a small town in the foothills of the mountains best known today for its hot springs and remarkably old and intact downtown. There’s very little connection between Idaho City and Dixie, ever. But clearly someone there identifies with the confederacy and what they perceive the confederacy represents.
In fact, this town was formed during the gold rush that occurred in the early years of the Civil War, becoming the largest city in the Pacific Northwest, even larger than Portland. For reasons we will later explore, the West Coast would be painted solid Union blue in the history books and in the minds of its people. Idaho, along with neighbors Washington, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas, was brought into the Union after Republicans swept the 1888 elections.
But a brief tour of this preserved Wild West town’s cemetery shows that the legacy of the North’s victory obscures a more muddled time in politics. In fact, the largest headstone in the cemetery belongs to Peter Donahue, an Irishman who came west in search of gold and to avoid being drafted into the Union army. The original territorial prison is still displayed in town, a dark, windowless block of timber that speaks to the rough-hewn version of justice in force at the time. Indeed, also buried here is Edward Holbrook, an organizer of Idaho’s Democratic Party. He backed a Republican candidate for sheriff and was subsequently killed in a gunfight with a fellow Democrat, one of many who met a violent end in a partisan time.
That some of Idaho City’s residents find common cause with the Confederacy today should tell us that the attractiveness of the North’s ideology has faded in a century of use. And, perhaps not unexpectedly, the negative associations of the “rebels“ have also faded over time, allowing the stars and bars to fly unmolested in Idaho.
The only thing that hasn’t changed is the party in power — Republicans hold all but 17 of Idaho’s 105 legislative seats.