One of the easiest geographical oddities to pick out on any map is a panhandle. These strange-looking appendages jut out from states and counties, and absolutely beg the question of their origin. The best thing about panhandles is that there is absolutely no shortage of them! There’s an absolute wealth of information to be shared about each one of these quirky border deviations, so I’ve decided to write a mini-series on them. Articles in this series will appear at random, interspersed with other stories, but I will link each one together so that you can get your full fill of panhandle-related knowledge!

I’ll begin by examining one of the more evident panhandles on the US map; the northern portion of Idaho. This mountainous state gets skinnier and skinnier the farther north you travel; by the time you hit I-90, it’s only about 50 miles across. The narrowest area extends all the way to the Canadian border, and seems like it’s being crushed to death between Montana to the east and Washington to the west. So why is this strip of land a part of the Gem State, rather than the other two states closing in on it? Is it because Idaho wanted access to its northern neighbor Canada? Did Washington and Montana need a buffer after some long-forgotten dispute? Did Idaho just get there first? Let’s find out.

It turns out that the origins of Idaho’s panhandle can be explained by the fact that it did not get there first. The story begins in the 1850s, when Idaho was a part of the Washington Territory. At this time, quite a bit of land belonged to Washington: Idaho, as well as most of present-day Montana and Wyoming, were included. By 1863, thousands of settlers had moved into this massive region to mine for various minerals, and prominent figures in the Washington Territory wanted to discard the excess land and the logistical headaches that came with it. This set the stage for the creation of the Idaho Territory, and a heated political battle between local rivals: John Mullan and William H Wallace.

John Mullan (Left) and William H Wallace (Right). Photos via Wikimedia Commons

Mullan owned large tracts of land in the eastern city of Walla Walla (see map). If Washington kept some of the land to the east, the center of population would shift extremely close to Walla Walla, putting it in a prime position to be named Washington’s new capital city. Therefore, there was an incentive for him to keep the northeastern portions of the territory as Washington’s while ejecting the southern parts (see this historical map for details). Mullan submitted his plan (which would keep the current panhandle, as well as western Montana, as part of Washington) to the Senate. Meanwhile, Mullan’s rival Wallace hailed from the contemporary capital of Olympia. Desperate to keep the capital to the west, Wallace submitted his own plan to the Senate, one which would create a massive, rectangular Idaho Territory that included Idaho, Montana, and most of Wyoming. Wallace’s plan prevailed, and gave Washington the eastern boundary that we see today.

As a reward for his territorial plan, Wallace was appointed the governor of the new Idaho Territory over an angry and protesting Mullan. Wallace then made two decisions that would be critical to shaping the Idaho we know today. First, he placed the territory’s capital at Lewiston (see map). This town, on the western edge of the territory, offered quicker access to the population centers in Washington. This made a journey from the eastern areas of the territory incredibly long. Wallace then decided to convene the first legislature in the dead of winter. Representatives from current day Montana found themselves in a quandary: They were separated from the capital by the snowbound, jagged Bitterroot Mountains. These legislators were forced to travel southwest, all the way to the Pacific, before turning at the Columbia River to backtrack all the way to Lewiston.

Route of legislators from Montana to Lewiston

These politicians were, as you can imagine, less than pleased at their predicament, and demanded to become their own territory. Within a year, their wishes were granted. Abraham Lincoln declared Montana to be a separate territory, taking present-day Wyoming with it. The boundary of the two territories, of course, stemmed from the root of the separation: the treacherous Bitterroot Mountains. The range’s northwestern trajectory took it dangerously close to the Washington border. As a result, once the mountains hit the 116th parallel lawmakers decided to extend the rest of the boundary directly north until it hit Canada. So goes the story of the origin of the Idaho panhandle!

Bitterroot Mountains

The Bitterroot Mountains. Photo by the National Forest Service on Flickr (cc)

Today, travel across the Bitterroot Mountains is not quite as difficult as it used to be – Interstate 90 cuts straight through. Still, the panhandle serves as an interesting reminder of all the little negotiations and concessions that go into the creation of a state border. Plus, it makes Idaho look cool, so it’s a win-win from my point of view!


Other entries in the Panhandle series:




Liked this content? Remember to subscribe to receive new articles by email!

3 Replies to “The Panhandle Series: Idaho”

  1. For further reading, see “How the States Got Their Shapes”, by Mark Stein. Full disclosure: I edited the maps in that book.

  2. One of the results of all these border changes is that Washington ended up becoming the smallest state west of the Mississippi.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *