"The area now called Clearwater County in Idaho was originally inhabited by various bands of Nez Perce Indians. They had permanent villages along the Clearwater River at the western edge of the county. Hunting and fishing parties traveled in and out of the area and favorite root gathering spots were found in places like the Weippe Prairie and Musselshell Meadows, above the Clearwater River.
It is reported that the Lewis and Clark Expedition's Corps of Discovery (1805-1806) were the first white men and black man in Idaho. The expedition came into Clearwater County Sept. 20, 1805. They met the Nez Perce Indians on the Oyaip (Weippe) Prairie where the Nez Perce fed the starving men. Originally, the Nez Perce unsure of this expedition's intent, discussed killing all of them, but a Nez Perce woman named Wat-Ku-ese told them that white people had helped her when she had been captured by another tribe. She asked that the Corps be spared.
The Corps of Discovery moved down to Canoe Camp on the Kooskooskee (Clearwater River) and camped. The Nez Perce showed the men of the Corps how to burn out the center of logs to make the canoe building faster. Five canoes were made and the expedition left Orofino on Oct. 10, 1805 on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
May 5, 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to Clearwater County where the Nez Perce welcomed them. The expedition came through near Orofino to collect the horses they had left with the Nez Perce the previous year. They also picked up supplies they had stored for the return trip. The Corps stayed at Long Camp near Kamiah until June 23, 1806, waiting for the snow to melt enough to allow passage through the mountains. During this time, the Corps and Nez Perce shared medicines, games, dancing and much more particular to the two cultures. Nez Perce guides helped Lewis and Clark get back over the mountains on their return to the eastern United States.
The first treaty with the Nez Perce was signed in 1855 and gave them a large reservation including parts of Washington and Idaho including parts of what would later become Clearwater County.
Except for missionaries, few white men were seen after Lewis and Clark until the winter of 1859 when Captain Elias D. Pierce found gold. Due to restrictions on what had become part of the Nez Perce Reservation, he could not legally come into the area. However, he returned quietly in the winter of 1860 with a party of 12. They camped on Canal Gulch near what is now the town of Pierce. One of the men made a significant gold discovery. That winter, 1860-61, Pierce City and Oro Fino City were established only two miles apart. Pierce City was to become Idaho's second oldest town, though it was originally in Washington Territory. Oro Fino burned down in 1867 and was not rebuilt. The town of Greer on the Clearwater River had a ferry that crossed the river making transport of goods up to the prairie for the mining settlements possible.
Clearwater County was originally in Washington Territory so the Washington Territorial Legislature included this area in Spokane County. The Washington Legislature established Shoshone County in 1861 with Pierce City as the county seat.
Discovery of gold brought thousands of people to Pierce and increased the need for a more centrally located government, independent of Washington Territory. March 3, 1863, Idaho was declared a territory with Lewiston as the first capital.
Still standing in Pierce is Idaho's oldest courthouse. It was built in 1862 at a cost of $3,500 to $4,000. The structure was used until 1884. It was later sold for a mere $50.
Farmers and ranchers soon began moving onto the Weippe Prairie where the towns of Weippe and Fraser are today. Homesteading began on the prairie before the homesteading of land around the Clearwater River. The Nez Perce Reservation allotments were completed in November 1895 and homesteading on the unallotted land started Nov. 18, 1895. The town of Orofino on the Clearwater River, not to be mistaken for the old Oro Fino city near Pierce, was platted in 1898.
The Northern Pacific Railroad began laying tracks up the Clearwater River and by 1899, the railroad had completed tracks and a depot in Orofino. Some of the towns along the Clearwater River were named by the railroad for people who worked on building the line. The increase in population and promise of a transportation system encouraged more settlers to come.
The original Shoshone County included parts of Montana, Idaho and Washington and travel from this area to the second county seat in Wallace took a person through five counties and two states. Various proposals to split south Shoshone County to form a new county began. The Idaho Legislature passed an act authorizing annexation of south Shoshone County. The area was annexed to Nez Perce County in December 1904 by a vote in a general election. February 1911, the Idaho Legislature voided the act and established Clearwater County with Orofino as the county seat.
Timber became a valued commodity and changed the major industry from mining to logging. Other new towns sprouted up because of the logging such as Heaquarters and Elk River. The railroad soon reached out to these towns and brought millions of board feet of logs out to mills that popped up everywhere. Elk River built the first all electric sawmill. Headquarters fed and housed Camas Prairie Railroad men in addition to being a hub for logging.
Clearwater County continues to grow and change. Come see the Clearwater Historical Museum's collection of homestead, logging, mining and Nez Perce artifacts. Our surrounding communities continue to give generously so that the legacy can be shared with others."
This information is provided by the Clearwater Historical Museum.