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 by some 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 Koos-koos-kee (Clearwater River) and camped. Many of the Corps men were sick and weak from the dramatic change in the foods they ate, so they used the Indian's methods of burning out the logs to save energy and time. Five canoes were made and the expedition left Orofino on Oct. 7, 1805 on their way to the Pacific Ocean.
May 5, 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to this region where the Nez Perce welcomed them. The expedition came through near Orofino to collect the horses they left with Twisted Hair 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 east to the United States.
Except for missionaries, few white men were seen after the Lewis and Clark Expedition 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 City 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. The Nez Perce Indians also traded produce and beef with the miners for gold dust.
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 City and increased the need for a more centrally located government, independent of Washington Territory.
Farmers and ranchers soon began moving onto the Weippe Prairie where the towns of Weippe and Fraser are today, not far from Pierce City. The treaties with the Nez Perce changed the reservation boundaries. The Nez Perce Reservation allotments were completed by Alice Fletcher 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 Headquarters 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 Potlatch and Camas Prairie Railroad men making it a busy hub for logging.
Clearwater County was formed February 1911 and 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.