The First People
About 12,000 years ago, hunters crossed the high cold plains of Asia into Alaska and gradually moved southward, following ice age mammals. These travelers from the north became Idaho's first residents. When the game they relied on became scarce, the Native Americans expanded their diets to include bison, deer, antelope, elk, fish and berries. They invented tools to help in their never-ending search for food, such as the spear-like "atlatl."
Native Americans did not live year-round on the South Fork. The Shoshone-Bannock people lived in small groups and villages along the rivers and streams of southeastern Idaho. They migrated as needed, and the Shoshones and Bannocks, although they did not share the same language, often united for hunting.
Exploring the South Fork Country
Lewis and Clark were the first Euro-Americans to visit the Snake River country. The Snake River, in fact, was first called the Lewis River. For years, the South Fork was referred to as the Lewis River or Lewis Fork, even after the stream had been renamed the Snake, and even though Lewis and Clark traveled north of the South Fork. The first Euro-American to actually visit the South Fork was John Colter in 1807, after leaving the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The hardships suffered by Colter, Robery Stuart and others did not diminish the hopes of other trappers. By 1818, Donald Mackenzie had established a base on Bear Lake. He led trappers into the Snake River country. Fierce competition developed between American and English trappers. Some of the most prominent names in western lore trapped in the area: Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, Jim Bridger, Etienne Provot and Osbourne Russell.
The first Euro-American settlers on the South Fork were rough frontiersmen looking for a place to build a cabin and live off the land. They followed no schedule, worked for no boss, and did pretty much as they pleased. A few, such as Richard "Beaver Dick" Leigh, raised families. Others, like Pete Kelly, lived alone near Kelly Canyon.
Farming was not the attraction in the upper valley. Some hay and grain could be raised but the grassy bottom lands and terraces were ideal for raising cattle and horses. Ranches began to dot the countryside in the late 1870s. Sawmills sprung up along the river. Logs lashed together were floated downstream to supply lumber to towns and meet the needs of the railroad. Farther downstream, farming was practical and profitable.