Neither fort had a military connection at first. Neither was much of a fort. Fort Boise was a collection of sticks and poles cobbled into an enclosure about 100 feet square. Within the enclosure were a handful of shacks built of the same materials, almost as if nesting birds designed the whole thing. Fort Hall was, arguably, a little better structure in the beginning, with palisade walls enclosing a few cabins.
In the 1830s Britain and the United States were quibbling over where the border should be in what we today call the Pacific Northwest. So, it was significant when Nathanial Wyeth established a trading post along the Snake River near its confluence with the Portneuf. Fort Hall, near present day Pocatello, was named after Hall J. Kelley, who had recruited Wyeth to go west to establish a trading post. When Wyeth tamped the posts in that palisade wall down and opened the gates for business, Fort Hall became the only outpost with ties to the United States in Oregon country.
The British Hudson’s Bay Company saw Fort Hall as a challenge to their trading dominance in the region, so in the fall of 1834, they patched together a trading post near the confluence of the Snake and Boise rivers, taking the name of the latter for their Fort Boise. Francois Payette ran Fort Boise until 1844, mostly with a “staff” of traders from Hawaii. After a few years Payette moved the operation to another nearby site and constructed a much more substantial post, eventually surrounding it with sun-dried adobe brick.
Wyeth and his operation, meanwhile, lasted only until 1837, when he sold Fort Hall and a second trading post he had built on the Columbia, to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
The US settled the boundary dispute with the British in 1846, establishing the border we know today between Washington and Canada. That opened up a torrent of settlers headed west into Oregon Country. Both forts became important replenishment points for emigrants. Fort Boise was famous for welcoming Oregon Trail travelers and providing them with needed provisions.
Fort Boise, the trading post near present day Parma, fell into disuse in 1853 after flooding and Indian troubles. The original Fort Hall fell to a flood in 1863. A nearby replacement served emigrants for a few more years.
So, both forts, Hall and Boise, operated from about 1834, mostly as trading posts from about their original locations. Then it got confusing.
The military established the new Fort Boise in 1863 along the foothills north of the Boise River. The town of Boise sprung up below the fort.
In 1870, the US Army established a military post near the Blackfoot River about 25 miles from old Fort Hall. Rather than name the new post after some forgotten general, they called that one Fort Hall, too. In order to completely perplex students of history, the main town on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation also became Fort Hall. Then, to better tell the story of Fort Hall, history enthusiasts built a faithful replica of old Fort Hall near the zoo in Pocatello.
So, if someone mentions Fort Hall, ask them which one they’re referencing. Do they mean the reservation, the town, the old fort, the military fort, or the replica?
For Fort Boise, you only have to ask whether they mean the military fort or the trading post. Or, I suppose, the replica, which lurks near the trading post’s original location in Parma.