If you’re looking for that one moment when Idaho began, you could do worse than picking the second the sun first glinted off a speck of gold in the pan of W.F. Bassett in August of 1860. But let’s not give all credit to that one man, one among a handful of prospectors who might have come up with that three-cents-worth of ore that marked the beginning of the gold rush in what is today Northern Idaho. Let’s step back and honor the woman who led the men there to seek their fortune in the first place. That woman was Jane Timothy, 18-year-old daughter of Chief Timothy who the Nez Perce knew better as Ta-moot-sin.
Jane was known by many names among those in her tribe, Princess Like the Fawn, Princess Like the Dove, Princess Like Running Water, according to L.E. Bragg’s book, Idaho’s Remarkable Women. Jane’s uncle was Old Chief Joseph, so she was a cousin of the Chief Joseph who outwitted the military time after time in 1877.
But this was before that time. It was a time when, by treaty, whites weren’t allowed on the Nez Perce reservation without permission. Many of the Tribe were adamant about not letting white men into their home lands, but Chief Timothy had long been a friend of the whites.
So, when Elias D. Pierce approached the chief about helping him find his way into the back country to search for gold, Chief Timothy was amenable. Timothy knew that other tribal members had told Pierce and his party of six to turn back more than once and that they were watching the party with suspicion. He reasoned that they were also watching Timothy’s men to make sure they did not help Pierce.
There was a roundabout way to get into the country Pierce wanted to explore. They would need someone who knew the trail well. With the men being closely watched, who could serve as guide to the Pierce party? Jane spoke up. She knew the trail as well as anyone and volunteered to show the prospectors the way.
Pierce and his men made a show of beginning a trek by turning back east away from the reservation. At night, they doubled back and met up with Jane who lead them to the trail. She was stealthy, taking the men on a parallel path so that no one would find any sign of their passage. They traveled at night and listened to Jane when she told them how to move silently through the brush to avoid detection.
Jane “knew every hill and stream, every mountain meadow and possible camping place; almost she knew the very trees,” wrote W.A. Goulder, an early pioneer, in his 1909 Reminiscences.
Once word got out about the find on Orofino Creek (named such for the “fine gold” panned there), prospectors came to the country in numbers too large for the Nez Perce to deal with. They were overwhelmed by the inevitable rush.
There is little doubt the Pierce party would not have made it to what would become the townsite of Pierce without the help of Jane Timothy. Pierce, who had an elevated opinion of his own prowess in all things, failed to mention her at all in his writings. He noted that, “We procured a guide who was familiar with the country.” That it has been Wilbur Bassett who found the first sparkle of gold also went un-noted by Pierce.
Jane Timothy met and married the Harvard-educated John Silcott not long after leading the Pierce Party to their historical find. They would later operate the first commercial ferry across the Clearwater.