Idaho has always valued its history — even prior to its statehood.
The Historical Society of Idaho Pioneers was founded in 1881, nine years before the territory became a state. Nearly three decades later, the Idaho Legislature created the Idaho State Historical Society and put John Hailey — founder of the town on the Wood River — at the helm.
When it comes to Idaho historians, Merle Wells’ name is among the most revered. Said to have had an “encyclopedic knowledge” of Idaho history, Wells, who was active in the Idaho State Historical Society for more than 50 years, remains an icon in the field.
Wells was born in Canada in 1918, and moved to Boise with his family in 1930. He began volunteering for the ISHS in 1946 and joined the staff 10 years later. Wells was instrumental in establishing the state’s highway historical marker program with the Idaho Department of Transportation. He also established the State Archives and State Historic Preservation Office, and became the head of SHPO in 1969. He retired in 1986, but continued to volunteer.
“For anybody who studies or writes about Idaho history, Merle Wells is the final authority,” Arthur Hart, director emeritus of the ISHS, said of his colleague.
Wells died in 2000.
Besides writing the text for the majority of the more than 200 historical markers, Wells wrote 15 historical books about the area and 113 articles for the Idaho State Historical Reference Series — including fascinating stories on the Snake River gold mines and the origin of Sacajawea’s name.