In 2010, Bingham County began a project to index and preserve estate files from 1885-1922 and use the ‘best practices’ for archival storage. As a clerk on the project I was fascinated with the early records and what they contained. Along with the required court documents the records contained receipts from established businesses at the time, creditor letters with unique letterhead, land grant records, naturalization papers, and one contained letters written from the Civil War battlefield.
The case of William H. Danilson included four large files. Upon examination of the documents it became clear of his involvement in the early development of Blackfoot and the surrounding areas. I set out to piece together a sketch of his life – but it became a bigger picture of how William H. Danilson had many “firsts”: Civil War officer of freed slaves, Indian agent, bridge builder across the Snake and a Blackfoot founding citizen.
In 1864 during the Civil War, Danilson served as first lieutenant and captain in the “first” Union regiment of South Carolina volunteers — all freed slaves that became the 33rd regiment in the United States Colored Troops (USCT). He led the 128th regiment as major. All commanding officers were white.
On July 30, 1869, he arrived in the Idaho Territory to become the “first” Indian agent for the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.From records and correspondence with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., one gets a view of the tremendous undertaking to negotiate the differences in the two main groups — 600 Bannock and 500 Shoshone. His reports often included a respectful reminder to the commissioner of the unfulfilled government promises regarding the Fort Bridger Treaty of July 3, 1868. Congress had not appropriated the promised funds for supplies, clothing, rations and farming equipment. He was able to start some into farming and established a sawmill. Danilson was relieved of his duties but within four years was reappointed after accusations of dishonest agents.
Again, Danilson worked to improve the conditions of the reservation, dealt with encroaching white settlers within the reservation boundaries and wrote the commissioner of his displeasure with the government for failure to protect the rights of the Indian. In 1875 he sent dozens of artifacts of the Shoshone-Bannock people to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to document their culture. The most unique — the skin of a jackrabbit, legs still included, made into a pouch and beautifully beaded. Photos of the artifacts can be seen by accessing the Smithsonian collections website: www.collections.si.edu-  then typing in ‘Danilson’ in the search box.
By 1879, his last year as agent, he reported of the success of the farms and the abundant harvests — 530 acres were cultivated producing an excellent harvest of wheat, potatoes, cabbage, barley, oats, carrots and 50 tons of hay, all together worth $11,662.00. He requested an increase in cattle as the area was good for grazing. Danilson also accompanied a delegation of Shoshone leaders to Washington D.C. where they “negotiated” the sale of 328,000 acres on the southern end of the reservation of what is now Marsh Valley. Reports to the Office of Indian Affairs for all the states can be accessed through the University of Wisconsin digital libraries.
Danilson could see the potential of growth for Eastern Idaho. In the July 14, 1880 edition of Blackfoot’s newspaper “The Register,” an article about the ditch project stated, “Major Danilson and Mr. W. N. Shilling have taken up 640 acres of desert land each, near the location of the old bed of the (Blackfoot) river, and in order to hold it are obliged to bring water to it.”
This was the foundation for the town of Blackfoot. Ads for the Danilson & Stevens store were a regular in Blackfoot’s newspaper. On Aug. 14, 1880 the ad stated “Our stock of goods has never been as large and complete as at present, and comprises everything from needle to a mowing machine."
By October 1880 a company was formed to build the “first” bridge across the Snake River with Shilling as president. Danilson was an investing shareholder. He spent the next decade involved with the growth of Blackfoot and Bingham County as a businessman and involved citizen. He died suddenly on Dec. 24, 1893 at a church Christmas party. He was 53.
He had been a founding member of the Methodist Church in Blackfoot and Pastor J. M. Wilder published a memorial of his life in “The Blackfoot News” Dec. 30, 1893.
The sudden death left his wife Lucy with large business holdings, land and, unfortunately, debt. In the estate file is found the Order for Sale of Real Estate of over 50 pieces of property to satisfy the creditor claims.
William and Lucy are both buried in the Grove City Cemetery. William H. Danilson’s probate file will be on display during Bingham County’s History in Review, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Bingham County Courthouse.