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Life on Eagle Island

Truman and Polete stood on the bank studying the swiftly moving river. Heavy snowfall followed by a sudden warm spell had brought with it the threat of flooding to Illinois Island and its neighboring farms. Staring across the river, Truman and Polete were determined to get their livestock to market despite the increasingly turbulent and dangerous river. It was 1873 and life was not easy for homesteaders in the valley.

An Illinois native, 24-year-old Truman Catlin had come west on horseback in the company of a cavalry detachment. When news came of the discovery of gold in the Boise Basin, Truman was bitten by the bug. Miners were making $6 a day; far above the 50 cents a day he had made planting corn during his youth. On the other hand, the cost of supplies was prohibitive. Brought up the Columbia River by steamboat, supplies were reloaded on another steamer for Umatilla, Oregon, then packed over the mountains on horses. Some were hauled by wagon from Salt Lake City. Truman soon realized satisfying the huge demand for local potatoes, grain, pork, and beef was a better future than mining. In 1863, he took up a squatter’s claim on 160 acres on Illinois Island, now known as Eagle Island.

Polete Mace was from New Orleans; the son of a French father and Swiss mother. At 14 years of age, Polete struck out to make his fortune in the California gold fields. By 1863, he was following the rush north to the mines of central Idaho; then on to the new gold discovery in the Boise Basin. When the mines ran dry, Polete found work in a livery stable and started a business driving a stagecoach from Boise to some local destinations, including Idaho City and Silver City.  By 1870, he was able to acquire the 160 acre homestead claim next to Truman Catlin’s new property.

Truman and Polete quickly became friends, and together they thought of a way to get their livestock across the swelling river. The fashioned a shallow dugout in order to cross the North Channel. In it were three pigs for market, their legs bound so they would not capsize the craft.  The dugout normally rode high in the water, but the weight of three hogs made it ride much lower. Adding the weight of two men would be risky, but both were required for the voyage and both were equally determined not to let the river best them.

Carefully, the two stepped into the dugout grasping poles to propel them safely to the far bank.  With Truman at the front and Polete in the rear, they pushed off from the bank. Pushing further out, the strong current tried to turn the bow into the flow. It took all their strength to keep their craft headed against the current. Panting and soaked with sweat, they made their way slowly against the rushing current.

Suddenly, a large tree torn from the bank struck the bow, turning it with the current and tipping the fragile craft on its side. Truman and Polete pitched headlong into the frigid river. The squealing pigs, with their legs bound, never stood a chance.

Revitalized by the shock of the freezing water, Truman and Polete struck out for south shore.  With the help of a passing tree limb and the last of their strength, they kicked for the bank.  Providence was with them, and on making the shore, both men collapsed into a wet heap. They would try again another day.

James David Reynolds

Note:  The incident and the characters are both real, but probably unrelated. Thanks to Arthur A. Hart’s: Life in Eagle, Idaho for background information.