William “Doc” Hisom of Ada County was legendary loner, homesteader, and story-teller. He mined silver and gold in the canyons south of Melba from the 1890s to the 1940s. His coal-black skin made him a novelty among the white farmers and ranchers. Half-African and half Blackhawk Indian, he lived in a lava rock canyon on the north bank of the Snake River at a place called Halverson Bar. A local newspaper called him “The Hermit of the Snake River Desert.”
Hisom hailed from Chicago. Born in 1858, he came to Idaho in the 1890s. By 1897, he has settled south of Melba. With partners and friends he built a waterwheel and mining flume near Can-Ada Road, about four miles east of Guffey Bridge. He made tools, tanned hides, crafted leather moccasins and gloves, played banjo and harmonica, flint-knapped authentic looking arrowheads, told stories and philosophized. Good with animals, he also cared for injured horses. One famous friend was the photographer-showman Bob Limbert. Limbert’s photos show Hisom laughing with white friends at time when Jim Crow racial segregation was the norm in many places. Neighbors celebrated Hisom’s 94th birthday in Melba. Soon after, Hisom died and was buried near his homestead. The desert has reclaimed all but the cabin’s foundation. A broken headstone remains.
In Idaho Loners: Hermits, Solitaries, and Individualists, Cort Conley remarks,
“the loner is a cherished figure in the Idaho landscape.”
Doc Hisom can teach about isolationism of the western frontier. Students can study Hisom and others who have become icons of “rugged individualism,” comparing and contrasting the varying lifestyles and personalities. Cort Conley presents portraits of some well-known local figures including “Beaver Dick” Richard Leigh; “Cougar Dave,” Dave Lewis; “Wheelbarrow Annie,” Clydeus Dunbar; “Dugout Dick,” Richard Zimmerman; “Wildhorse Cowgirl,” Helena Schmidt; and “Buckskin Bill,” Sylvan Hart.
Hisom’s story is one among many individuals lured to the isolated landscape of Idaho. Coping with isolation and following a self-sustaining method of survival brought a certain kind of admiration from those accustomed to other ways. As a young man, Wendell Chase and his friends often visited the hermit. Chase expressed the sentiments of many, “It was to the point that we worshipped him….You didn’t look at his skin, you know, you were just so impressed with him that you just liked him, and that’s the way everybody else felt around here.”
Kathy Hodges offers an historian’s perspective on Hisom’s importance to the rural community he lived separately from but alongside. “Maybe,” Hodges speculates, [the people of Melba] just liked knowing there was some diversity in the world, that their lives had touched the life of someone so different from themselves, and that both sides had been better for the exchange.”
Themes of ethnicity and racial attitudes are inherent to the Hisom’s story. Idaho is a good example of the distinction scholars make between rhetorical racism and the more violent type. Rhetorical racism is based on ignorance. It is shallow and dissipates with contact. Hisom was embraced by Idaho’s rural, white society that was threatened by some groups, but not African-Americans, perhaps because the population here was not large enough to pose a competitive economic threat.
The PowerPoint chronicles Doc Hisom’s life in Idaho and his relationship with the local community.
Topics include personal biography; making a living on the western frontier; local history of Melba, Idaho; the role of mining and railroads in the Snake River Valley.
Halverson Cove is on the north side of the Snake River, about three miles east from Canyon County’s Celebration Park.
From Nampa, go south on 12th Avenue South (Highway 45). At the bottom of a long hill, at milepost 112 near Walter’s Ferry, turn left (east) on Ferry Road. Turn right on Warren Spur Road. Turn right (south) on Sinker Road. This will lead to the north end of Guffy Bridge and then upstream to Celebration Park.
Ask at the park’s visitor center about a hike to Halverson Lake. Or continue east about a mile on a dirt road to the trail head. Follow the trail to Halverson Lake, where canal water streams over the cliffs to ponds at the base of the canyon. The ruins of Hisom’s cabins and others are on a small creek directly south of the Halverson Lake and maybe 20 yards from the river. Alternatively, you can walk upstream along the river to Halverson Cove. Bring water. A pleasant hike in fall or spring, the trail can be dusty in summer.
Idaho State Historical Society Public Archives and Library (PARL)
African American resource materials available at PARL
Voice recording: Oral History of Charles Warren, African-American resident of Boise. Mr. Warren came to Idaho from California in the 1958. He shares accounts of living in the Northwest, family history, experience and thoughts on racism.
Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Project, 1973
Idaho Loner’s: Hermits, Solitaries, and Individualists, by Cort Conley. Backeddy Books, 1994
Prospects: Land Use in the Snake River Birds of Prey Area, edited by Todd Shallat and Daniel Greer. Boise State University and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1987.