Before Anglo-European settlement, the Camas Prairie was a principal camas root gathering area and summer hunting grounds for the Native Americans of the middle Snake River region (Statham 1982). Bannock, Shoshoni, and Northern Paiute family bands were the most common tribes that congregated on the prairie in spring and early summer to hunt and dig camas bulbs.
In 1820, Donald Mackenzie (USDA 1981), a Northwest Company fur trader, was the first white man to enter the Camas Prairie. He passed through while returning from a trapping expedition in the Lost River area. Trappers subsequently used this route between Fort Hall and Fort Boise.
In 1852, a wagon route was established through the Camas Prairie and used by pioneers heading for Oregon (Statham 1982). This route became known as the Emigrant Road and was used primarily as a migration route to gold mining claims in the South Fork of the Boise River area, Montana, and later the Wood River Valley. This route was used by sheep and cattle operators to reach rail shipping areas in the Wyoming territories.
By the 1860s, the miners and livestock operators demanded removal of all Native people from southwestern Idaho. The governor of Idaho Territory, D.W. Ballares, arranged to put the Boise and Bureau Shoshoni on the new reservation at Fort Hall in 1866. The treaty allowed them access to the Camas Prairie. In 1868, an army detachment from Fort Boise was dispatched to the Camas Prairie to protect the Indians from some troublesome settlers who were out to steal their horses. For the next decade, the Shoshoni-Bannock Indians from Fort Hall came regularly to the Camas Prairie.
During the late 1870s, hog producers of south-central Idaho discovered common camas to be an ideal source of feed (Statham 1982). Hogs were trailed up in the early spring to feed on the camas bulbs and grasses through the summer and returned south for the winter. Competition for the camas resulted in an uprising of the Indians known as the Bannock Wars. The result of the uprising was the exclusion of Native Americans from the Camas Prairie.
With the Indians largely gone, white settlement started on the Camas Prairie in 1880. The settlement started as part of a promotion plan by the association of Rice and Foster, of the Hailey Land Office. In 1881, the first land claims were filed under provisions of the Desert Land Act of 1877. These first immigrants to the Camas Prairie were not informed about the short growing season, cold winters, killing frosts, and other drawbacks. Most settlers left because of the weather hardships.
The second influx of settlers started about 1902 when Twin Lakes Reservoir Company was formed and a dam constructed on McKinney Creek. Most of the settlers of this irrigation project were members of the Church of Latter Day Saints from Utah. As a result, the reservoir was called Mormon Reservoir. About this same time, farmers from the Palouse area of eastern Washington settled the dryland areas of the Camas Prairie. These people were successful at dryland farming and by 1897, most of the good land had been claimed.
In 1909, the town site of Prairie, renamed Hill City in 1912, was established. Early settlers discovered that small grains and legumes could be grown without irrigation.
Initially, winter wheat (Triticum spp.) was the main cash crop grown under a crop-fallow system. Native grass was cut for hay from the wet meadows of the Camas Prairie.
The Oregon Shortline Railroad, later taken over by the Union Pacific, ran from Richfield to Hill City and was completed in 1911. The line was operated until 1983, when it was abandoned and removed.
In the early years, the livestock industry was probably evenly split between sheep and cattle. At one point, Hill City was known as the largest single sheep shipping point for the nation. Due to declining demand, sheep production is significantly reduced in the area today. A few sheep bands still graze the Sawtooth National Forest during the summer, with residual crop grazing during the fall on the Camas Prairie. Today, the dominant livestock operation is cow-calf, with very few cattle being wintered on the Camas Prairie, because of snow conditions and costly feeding requirements.
The agricultural landscape began to change by 1950. The change came because of declining agricultural yields, snow mold problems with winter wheat, government crop reduction programs, and higher demand for alfalfa (Medicago sativa) hay. Today, alfalfa is the leading agricultural commodity within the Camas Creek watershed. Crops which can be grown in the area include winter and spring wheat, barley (Hordeum vulgare), and oats (Avena sativa).
From the 1880s through about 1935, all farming was done with horses. From 1935 through 1938, farmers converted to track-type tractors. By 1965, most farmers had converted to wheel tractors to perform tillage and planting. Mechanization reduced tillage time, making more time available to farmers. Farm size tended to get larger, while the human population was getting smaller. The marsh itself was never intensively farmed due to the period of time it was inundated with water. The sedges and grasses were cut for hay and the entire area was heavily grazed by cattle, sheep, pigs, and horses (CCSCD 1994).