As an Idaho historian, and one who took a minor in geography at the University of Washington in the 1930s, I have always been fascinated by place names. As Pulitzer Prize-winner Wallace Stegner once put it, The names contain our history, as the seed contains the tree. Many Idaho place names have stories worth telling, and some have developed legendary meanings more colorful than true.
Take the name Idaho, for example. Its an Indian word meaning light on the mountains, right? Wrong. Idaho is not an Indian word in any known native language it just sounds like one. And, since it is a made-up name, its inventor could attach any meaning to it he wanted. The first definition offered for the name Idaho, when it was put forward in 1861 as an appropriate name for what became Colorado, was gem of the mountains. Even then, pioneer Westerners in Congress were skeptical of its Indian origins, notably U.S. Sen. Joe Lane of Oregon: It is a corruption certainly, a counterfeit, and ought not to be adopted. Lane, who had been the Democratic candidate for vice president in 1860, lost this vote, too, but he had raised enough doubt that further investigation caused the Idaho sponsors to withdraw it in favor of Colorado, Spanish for ruddy or colored.
Long-time State Historian Merle Wells was the persistent researcher who finally tracked down the probable origin of Idaho. We may never know exactly who coined the name, but it was certainly a white politician (or his wife) and it was too pretty a name, along with its imaginary meaning, to die. Before Idaho prevailed in 1863 as the name of the new Idaho Territory, Montana had also been suggested. A year later that name was used for the next territory created out of the giant, square-shaped Idaho of 1863 that was bigger than Texas and briefly included later North and South Dakota and most of Wyoming. As Wells pointed out, writers had been inventing pretty Indian names for a long time. Henry Wadsworth Longfellows Song of Hiawatha (1855) is a good example: By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big Sea Water, Stood the wigwam of Nokomis, Daughter of the Moon. Writers of fiction have been making up Indian names ever since, some even deciding that Idaho was a Nez Perce word pronounced Ee-dah-how.
The linguistic origins of Idaho place names tell us a lot about the people who explored and settled here. For example, French names dot our maps a legacy from the French-Canadian fur trappers who combed our mountains and valleys in search of beaver pelts. Boise, our capital city, derives its name from the French for wooded, spelled on early maps Boisse, with an accent over the final e. The name was first applied to the Boise River, 20 years before the town was laid out near its banks. Both the Big and Little Wood rivers were named the same way, since their banks were lined with cottonwood and willow trees in an otherwise treeless landscape. Both are now called by the English equivalent of French for wooded.
Other well-known French names on the map of Idaho are Nez Perce, Coeur dAlene and Pend Oreille all applied first to Indian tribes by trappers, without much real justification. Nez Perce means pierced nose and could equally have been applied to members of other Northwest tribes that pierced the septum of the nose to insert a slender dentalium shell, acquired by trade with coastal Indians. It is doubtful that the Nez Perce pierced their noses more than other native peoples did (or more than some young people do today), but the name stuck.
Coeur dAlene has been translated as heart like an awl, and was probably a derogatory name chosen by French-speaking trappers in referring to those peoples ability to drive a hard bargain. Pend Oreille, like Nez Perce, refers to personal adornment, in this case ornamental ear pendants again a practice of other tribes as well as those tagged with the name by fur trappers.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.