Payette is the name of a notable scenic river, beautiful lakes, mountain peaks, a national forest, a city and a county. They all bear the name of Francois Payette, a French-Canadian fur trapper who was in charge of the Hudsons Bay Co.s trading post at the mouth of Boise River for a decade. In 1812, at the age of 18, he came from Quebec to Columbia River country. In 1818, he trapped along the Payette River, which was named for him that year. The Idaho Highway Historical Marker in the city of Payettes Kiwanis Park says of him, A merry, fat old gentleman, he was noted for his kindness to Oregon Trail emigrants who found him exceedingly polite, courteous and hospitable.
Payette is the seat of Payette County, but Idahoans have been remarkably inconsistent in pairing up the names of counties and county seats. For example: Nez Perce is the county seat of Lewis County, but Lewiston is the county seat of Nez Perce County. Shoshone is the seat of Lincoln County and more than 200 miles from Shoshone County, whose seat is Wallace. An interesting quirk in that one is Pierce, Shoshone Countys first seat, is now in Clearwater County. Its 1862 hewn-log courthouse, the oldest public building in Idaho, is still standing. Bonners Ferry is not in Bonner County, but is the county seat of Boundary County, while the county seat of Bonner County is Sandpoint. Idaho City is not in Idaho County but is the seat of Boise County, while Boise is in Ada County, named for Ada Riggs, the young daughter of H.C. Riggs who, more than any other early legislator, worked to get the capital moved from Lewiston to Boise City in 1864, at a time when that little settlement was barely a year old.
Spanish names on the map of Idaho remind us that many of our pioneers had taken part in the California gold rush before moving north after 1860. The stream where E.D. Pierce made the discovery that started Idahos gold rush was named Orofino Creek. Present Orofino is the seat of Clearwater County, but is many miles from the discovery site. Orofino means pure gold.
The largest county Idaho has had, since taking on its present shape, was named Alturas, Spanish for high country. It embraced a vast territory of mountains in south-central Idaho that included all or parts of more than a dozen later counties. It existed from 1864 until 1896. Esmeralda, which no longer exists either, was its first designated county seat.
James G. Blaine, for whom that county is named, tried but never made it to the presidency; but other Idaho counties are named for men who did: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Lincoln. Other famous Americans so honored are Lewis and Clark, the first white explorers in what became Idaho; John C. Fremont, the pathfinder who led an expedition across southern Idaho in 1843; George Armstrong Custer, who died at Little Bighorn in 1876; and Capt. B.L.E. Bonneville, an early explorer made famous by Washington Irving, who wrote up his adventures. Franklin County does not owe its name to Benjamin Franklin but to a Mormon leader named Franklin D. Richards. The town of Franklin, settled in 1860, is Idahos oldest. Lemhi County also owes its name to Mormon settlers. Fort Lemhi Salmon River Mission was named for King Limhi in the Book of Mormon. The county, established in 1869, took its name from the mission, by that time long abandoned.
No small part of the charm of exploring Idaho place names and their stories is the music in their sounds. Pee Wee Gulch, Picabo (peek-a-boo), Wickahoney, Pahsimeroi and Malamute Creek roll trippingly off the tongue. What other state has a Bliss, a Grace, a Hope, an Eden; or a Heavens Gate, a Paradise and three Paradise Valleys? These are offset by Hells Canyon, Hells Gulch and two Hell Roaring Creeks. Our pioneers also gave the Devil his due with a host of devilish names: Devils Basin, Devils Bedstead, Devils Canyon, Devil Creek Devils Corral, Devils Gorge, two Devils Kitchens, Devils Lake, Devils Scuttle Hole, Devils Washbasin, Devils Punchbowl, Devils Playground and Devils Washboard Falls.
The Idaho map is covered with magic if you have an ear and an eye for history.
Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.