Idaho History

Idaho’s history is reflected in the names of her counties

A famous mine and an Idaho county bear the name of Gen. George Armstrong Custer.
A famous mine and an Idaho county bear the name of Gen. George Armstrong Custer. Provided by Arthur Hart

Idaho’s county names came from many sources: Indian tribes, famous and not-so-famous people, and physical features. Several names were derived from foreign languages: From French we have Nez Perce (pierced nose), Teton (woman’s breast) and Boise (wooded), because most of the early fur trappers in Idaho were from French-speaking eastern Canada. From Spanish we once had a giant county called Alturas (mountain heights), which was broken up into parts of several new counties. Counties named for Idaho Indian tribes are Bannock, Blackfoot, Kootenai, Nez Perce and Shoshone, but oddly, Oneida County, formed in 1863, is named for a tribe centered in New York that was part of the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.

Counties named for American presidents are Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. Blaine County is named for James G. Blaine, who ran for president but lost to Grover Cleveland.

Custer County, created in 1881 out of parts of Alturas and Lemhi counties, is indirectly named for Gen. George Armstrong Custer, who had been killed by Indians at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The county is named for the General Custer mine, named the year the news came that he and his command had been wiped out.

Lemhi County, founded in January 1869, with Salmon as its county seat, is named after Fort Lemhi, a remote Mormon missionary colony in operation from 1855 until it was abandoned in 1858 after Indian attacks killed some of its people. At least three of the Mormon men there had married Shoshoni women. At its peak, Fort Lemhi had a population of more than 200. Irrigation ditches dug then are still in use today. The name Lemhi is derived from King Limhi in the Book of Mormon.

Franklin County, created in 1913, is named for Mormon apostle Franklin D. Richards — the only one of 24 Franklin counties in the United States not named for Benjamin Franklin. The town of Franklin, founded by Mormon settlers on April 14, 1860, is Idaho’s oldest, but it was thought to be in Utah until a final boundary survey in 1872 revealed it to be in Idaho. When founded, it was actually in Washington Territory, and Idaho would not be created until 1863.

Gooding County was created by the Idaho Legislature on Jan. 28, 1913, by a partition of Lincoln County. It is named for Frank R. Gooding, born Sept. 16, 1859, in Tiverton, Devonshire, England. His family came to America in 1867 and settled in Michigan before young Frank moved to California in 1877, where he worked at mining and farming. He came to Idaho in 1881 and became owner of one of the largest sheep herds in the territory. After Idaho became a state in 1890, Gooding emerged as a leader of the conservative faction of the Republican Party. Gooding County and the city of Gooding were both named for him during his lifetime. He was elected to the Idaho Legislature in 1898 and elected to two terms as governor of Idaho before he became an American citizen.

Bonner County, with Sandpoint as its county seat, was formed by division of 1864’s old Kootenai County in February 1907. In 1915 the Legislature divided Bonner to form Boundary County, named because it borders the Canadian province of British Columbia, as well as the states of Montana and Washington. Bonner County and Bonners Ferry are both named for Edwin L. Bonner, who began running a ferry across the Kootenai River at that point.

Idaho has had 44 counties ever since Caribou, Clark and Jerome were added in 1919. Does that mean we are through creating new ones? Probably, but there have been attempts to do so over the years, as in 1923, when Ada County farmers wanted to create a new rural county to get away from Boise’s dominance.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.

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