Idaho History

Wildlife, presidents, historical figures all prevalent in Idaho place names

Gen. George Armstrong Custer has a county in Idaho named after him.
Gen. George Armstrong Custer has a county in Idaho named after him. Library of Congress

We humans have a habit, nay a compulsion, to name people, places and things, and we can only imagine how confused life would be if we didn’t.

Everything must have a name, from that newborn baby to the street we live on, and writing Idaho history would be impossible without place names and the names of the people who made it.

I was prompted to write on Idaho place names this week when I ran across a list of mines in the Willow Creek district in 1897 and 1898: “King, Friday, Last Chance, Red Warrior, Birthday, IXL, Golden Age, Middleman, Black Diamond, Blue Bucket, Kimball, Judas, Easter. Checkmate, Leviathan, Golden Chest, Uno, Silver Spray, and Ireton.”

Now a classic, in my opinion, “Idaho Place Names, a Geographical Dictionary,” by Lalia Boone, was published by the University of Idaho Press in 1988. Its 413 pages represent the work of Professor Boone and her students in compiling and researching every Idaho name they could find. My somewhat battered copy contains the names of another 50-some place names I have added to Boone’s book. Were we to add the names given to mine claims and active mines over the years, we probably could add 50 more.

You may ask, why bother? For many of us the sounds of Idaho names when spoken aloud are music to our ears, music that calls up images of places and people we have known.

Idaho’s wildlife is well represented in our place names. We have Antelope, Antelope Mountain and Antelope Valley; Bad Bear Creek; Badger and Badger Creek; Barking Fox Lake; Bear Canyon Creek, two Bear Creeks, Bear Gulch, Bear Lake, Bear Lake County, Bear Mountain, Bear River, Bear Run Gulch, Bear Valley, Bear Wallow Spring and Beartrap Ridge; two Beavers, Beaver Creek, Beaverdam Pass and Beaverhead Mountains; Big Bear Creek, Big Bear Ridge; Big Buck Mountain; Big Deer Creek; Bighorn Crags and Bighorn Point; Black Bear and Black Bear Creek; Blackbird Creek; Blackeagle Creek; Blackhawk Bar, Blacktail Canyon, Blacktail Creek and Blacktail Pass; Blue Jay Canyon; Bobcat Gulch; Buckhorn Creek, Buffalo Creek, Buffalo Hump, Buffalo River and Buffalo Skull Lake; Bull Elk Creek; Canary Canyon Creek; Caribou City, Caribou County, two Caribou Creeks; Cat Creek; three Chicken Creeks (named for Sage Hens); Chipmunk Crossing; four Cougar Creeks; Coyote Creek, Coyote Gulch; four Crane Creeks; Cub Creek, Cub Lake, Cub River.

And that, dear reader, is just the ABC’s in only ONE category of Idaho place names.

Idaho’s county names offer us another look at their historic sources. Several are named for the nation’s presidents: George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. Others are named for men who made history in one way or another: James G. Blaine, Benjamin Bonneville, George Armstrong Custer and John C. Fremont.

Fred R. Gooding was Idaho’s seventh governor and a U.S. senator. Franklin County is named not for Benjamin Franklin but for Franklin D. Richards, an apostle in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Long live the names that give color to Idaho history.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email