The man pictured here, as far as I know, never made it to the Gem State. His name was Josh Billings and, much like Mark Twain, he was a well-known 19th century writer of humor and penetrating sayings. It is sad that he does not get more attention since he had twice the wit of Twain, meaning of course that he had a full amount of that faculty. As such, it is to one of Mr. Billings’ aphorisms that I would like to draw your attention: “It ain’t ignorance causes so much trouble; it’s folks knowing so much that ain’t so.” When it comes to Idaho history, the biggest problem is not people being ignorant of history, but so many people knowing so much of it that just ain’t so.
Take for instance the simple question, what does the word “Idaho” mean and where did it come from? Historians, linguists and reporters have tried for a hundred years to clear up what the name means and where it came from, but to no avail. Yet everyone “knows” where it came from. Chances are, the vast majority of people who read the sentence beginning this paragraph felt a little glimmer of pride in thinking they knew what the truth was, unlike all the unwashed and uneducated masses milling about. Alas, they are all wrong. And now it is, with that one declaration, they who are all spoiling for a fight. They believe they could not possibly be wrong and they wish to show this writer how ignorant he must be. No need. I readily admit it. I can honestly say that I do not know what “Idaho” originally meant or where it came from. Before I am savaged on antisocial media for my profound ignorance, let me explain.
The first reference of Idaho
The first verifiably recorded use of the word “Idaho” did not appear in a diary of a trapper, explorer, trader, prospector, anthropologist, missionary, soldier or linguist. It appeared in the halls of Congress. That alone should give every American pause as to the authenticity of any claims related to it.
Worse, it came out of that most detestable organization of civilization: a committee. On April 6, 1860, the Minnesota newspaper The Weekly Pioneer and Democrat reported on the deliberations of the Senate and House Committees on Territories. “There seems to be considerable difficulty about the selection of a name for Pike’s Peak Territory.
It has been called Jefferson; but those in authority assert that as there cannot be states enough to name after all the Presidents, that it will not be policy to go beyond Washington, who stands ‘alone in his glory.’ Acting upon this decision, the Senate Committee have before them the following names: — ‘Tampa,’ interpreted Bear; ‘Idahoe,’ meaning Gem of the Mountains; ‘Nemara;’ ‘Colorado;’ ‘San Juan;’ ‘Lula,’ interpreted Mountain Fairy; ‘Weapollah;’ ‘Arrapahoe,’ the name of the Indian tribe inhabiting the Pike’s Peak region. The House Committee seem to have hit upon the very appropriate name of ‘Tahosa,’ which means Dwellers on the Mountain Tops. This or ‘Idahoe,’ will probably be adopted.”
To be absolutely clear, there is no printed record anywhere of the word “Idaho” prior to this news report based on a discussion in the Senate committee. Before that date, every newspaper article referred to the territory as Pike’s Peak or Jefferson. Neither Idaho nor Idahoe exists in any known document before April 1860.
“Oh ho,” says the person who knows where the word came from. “What about Idaho Springs?” Yes, there is a place in Colorado that is now known as Idaho Springs, but that was not its first name. First it was Jacksons Diggings in April 1859, then Sacramento City in July 1860, then Idahoe in August 1860, then Idaho City, then in 1866 we finally see the name Idaho Springs appearing in newspapers. Moreover, there was an Idahoe Springs named before Idaho Springs. A Tennessee entrepreneur hit on the name for his resort next to Dunbar Cave in August 1860. The first documented place called “Idaho” was a group of mines mentioned in a July 4, 1860, Southern Express and Stageline advertisement published in the Rocky Mountain News. In every instance the word, Idaho (or Idahoe) was applied to a place after the April 6, 1860, committee story made the newspapers.
What about E-dah-hoe?
“Oh ho,” says the person who knows where the word came from. “The word is a bastardized English version of a Native American word best spelled E-dah-hoe!” Yes, that claim has been made. Specifically it was made on July 30, 1880, by the poet Joaquin Miller who declared, “The name was familiar in 5,000 men’s mouths as they wallowed through the snow of ‘61 on their way to the Oro Fino Mines — long before Congress, or any man of Congress, has heard of the new discovery. ... I was riding pony express at the time rumors reached us ... that gold was to be found on the headwaters and tributaries of the Salmon River. ... As you climb the Sweetwater Mountains, far away to your right you will see the name of ‘Idaho’ written on the mountain top — at least you will see a peculiar and beautiful light at sunrise, a sort of diadem on two grand clusters of mountains that bear away under the clouds fifty miles distant. I called Colonel Craig’s attention to this ... light. ‘That,’ said he, ‘is what the Indians call E-dah-hoe, which means the light or diadem on the line of the mountains.’ That was the first time I ever heard the name.”
The problem with Mr. Miller’s ridiculously romantic telling is that his entire narrative hinges on the gold strike at Canal Gulch on Orofino Creek, which occurred in October 1860. The miners left the area for Fort Walla Walla to get supplies and then returned in November to work the gold field. Now it is entirely possible that Joaquin Miller did not read the papers about the proposed naming of Pike’s Peak Territory (even though he worked for a newspaper), but are we to believe that everyone, including “Colonel Craig,” was as ill-informed? The claim was that “Idaho” was coined in 1860 for what would become Colorado, not in 1862-1863 when Idaho was becoming a territory. More importantly, Miller’s tale fails to provide proof since the events he recounted occurred at least six to seven months after that fateful Senate committee meeting.
In other words, Miller’s entire argument is barking up the wrong tree. Of course the word “was familiar in 5,000 men’s mouths as they wallowed through the snow of ‘61”. They had all heard it during the summer and fall of 1860! Moreover, the Col. Craig that Miller was talking about was William Craig who lived among the Nez Percé. In Numípu (the Nez Perce language), sunrise is “tilétit” and mountain is “méksem.” What combination of those words results in “Idaho”? If it was not Numípu, then what Native American language was it? If Craig named Idaho while living with the Nez Percé, then who offered the word before Craig as a name for Colorado? If it was a combination of other Nez Percé words then they do not appear in “A Dictionary of the Numípu or Nez Perce Language” published by the St. Ignatius Mission in 1895. Nor have the Nez Percé clarified the issue in the intervening years.
Is ‘Idaho’ a Native American word?
“Oh ho!” says the person who knows where the word came from. “Linguists have proven it is an Indian word!” Except they have not. The most cited source is John E. Rees from Salmon whose 1918 book “Idaho Chronology, Nomenclature Bibliography” has a section on the word “Idaho” that was republished in the Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society. In his book, he claims the word is a compound of ee (coming down), dah (sun or mountain), and how (exclamation mark). Thus, he claims, “ee-dah-how” means something like, “Behold! The sun coming down the mountain!” Which is utter balderdash. His supposed word “ee-dah-how” does not exist in any Shoshone dictionary nor do the supposed root words have any relation to known Shoshone words nor any similar words used by any other Northwestern tribe. Nor is the word even close to the words for mountain, sunrise or light (or any combination of them) in any Uto-Aztecan dialect. Nor is it found in the languages of the Yakima, the Blackfoot, the Salish or any other tribes or bands that lived in or visited what is now Idaho.
Other claims tied to Native American languages include saying Idaho means “star” in Sahaptin of the Walla Walla tribe (nope, that’s “xaslú”); that a man named C. C. Cole, who was later a congressman for Idaho, heard a woman call her daughter by the name (there was never a congressman from Idaho or Idaho Territory named C.C. Cole, and there is no other person in any tribe ever known to have the name); that the word is actually the Kiowa-Apache word “ìdaahé” for “enemy” (as used for the Comanche), except James Mooney in his 1898 report to the Smithsonian titled “Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians” gives the word “Gyai´‘ko” for “enemies” or “Comanche” (and no other dialect glossary of the period uses anything even close to “ìdaahé” for enemy, nor is it the Arapahoe word for enemy either). In fact, I have been unable to find any Native American word recorded that comes even close to any of the supposed definitions for “Idaho.”
Is Idaho named after a hotel or a Shoshone princess?
“Oh ho,” says the person who knows where the word came from. “The actual word was Idanha, like the famous hotel of Boise!” Yes, there is a hotel by that name in Boise, but before that there was another hotel by the same name in Soda Springs, built as one of the Pacific Hotels of the Union Pacific. However, the Idanha Hotel was not announced until 1887. The April 24, 1887, Salt Lake Herald announced that, “The name selected for the hotel is the ‘Idanha’ — the Indian word for Idaho and meaning ‘gem of the valley.’” How the “gem of the mountains” suddenly became the “gem of the valley” is only explicable by the generous application of ignorance and likely a marketing department. In fact, the name Idanha had gained some publicity four years before in Popular Science Monthly as a small place in Eastern Portugal renowned for having gold. Once again, the only record of the word Idanha prior to the new hotel was in relation to that small place, Idanha Velha, Portugal. During the 1880s, it was not uncommon for businesses to play fast and loose with the facts and the name Idanha was close enough to Idaho to stick. Soon even the Natural Mineral Water Company had Idanha water bottled straight from the famed Soda Springs.
“Oh ho!” says the person who knows where the word came from. “That’s not it at all. The original name was that of a Shoshone princess Edahow who, legend says, was buried in an ice cave.” Yes, there is a legend to that effect. However, the legend did not exist before the Shoshone Ice Caves were turned into a tourist trap in the mid-20th century when such ridiculous tales were eagerly eaten up by wide-eyed tourists. After all, how could they know that no Native American bands in Idaho had kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, princes, princesses or even hereditary “chiefs”? The entire story is predicated not in an old “Indian legend,” but on ideas and romanticized stories from late 19th and early 20th century fiction. It certainly did not come before April 1860.
Is it a made-up word?
“Oh ho!” says the person who knows where the word came from. “It was actually just a made up word by a charlatan for the territory that would become Colorado.” Yes, that claim has been made, too. On Dec. 8, 1875, William O. Stoddard of New York wrote a letter to the New York Tribune, which was published on Dec. 11 saying, “My eccentric friend, the late Dr. George M Willing, was the first delegate to Congress from the young mining community. At the time when the organization of the Territory was under debate he was as matter of course, on the floor of the House of Representatives. Various names had been proposed without any seeming approach to agreement, and the Doctor, whose familiarity with the Indian dialects was pretty well known, was appealed to by some of his legislative friends for a suggestion. One of them said, ‘Something round and smooth now, with the right sort of meaning to it.’ Now it happened that the little daughter of one of these gentlemen was on the floor that morning with her father, and the doctor who was fond of children, had just been calling her to him with ‘Ida, ho, come and see me.’
“Nothing could be better, and the veteran explorer promptly responded with the name, ‘Idaho.’
“‘But what does it mean?’
“‘Gem of the mountains,’ replied the quick witted doctor, with a glance at the fresh face beside him. ... Dr. Willing told me about it at the time, or soon afterward, with a most gleeful appreciation of the humor of the thing, and I have often since heard him rehearse the story.”
What this story has going for it is that history shows George Willing was a con artist, liar, charlatan and fraud — just the sort of person you would expect to find in the halls of Congress and to make up a fake “Indian word” on the spot to name a territory. Moreover, the story comes from William Stoddard who was a well known and respected figure in the Lincoln White House. What the story does not have going for it is that Stoddard was not an eyewitness to the supposed events and he was simply recounting the story of a proven con artist, liar, charlatan and fraud. In addition, there is not a single other source or letter known that backs up the outlandish tale of Mr. Willing. Conveniently the charlatan had died of suspicious circumstances the year before Mr. Stoddard wrote his letter and so he could not be questioned on the matter.
What about the Idaho steamboats?
“Oh ho!” says the person who knows where the word came from. “What about the steamboats? They were named Idaho and Idahoe in 1860!” Yes, but the “Idahoe,” built by the Yale Steamboat Company in British Columbia, was launched, according to John Reese, in the fall of 1860. Once again, that’s later than when the word was used in April 1860 in Congress.
The other boat was a Columbia River side-wheeler named “Idaho” mentioned by W.A. Goulder in his 1909 book, “Reminiscences.” Speaking of the “Idaho” built by Col. John S. Ruckel, the book says, “the boat was finished and launched in March of 1860 and christened ‘Idaho.’” Which sounds fairly compelling, until we look a little closer. While other sources confirm the name of Col. Ruckel, 1860 as the year of construction, and the name of the ship being “Idaho,” none confirm the date of March. There is no confirmation at all of the actual launch date.
Still, if the boat was launched and named “Idaho” in March 1860, or even the first week of April, then the word “Idaho” predated the committee meeting in Washington, D.C. However, Goulder wrote his book nearly 50 years after the event in question when he was over 80 years old. Moreover, Goulder states in his introduction, “The work, thus far prosecuted, has been one of memory solely, written without data of any kind. ... Nothing more could be here attempted than the writing of events and scenes and experiences as they could be called to mind from the depths and somewhat faded mazes of memory.” Are we to rely solely on Goulder’s aged memory when no other known document confirms his claim and he had no documents to work from? Where is any documentation in any independent source that can confirm that the steamboat in question was launched and named “Idaho” in March 1860? If it exists, I cannot find it in any maritime history of the Columbia nor in any newspaper archives of Oregon or Washington nor in any local histories of the region.
There are a plethora of claims that “old pioneers” or “old prospectors” knew the word “long before” it was used in Congress in 1860, but second-hand accounts of old miners and pioneers is not evidence. Once the word was published in newspapers, it spread like wildfire. Soon everyone “knew” the word meant “gem of the mountains” or “sunlight descending the mountain” or “sun coming over the mountains” or “sunrise on the mountains” or “diadem of the mountains” or “sunlight mountain” or “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the valley.” After all, they had heard it on good authority from a friend who heard it from a friend who was a “pioneer.” Oddly enough, this word with the enchanting name that flew across the nation and was applied almost overnight to hotels, springs, steamboats and other businesses was not published in any newspaper or book prior to April 1860. If it was such a catchy name, why was it not used for anything before that date?
Nothing before April 1860
This is the problem, there is nothing definitive anywhere to point to the word “Idaho” or “Idahoe” or “Edahow,” or any of the other variants, being in existence prior to April 1860. There are many claims the word existed prior to that date, but none of those are first hand, made during the time period and corroborated. They are hearsay, faded memories from long ago, or not backed up by any other source. Still, historians, linguists, and reporters feel compelled to issue a conclusion that the word “probably” came from one place or another. There is nothing probable about it. The first independently verifiable use of the word was in April 1860. No printed document, journal or report prior to that date has the word. No known glossary from the period of Native American words has the word or any variant of it. All of the claims that it was a Native American word for such-and-such for a particular tribe can be debunked by consulting actual glossaries for such-and-such for those particular tribes during that time period. Claims it was made up by a charlatan are also hearsay based on the word of that charlatan.
As for why Colorado was not named Idaho, the answer to that can be found in the Congressional Globe of Feb. 4, 1861, when a last-minute change was requested by Sen. Wilson: “I move to amend the name of the Territory by striking out ‘Idaho’ and inserting ‘Colorado.’ I do it at the request of the delegate from that Territory, who is very anxious about it, and came to see me to-day to have that change made. He said that the Colorado River arose in the Territory, and there was a sort of fitness in it; but this word ‘Idaho’ meant nothing. There is nothing in it.”
Still, historians, linguists and reporters seem incapable of writing the words, “I don’t really know.” Driven by the desire to come to some sort of conclusion they would rather make assertions or propose theories without checking assumptions and sources. This results in a whole swath of readers who suddenly “know” where the word “Idaho” came from because they read about it somewhere and, by golly, it sounded pretty good to them! Worse still, many of these articles, websites, pamphlets and other publications have no citations that can be checked. We read assertions that the word was “actually” based on an “Indian word” for a tribe and that it means something. Where does the writer get his information? We are only left to guess and, when we try to verify it, no document supports the claim.
I have combed every newspaper archive I can find, searched every early history of the West I can find, reviewed every Native American glossary of the period I can find, researched the Congressional record, read every article on the etymology of the word, and nobody makes a verifiable or even compelling argument. It is all pure guesswork. I have some suspicions, but suspicions are not facts and what is possible is not necessarily probable. So I think I will take the words of Josh Billings to heart. I believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so. Where did the word “Idaho” come from? I do not know and, based on the evidence, neither does anybody else.