Monday, September 14, 2009

Idaho Place Names

What's in a name? The Nature Conservancy's Idaho conservation staff often work in remote areas with colorful, and sometimes confusing, names. Where did these names originate? What stories do they tell?

Lalia Boone's Idaho Place Names: A Geographical History answers these questions for many places around the state.

Of course, many names have the usual origins: founding original settlers or soldiers (Henrys Fork, Lewiston), or settlers' children's first names (Emmett, Ada), or tribal names (Shoshone, Kootenai, Snake).

Others are just accurate descriptions: Anyone who has seen the Sawtooths knows why those mountains are so named.

But other place names have more interesting origins...

A surprising number of place names originate from misfortune and tragedy. There are no fewer than nine geographical features in the state that bear the name "Deadman," for instance. All are named after some "dead man" who met an unfortunate end by, to name a few examples, exposure, falling off a horse, forest fire and violence.
"Malade" means "sick" in French, an unfortunate name for the impressive canyon gorge and river in southern Idaho (above). The Malad River is named not for the scenery but for the fact that three separate groups of French trappers became sick in the area after eating beavers killed in the river. Presumably they didn't appreciate the scenery.
Hemingway Butte in Owyhee County might seem obvious: After all, Ernest Hemingway was a prominent Idaho resident. But Ernest was not associated with the Owyhees, and this butte is instead named after John Hemingway, a stagecoach driver mortally wounded while protecting his passengers.
Animals figure prominently in place names: Grouse Creek, Deer Creek, Moose Creek and Elk City were all named due to the abundance of their namesakes in the area.
Bears figure prominently in Idaho names. There's a Bear Valley and Bear Lake and Bear Gulch and Bear Mountain and Grizzly Creek. All attest to the abundance of bears, both black and grizzly, that early Idaho explorers found in the forested regions of the state. Some names are a little more mysterious. A nickname given to a place catches on and eventually becomes the official name. Hells Canyon is one such place. One can assume why the canyon was so named: It may have been "hell" to cross this rugged terrain (it still can be), or it may have referred to the depths of the canyon (the deepest in North America), or perhaps it was even a reference to the summer temperatures.
But nobody knows for sure. The name was first used in 1895 (before that it was often simply the Snake River Canyon), and then slowly but surely began appearing in print more and more by this name--until it became official in the 1950s. --Matt Miller


Robert Mortensen said...

I'm trying to find out the history behind the name "Smith's Ferry". Someone by the name of Smith surely operated a ferry there, but is there anymore documented history?

Please feel free to reply to robertmortensen at cableone dot net

TNC-Idaho said...

According to Idaho Place Names entry on Smiths Ferry: "This community takes its name from the man who ran a ferry on North Fork Payette River as early as 1891, E.J. Smith of Caldwell."