Idaho, the Gem of the Mountains, Origin of the Name

The Mountains have ever been the bulwarks of freedom. Valor is born there; virtue is cherished there, and these are the seeds of song and story. No land ever yet had a literature to endure that had not these for its theme, these off-springs of the pure, sweet atmosphere and sublime splendor of inspiring Mountains; and the more glorious the Mountains, the more glorious the song and story. What then may we not prophesy for Idaho when her torn and devastated placer fields all are terraced vineyards, as in Savoy, and the peace and rest of the old pastoral days of Greece shall possess her?

Meanwhile it remains for us to dwell rather upon the vital present; to note the assurances offered in the fair new state of Idaho as this wonderful nineteenth century draws rapidly to its close. Here nature has been lavish to prodigality; here mountain and valley yield forth their treasures; and here are the homes of a progressive, enlightened and a loyal people who honor and receive honor from the whole noble sisterhood of states. The Gem of the Mountains may well challenge admiration, and it is hoped that the pages of this work may bear their part in perpetuating the dramatic story of the brave men and virtuous women who gathered about the cradle of the infant Idaho, and also tell the latter-day story of peace and prosperity. Of the first mentioned duty and its difficulties, we can not, perhaps, do better than to quote from one to whom this mountain-land has ever been most dear. When he essayed a similar work, he said: “The task is a serious one, serious in its responsibilities, serious in the fact that we look back over a billowy sea of graves. For so many brave men died! Some died even on the way here, before they could yet look down from the Mountains into the thousand vales that promised to them and their children such happy homes. Some fell from exposure and over-toil, some from battle with the savages, some died even as they sat for the first time by the new-laid hearthstone, waiting for the wife and babe to come with the first wild flowers of spring. There is nothing in all the history of civilization more pathetic, more dramatic, than this untold story of the veteran of these mountain wilds.” But as the endurance and exile of the Puritans only made them the more liberty-loving and liberal minded in the end; as expatriation only made the valorous and courtly cavalier the more courtly and valorous: and as the wild ventures of the romantic and poetic searchers for the golden fleece only made the Argonaut the more a romancer and a poet, so may we not prophesy that our larger experience in this larger, freer land of the Mountains will, as time surges forward, show larger results in all that ennobles man and makes life glorious? What the present conditions show forth is enough to justify the most magnificent of futures for the Gem of the Mountains, to whose opulent attractiveness this work pays tribute.

Up to 1863 the history of what now constitutes the great state of Idaho was the common history of the Pacific Northwest, then known as Oregon. All the facts and incidents that went to make up the story of the one entered into that of the other. In some respects, indeed, they were more intimately connected with the territory now embraced in Idaho than with that now included in Oregon. It has been needful, therefore, to the unity and completeness of the history to give a somewhat extended account of the events which pertained to the history of the original Oregon country, leading up to the divisions which ultimately gave statehood to Idaho, touching upon the early discoveries and the course of international diplomacy involved in the boundary question. From first to last, through all the era of discovery and all the finesse of diplomacy, as well as through the adventures of immigration and the tragedies of Indian warfare, every change was but a part of the germ and seed whose consummate fruit will be the ultimate Idaho. By the necessity of the case the major portion of the history of Idaho is of this character. Long, indeed, were the years of her struggle with the wild elements of barbaric life, with the ruggedness of a native condition almost without parallel in the rugged west; but magnificent has been the outcome of that struggle.

Many volumes, treating in special detail of different departments of her thrilling and varied story, would be required to cover all the ground, or to bring into review all the names and deeds that are entitled to remembrance, and even to fame, as builders of this now great commonwealth. Beyond the compass of the design of this book this could not be here attempted. Choice could be made of only what seemed essential to the continuity of narrative and the interpretation and illustration of the times and deeds of those who builded so bravely and so well. Whatever of continuous history may be found lacking in the narrative will be largely supplied in the rich and ample biographical divisions of the work. If “history is biography teaching by example,” surely there is abundant history in the lives recorded in our biographical department. Those whose names are here enrolled, and the unnamed thousands like them, were the true builders of the western world, who, “with high face held to her ultimate star,” lived and wrought and died for her greatness. We are sure that those who read their story will feel that these people fought “braver battles than ever were fought from Shiloh back to the battles of Greece.”

Whichever way you turn, whatever you may say of valor or endurance, whatever you may see in the magnificence of nature, be it River or mountain, lake of fire or high-heaved chain of frost, Idaho stands matchless, peerless and alone as the “Gem of the Mountains.” Garbed in silver and in gold, a diadem of precious stones, a mantle of white or green or gold about her stately figure as the seasons come and go, here she stands above the world. The air is very clear on every side, that you may see her well. To her doors she welcomes all who are worthy, and her benefices are showered forth upon all who seek those worthy ends which stand for the true values in the scheme of life.

There is no portion of our national story more thrilling in adventure, more interesting in its record of heroic endurance and indomitable effort than that which records the advance of civil life from the slopes of the Alleghanies to the coast line of the Pacific. Only the self-reliance, the high privilege to conceive and execute which is inspired in the citizen by the spirit of our institutions, could have accomplished such magnificent results as now appear in the proud domain of the state of Idaho. Less than fifty years ago this was a veritable wilderness, unsurveyed and practically unexplored. The savage tribes, with characteristic bravery, disputed all advances of peaceful or industrial life. Within almost a generation this broad area has become an empire of active industry and great commercial prosperity. There is no record that portrays in greater degree such a courage of manhood, such faith in power to accomplish, such a wealth of patriotism, such a development of the national civilization and social advancement. Such have been the conquests of peace by the inspiration of our institutions and our American manhood.

Origin of the Name

The word “Idaho” is said to be an Indian term signifying the dazzling white snow crest upon the principal mountain range in this region, translated most appropriately into English, “the gem of the Mountains.” Indian languages, on account of their poverty, are highly figurative.

There has been much speculation and discussion not only in regard to the exact meaning of the term Idaho but also in regard to the way in which it came to be applied to the great state which now bears the name. It is, therefore, but consistent that in this compilation due consideration be given to various accounts. The significance of the word “Idaho” was possibly different in different localities of the aboriginal northwest. In Tourgee’s weekly, The Continent, appears the following interesting account by Joaquin Miller, the “Poet of the Sierras.”

The literal meaning is, “Sunrise Mountains.” Indian children among all tribes west of the Rocky Mountains, so far as I can learn, use the word to signify the place where the sun comes from. Where these tawny people live out of doors, go to bed at dusk and rise with the first break of day, sunrise is much to them. The place where the sun comes from is a place of marvel to the children; and indeed it is a sort of dialplate to every village or rancheria, and of consequence to all. The Shoshonee Indians, the true Bedouins of the American desert, hold the Mountains where the first burst of dawn is discovered in peculiar reverence. This roving and treacherous tribe of savages, stretching from the Rocky Mountains almost to the Sierras, having no real habitation or any regard for the habitation of others, but often invading and overlapping the lands of fellow savages, had some gentle sentiments about sunrise. Id-ah-ho, with them, was a sacred place, and they clothed the Rocky Mountains, where it rose to them, with a mystic or rather a mythological sanctity.

The Shasta Indians, with whom I spent the best years of my youth, and whose language and traditions I know entirely as well as those of their neighbors to the north of them, the Modoc, always, whether in camp or in winter quarters, had an Id-ah-ho, or place for the sun to rise. This was a sort of Mecca in the skies, to which every Indian lifted his face involuntarily on rising from his rest. I am not prepared to say that the act had any special religion in it. I only assert that it was always done silently, and almost, if not entirely, reverently. Yet it must be remembered that this was a very practical affair nearly always and with all Indians. The warpath, the hunt, the journey-all these pursuits entered almost daily into the Indian’s life, and of course the first thing to be thought of in the morning was I-dah-ho. Was the day to open propitiously? Was it to be fair or stormy weather for the work in hand?

But I despair of impressing the importance of sunrise on those who rarely witness it, although to the Indian it is everything. And that is why every tribe in the Mountains, wherever it was and whatever its object in hand, had a “‘Mount I-dah-ho.” This word, notwithstanding its beauty and pictorial significance, found no place in our books till some twenty-one years ago (during the early ’60s), and then only in an abbreviated and unmeaning form. Indeed, all Indian dialects, except, the Chinook, a conglomerate published by the Hudson’s Bay Company for their own purposes and adopted by the missionaries, seem to have always been entirely ignored and unknown throughout the north Pacific territory. This Chinook answered all purposes. It was a sort of universal jargon, was the only dialect in which the Bible was printed, or that had a dictionary, and no one seemed to care to dig beyond it. And so it was that this worthless and unmeaning Chinook jargon overlaid and buried our beautiful names and traditions. They were left to perish with the perishing people, so that now, instead of soft and alliterative names, with pretty meanings and traditions, we have for the most sublime Mountains to be seen on earth, those of the Oregon sierras, miscalled the Cascade Mountains, such outlandish and senseless and inappropriate appellations as Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Washington and Mount Rainier. Changing the name of the Oregon River, however, to that of the Columbia, is an impertinence that can plead no excuse but the bad taste of those perpetrating the folly. The mighty Shoshonee River, with its thousand miles of sand and lava beds, is being changed by these same mapmakers to that of Lewis and Clarke River.

When we consider the lawless character of the roving Bedouins who once peopled this region, how snake-like and treacherous they were as they stole over the grass and left no sign, surely we would allow this sinuous, impetuous and savage River to bear the name which it would almost seem nature gave it, for Shoshonee is the Indian name for serpent. How appropriate for this River and its once dreaded people! The dominion of this tribe departed with the discovery of gold on a tributary of the Shoshonee River in i860. The thousands who poured over this vast country on their way to the new gold fields of the north swept them away almost entirely. Up to this time they had only the almost helpless and wholly exhausted immigrant to encounter, with now and then a brush with soldiers sent out to avenge some massacre. But this tribe perished, as I have said, before the Californians, and today it is not except as one of the broken and dispirited remnants familiar to the wretched reservations scattered over the vast far west.

Captain Pierce, the discoverer of gold in the north, located Pierce City on the site of his discovery, in the dense wood away up in the wild spurs of the Bitter Root Mountains, about fifty miles from the Shoshonee River. Then ‘”Oro Fino City” sprang up; then Elk City was laid out; but the “cities” did not flourish; indeed, all these “cities” were laid out only to be buried! The gold was scarce and the mighty flood of miners that had overrun everything to reach the new-mines began to set back in a refluent tide.

On the site of the earthworks thrown up by Lewis and Clarke, who wintered on the banks of the Shoshonee River in 1804-5 the adventurous miners had founded a fourth and more imposing city, as they passed on their way to the mines. This they called Lewiston. It was at the head of steamboat navigation on the Shoshonee and promised well. I remember it as an array of miles and miles of tents in the spring. In the fall, as the tide went out there were left only a few strips of tattered canvas flapping in the wind. Here and there stood a few “shake shanties,” against which little pebbles rattled in a perpetual fusillade as they were driven by the winds that howled down the swift and barren Shoshonee.

“It oughter be a gold-bearin’ country.” said a ragged miner, as he stood with hands in pockets shivering on the banks of the desolate River, looking wistfully away toward California. “It oughter be a gold-bearin’ country, ’cause it’s fit fur nuthin’ else; wouldn’t even grow grasshoppers.”

I had left California before this rush, settled down. and been admitted to the bar by ex-Attorney General George H. Williams, then judge, of Oregon, and had now come, with one law book and two six-shooters, to offer my services in the capacity of advocate to the miners. Law not being in demand, I threw away my book, bought a horse and rode express. But even this had to be abandoned and I, too, was being borne out with the receding tide. Suddenly it began to be rumored that farther up the Shoshonee, and beyond a great black and white mountain, a Party of miners who had attempted to cross this ugly range and got lost had gold in deposits that even exceeded the palmy days of ’49.

Colonel Craig, an old pioneer, who had married an Indian woman and raised a family here, proposed to set out for the new mine. The old man had long since, through his Indians, heard of gold in this black mountain, and he was ready to believe this rumor in all its extravagance. He was rich in horses, a good man, a great-brained man, in fact, who always had his pockets full of papers, reminding one of Kit Carson in this respect; and indeed it was his constant thirst for news that drew him toward the “expressman” and made him his friend.

I gladly accepted his offer of a fresh horse and the privilege of making one of his Party. For reasons sufficient to the old mountaineer we set out at night and climbed and crossed Craig’s mountain, sparsely set with pines and covered with rich, brown grass, by moonlight. As we approached the edge of Camas prairie, then a land almost unknown, but now made famous by the battlefields of Chief Joseph, we could see through the open pines a faint, far light on the great black and white mountain beyond the valley. “I-dah-ho.” shouted our Indian guide in the lead, as he looked back and pointed to the break of dawn on the mountain before us. “That shall be the name of the new mines.” said Colonel Craig quietly, as he rode by his side.

The exclamation, its significance, the occasion and all conspired to excite deep pleasure, for I had already written something on this name and its poetical import, and made a sort of glossary embracing eleven dialects. Looking over this little glossary now. I note that the root of the exclamation is dah! The Shasta word is poudah-ho. The Klamath is num-dah-ho. The Modoc is lo-dah. and so on. Strangely like “Look there!” or “Lo light!” is this exclamation, and with precisely that meaning.

I do not know whether this Indian guide was Nez Perce, Shoshonee, Cayuse or from one of the many other tribes that had met and melted into this half-civilized people first named. Neither can I say certainly at this remote date whether he applied the word i-dah-ho to the mountain as a permanent and established name, or used the word to point the approach of dawn; but I do know that this mountain, that had become famous in a night and was now the objective point of ten thousand pilgrims, became at once known to the world as I-dah-ho.

Passing by the Indians’ cornfields and herds of cattle and horses, we soon crossed the Camas valley. Here, hugging the ragged base of the mountain, we struck the stormy and craggy Salmon River, a tributary of the Shoshonee. and found ourselves in the heart of the civilized and prosperous Nez Percé’ habitations. Ten miles of this tortuous and ragged stream and our guide led up the steep and stupendous mountain toward which all the prospectors were now journeying. At first it was open pines and grass, then stunted fir and tamarack, then broken lava and manzanita then the summit and snow. A slight descent into a broad, flat basin, dark with a dense growth of spruce, where here and there was a beautiful little meadow of tall marsh grass, and we were in the mines, the first really rich gold mines that had as yet ever been found outside of California.

“Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for the gold where they fine it,” says the Bible, meaning that the only certain place to look for gold is where they refine it. Certainly the text never had a more apt illustration than here: for of all places for gold in the wide world this seemed the most unlikely. The old California miners who came pouring in after us, almost before we had pitched tent, were disgusted. “Nobody but a parcel of fools would ever have found gold here,” said one, with a sneer at the long-haired Oregonians who had got lost arid found the new mines. But the wheat-like grains of gold were there, and in such heaps as had never been found in California; and so accessible, only a few inches under the turf or peat in the little meadows and little blind gulches here and there in this great black, bleak and wintry basin that had never yet been peopled since it came fresh from the Creator’s hand.

In less than a week the black basin was white with tents. Our Party located a “city” where we first pitched our tent, with the express-office for a nucleus. Look at your map tracing up from Lewiston over Craig’s mountain and Camas prairie, and you will find “Millersburg,” looking as big on the map as any town in the west. Yet it did not live long. A man soon came with a family of daughters. Dr. Furber, an author of some note at the time, and settled half a mile farther on. My “city” went with and clustered about the ladies. The Doctor named the rival “city” after his eldest daughter, Florence. It flourished in the falling snow like a bay, and was at one time the capital of the territory. There is little left of it now, however, but the populous graveyard.

And, alas for the soft Indian name! The bluff miner, with his swift speech and love of brevity, soon cut the name of the new mines down to “Idao!” And so, when the new goldfields widened out during a winter of unexampled endurance into “Warren’s Diggins,” “Boise City.” “Bannack City,” and so on and the new territory took upon itself a name and had a place on the map of the republic, that name was plain, simple Idaho. Should any one concerned in the preservation of our native and beautiful names care to know more particularly the facts here sketched, let him address Colonel Craig (since deceased), of Craig’s mountain, a well read and the best informed man on the subject to be found in the far west; and he is the man who found and named I-dah-ho.

In another publication, Miller says: “The name of the great northwest gold fields, comprising Montana and Idaho, was originally spelled I-dah-ho, with the accent thrown heavily on the second syllable. The word is perhaps of Shoshone derivation, but it is found in similar form, and with the same significance, among all the Indians west of the Rocky Mountains. The Nez Perce Indians, in whose country the great white and black mountain lies which first induced the white man to use this name, are responsible for its application to the region of the far northwest.”

The Shoshonees had a legend of a bright object falling from the skies and resting upon a mountain, forever shining but forever inaccessible. This they called e-dah-ho, referring undoubtedly to the glistening white crest of snow upon the summits of the Mountains.

A writer in the New West, apparently well informed, declares that Idaho is not a Nez Perce word, adding: “The Mountains that Joaquin Miller speaks of may be named with a somewhat similar appellation, but most likely the whole story grows out of the fertile imagination of the poet. Idaho Springs, in Colorado, were known long before Idaho territory was organized. The various territories at their organization should have been given appropriate local names. Colorado was named after the River of that name, though it is not within its boundaries. It should have been called Idaho. It was the name first placed in the bill organizing it, but was afterward changed.”

Ex-Senator Nesmith of Oregon gives still another account: “The bill first passed the house of representatives designating the present territory of Idaho as “Montana.” When it came up for consideration in the senate, on the 3d of March, 1863, Senator Wilson, of Massachusetts, moved to strike out the word ‘Montana’ and insert “Idaho.’ Mr. Harding of Oregon, said: “I think the name “”Idaho” is preferable to “”Montana.” ‘ Idaho in English signifies the “Gem of the Mountains.’ I heard others suggest that it meant in the Indian tongue “Sliming Mountains,’ all of which are synonymous. I do not know from which of the Indian tongues the two words “Idaho” come. I think, however, if you will pursue the inquiry among those familiar with the Nez Perce, Shoshone and Flathead tribes, that you will find the origin of the two words as I have given it above.”

As to the application of the name Idaho to the territory, from which Montana was subsequently set off, the following account, which originally appeared in the Owyhee Avalanche, seems to be altogether reasonable in its claims, and with the incorporation of the same we will proceed to the consideration of other matters:

“A great deal of discussion and conjecture has been published by the press of Idaho as to the manner in which our young state was christened. Hon. C. M. Hays this week handed us a personal letter, which he received some time since from Hon. George B. Walker, of Seattle, a member of the house of representatives of Washington, who was among the earliest settlers of the territory now known as Idaho. We believe that the following is authentic and will put to rest all the theories advanced in the past, which were at most but the product of a vivid imagination:

“In the fall of 1860 the gold placer-mines were discovered in what is now known as Shoshone County, Idaho, then a portion of Washington. A man by the name of Pierce was with the first Party, and, I think, the captain of it. Pierce City was named after him. J. Marion Moore, D. H. Fergus. Sargent Smith, David H. Alderson and many others, whose names I have forgotten, were among the first in the new El Dorado. I was among the number and built comfortable quarters in Pierce City.

“In 1861 three candidates were nominated for congress, W. H. Wallace by the Republicans, Salucius Garfielde by the Douglas Democrats, and Judge Edward Lander (brother of the General) by the Breckinridge wing of the Party. They traveled over the (then known) eastern part of the territory in company with your father, Hon. Gilmore Hays, making speeches whenever they could get a crowd together. When they arrived in Pierce City I invited them to camp at my place (everyone carried his own blankets in those days), I being personally acquainted with Wallace and Garfielde. They accepted the invitation. While there I proposed a division of the territory, as I thought we were a long distance from Olympia. They agreed that whoever was elected would favor a division. Then the question of name came up, and I suggested the name of Idaho. I had seen the name on a steamer built by Colonel J. S. Rockwell to run between the Cascades and the Dalles, in connection with the steamer Mountain Buck, which ran from Portland to the Cascades before the organization of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. The old Idaho is now on Puget Sound and owned by Captain Brownfield, and still makes a good appearance. All the above named gentlemen said that was the name.

“W. H. Wallace was elected. I voted for Garfielde, and on the 3d of March 1863 the new territory was created and named Idaho. Lincoln appointed Wallace the first governor and he was elected the first delegate to congress.

“So I believe if there is any credit due for naming the state I am entitled to it. A controversy came up about it, I think, in 1875, and I caused an article to be put in the Owyhee Avalanche, which was corroborated by your father. I hear that Judge Lander is still living, and if I knew where a letter would reach him I would write, as I think he might remember this affair on the frontier thirty-two years ago.

West Seattle, King County, Washington.

Craig, Pierce,

Pierce City Idaho,

Illustrated History of the State of Idaho. Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company. 1899.

Search Military Records - Fold3

1 thought on “Idaho, the Gem of the Mountains, Origin of the Name”

  1. An extremely interesting story you have pieced together here, Mr. Walker! Congratulations on that, and for all your work, “Well done!”
    I have one item I’d like to bring to your attention. When I was in Demolay, in Moscow, Idaho, in the mid 1950’s, our Demolay chapter’s name was “E-dah-ho,” which translated to, we were told, “Light upon the Mountain.” It was supposedly an old term the Indians once used to describe/define their homeland.
    (I was born in Moscow, Idaho, in 1940 and lived there with my family until graduation from the (local) University of Idaho in 1963. Lewiston is a short 30 miles south of Moscow, and is where my folks, and sister, would later move for work and, eventually, retirement. At least once a year, like during half-times at a Moscow High School basketball game, or school assembly, Indians from the Nez Perce tribe (in Lapwai) would perform their ancient tribal dances for us.)
    Anyway, my “Light upon the Mountain” didn’t make the cut for your article (but came close).
    FYI – an enhanced story of its meaning, was that it described the early morning effect of seeing the first rays of sunlight slowly light the tops of snowcapped peaks, before continuing on down the moutainside.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top