How Did Idaho Get That Name?

May 2, 2018

A steamboat dubbed the "Idaho" travelled the Columbia River and was once thought to be the inspiration behind the state's name. It's since been discovered the word "Idaho" was made up by an aspiring Colorado politician.
Credit Oregon Historical Society

Idaho: a lot of us live here, but how many of us know the origin of the word itself?

Chad Manderscheid chose to move to Albion, a small town southeast of Burley about 10 years ago after living in places across the U.S. – and even most recently in the Netherlands.

But he’s had a nagging question in the back of his mind.

“Being a relative newcomer to Idaho and a person who’s obsessed with words and etymology, I wondered what was the origin of the name of Idaho,” Manderscheid says.

If you’ve ever tried to answer this question yourself, you’ve likely run into the theory that Idaho is a Native American word meaning “gem of the mountains” or "sunrise".

“People love a good story and people like to make things up,” says Elizabeth Jacox, a historian with TAG Historical Research in Boise.

She also spent more than a decade working for the Idaho Historical Society, where this question came up a lot.

The name Idaho can be traced back to a man named George Willing, a white man and not a Native American. The Philadelphia-born doctor had fraudulently won an election as a delegate from the territory that later became Colorado, but the results were never certified and he never officially took office.

Nevertheless, Willing planted a seed that his territory should be named Idaho – an idea that found its way to the U.S. Senate in 1860. But Jacox says shortly before the name was to be ratified, lawmakers discovered it was a fraud.

“At the very last minute, Idaho was pulled from that bill and it became Colorado Territory instead,” Jacox says.

Yet, the name Idaho persisted. The Idaho Territory broke off from the Washington Territory just a few years later, with elected officials who embraced the name forgetting the word wasn’t a Native American term – or that it had any meaning at all.

If you had to give meaning to a made up word, though, both Chad Manderscheid, our question asker, and historian Elizabeth Jacox agree on what it should be.

“…what I think of is our scenic beauty, so I guess the sun does rise over the mountains and there is romance in her name,” Jacox says.

This story is our latest installment in our “Wanna Know Idaho” series and came from Chad Manderscheid. If you don't want to miss any of our Wanna Know Idaho stories, be sure to subscribe to the podcast!

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