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Idaho Its Meaning, Origin 
and Application. 



Reprinted from Oregon Historical Quarterly 
VOL. XVIII. No. 2, 1917 

Portland. Oregon 
The Ivy Press 


Idaho Its Meaning, Origin and 


Considerable speculation has been indulged and much 
thought expended regarding the word ''IDAHO"; its origin, 
meaning and the manner in which it came to be applied. Other 
writers have expressed opinions and published their knowl- 
edge concerning this word or name, creating rather an exten- 
sive literature on the subject; while both the wise and the 
otherwise have guessed at its meaning. My object in this 
article is an endeavor to assemble this information and offer 
an explanation of the word from the light of other facts per- 
haps not yet known and at any rate not yet published. These, 
it seems to me, will give a fairly good interpretation of the 

"Idaho" has been so nicely explained and elaborated so pro- 
fusely by the poetical and idealist, that Idahoans feel proud of 
a name which signifies such a noble and expressive thought 
as the "Gem of the Mountains" ; and whatever the word may 
have originally meant, this is its meaning to us now, and one 
not to be now molested. It is not my wish or purpose in this 
article to disturb this meaning nor to detract one iota from its 
inspiring sentiment, but simply to offer a version of the matter, 
for history's sake, from my knowledge of the Shoshoni Indian 
language, gained by forty years' residence near the Lemhis, 
one division of the Shoshoni tribe and among whom I was 
Indian trader for fifteen years. 

"Idaho" is a Shoshoni Indian exclamation. The expression 
from which the word is derived is heard repeated as often, 
perhaps, in a Shoshoni Indian camp, in the early part of the 
morning, as is heard the English expression, "It's sun up," 
repeated in the home following the early dawn. The word is 
contracted from a meaning which requires much writing to 
correctly express it in English. Those who are used to trans- 

lating languages readily understand the difficulties of this 
labor, which at times becomes almost an impossible task. The 
word "Idaho" consists of three component parts, each of which 
must be analyzed to correctly understand its derivation and the 
idea thereby conveyed. The first is "Ee," which in English 
conveys the idea of "coming down." This syllable is the 
basis of such Shoshoni words as mean "raining," "snowing," 
etc., which words when properly translated would be, "water 
coming down," "snow coming down," etc. The second syllable 
is "Dah," which is the Shoshoni stem or root for both "sun" 
and "mountain," the one being as eternal and everlasting to the 
Indian mind as is the other. The third syllable, "How," 
denotes the exclamation and stands for just the same thing in 
Indian as the exclamation mark ( !) does in the English lan- 
guage. The Shoshoni word is "Ee-dah-how," and the Indian 
thought thus conveyed when literally translated into English 
means, "Behold! the sun coming down the mountain." 

The mere word does not indicate much, for it is composed 
of simple syllables, the significance of which requires pages 
of written English to correctly convey the idea which this 
exclamation suggests to the aboriginal mind. Every one who 
has lived in a mountainous country has observed at sunrise 
the rim of sunlight coming down the mountainside, as the 
sun was rising in the opposite direction. This is the Shoshoni 
"Ee-dah-how." It can only occur in and among the moun- 
tains which is represented by the English thought, "the lofty 
mountains upon which the morning breaks." Also it can occur 
only at those times when the atmosphere is still, clear and 
bright, elements producing that invigorating and exhilarating 
feeling which only high mountainous countries possess. 

In the imagination this sunlight on the mountainside can be 
interpreted to mean "Sunshine Mountain," or "Shining Moun- 
tain," and the rim of sunlight can also represent the "Diadem 
on the Mountain," while a peculiar sunlit peak could be imag- 
ined a "Sun-Crowned Peak," or a brilliant display of sunlight 
upon a snow-capped mountain where the rays of sunshine are 

refracted into their natural colors may convey to us the thought 
or image of the "Gem of the Mountains" ; but when the word 
is uttered in a Shoshoni camp, at early dawn, the hearer knows 
that a rim of sunlight is coming down the mountainside as the 
sun is rising in the opposite direction, and that it is time for 
him to be up and at the labors of the day ; just as much so as 
a person hearing the English expression, "It's sun up," knows 
that the sun has risen in the sky and he should be up and at 

The idea conveyed by "Ee-dah-how" may be a kind of sun 
worship as contended by some, but it appears to me to be no 
more so than is the English expression, "It's sun up." This 
exclamation expresses to the primeval mind a confidence in 
the continuance of nature, for the sun has returned to replen- 
ish all things, and this display on the mountainside is the evi- 
dence; and to the Indian mind this exhibition of an eternal 
sun making its first appearance upon an everlasting mountain 
denotes a stableness worthy of his attention and is his signal 
to arise, as he habitually does at the first appearance of 

"Ee-dah-how." tiwicfoit Ubracy 

The effect which day and night might have" had upon the 
habits of primitive man is a subject within the province of the 
anthropologist. However, we are informed that civilized man 
is ofttimes influenced by custom survivals and will, long after 
the necessary fact for a certain action has ceased, continue to 
act as if it were still in existence. Whatever might have been 
the reason, in times past, we know and realize that the expres- 
sion, "It's sun up," has a meaning to the majority of mankind 
of an influence which the rising sun has upon his actions. The 
emphasis in this expression, "Ee-dah-how," is placed upon 
the "Dah" syllable, as it is the keynote to the utterance, for the 
eternal sun arrayed upon the everlasting mountain is the splen- 
or which the speaker wishes to especially impress upon his 
hearer. The Indian has a name for sunrise, sunset, morning 
and evening, but "Ee-dah-how" conveys the idea of a begin- 
ning or renewal of natural phenomena and the sunrise is the 

symbol, while other parts of the day follow in sequence only 
and do not attract the same attention, sentiment or acknowledg- 

The Shoshonean Indians were the third family, in the extent 
of territory occupied, of the fifty-five that formerly inhabited 
the United States. The Shoshoni are one tribe of this great 
Shoshonean family of which the Comanche are another. The 
two tribes speak almost the same language, varying only in 
dialect ; their traditions are very similar and they readily con- 
verse with and understand each other. Ethnologists consider 
the Comanche an offshoot of the Shoshoni. It was not many 
years ago, geologically considered, when they lived adjacent 
to each other in Southern Wyoming, from which place the 
Shoshoni were gradually beaten back by other Indians into 
the mountains, while the Comanche were forced southward. 
So that the first rush of miners to Pike's Peak in 1858 and 
what afterwards became known as Colorado, found this tribe 
within this territory and located especially along the Arkansas 
river. The country was at that time a part of Kansas. Here, 
also, they came in contact with the "lofty mountains upon 
which the morning breaks," which were quite numerous and in 
commanding evidence. As all the elements were present, it 
was no wonder that they found the expression, "Ee-dah-how," 
a familiar one in this new Eldorado, and the word "Idaho" 
was known to almost every one and was said by all who had 
any knowledge of it, to mean "Gem of the Mountains." The 
first permanent settlement made by those hardy pioneers in 
this new territory in 1859 was named for this Shoshoni word 
and called "Idaho Springs." In 1861, when Congress organ- 
ized this new territory, "Idaho" was proposed as its name 
which should have been applied to it, but the Spanish word 
"Colorado," which referred to a river and country foreign to 
this new country and which had no application whatever, was 
selected instead. This selection was suggested by Senator 
Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, who was afterwards Vice- 
President associated with General Grant in the Presidency, and 

who was chiefly responsible for the naming of Colorado, Idaho 
and Montana. 

The next heard of this word was when "Idahoe" was applied 
to a steamboat launched at Victoria, B. C, in the fall of 1860. 
It was built for the Yale Steamboat company to run upon the 
Fraser river, and was so called by one of the owners for his 
former home in Colorado, "Idaho Springs," which was an 
Indian word signifying "Gem of the Mountains," but the 
name of the steamboat was soon changed to "Fort Yale," and 
it was afterwards blown up by a boiler explosion. 

The permanent settlement of Idaho territory began with the 
discovery of gold at Pierce City, on Oro Fino creek, in 1860. 
It was then a part of Washington Territory and the name 
"Idaho" was not known or applied at that time. The rush to 
these mines was made principally by the Columbia river route 
and so extensive did the traffic, carried on by river boats, 
become that a company was formed called the Oregon Steam 
Navigation company, of which Colonel J. S. Ruckel was a 
stockholder. One of the steamboats constructed by this com- 
pany,, plying on the Columbia river, was called the "Idaho," 
and launched in 1860. Mr. George H. Himes, curator of the 
Oregon Historical Society, informs me that he heard Col. 
Ruckel tell Mr. D. C. Ireland, who was the local newsgatherer 
of the "Oregonian," in answer to the question as to the origin 
and meaning of the name "Idaho," which he had applied to 
this steamboat, "That it was an Indian word meaning 'Gem 
of the Mountains,' and that he got it from a Colorado friend 
who was interested with him in mining operations in that 
state, and he thought the name very appropriate for a steam- 
boat that ran on a river like the Columbia which penetrated 
a range of mountains like the Cascades." Thus the name be- 
came transferred to the great Northwest, and as Joaquin 
Miller said, "The name was familiar in 5,000 men's mouths 
as they wallowed through the snow in '61 on their way to the 
Oro Fino mines." 

However, the word became corrupted by these miners into 

"Idao," but happily through the writings of the poet, Joaquin 
Miller, the bard of the Sierras, the proper orthography was 
restored and for the first time in history an attempt was made 
to give the origin and meaning of this name and to publish 
it to the public. Mr. Miller said, "I was riding pony express 
at the time rumors reached us through the Nez Perce Indians 
that gold was to be found on the headwaters and tributaries of 
the Salmon river. I had lived with the Indians and Col. Craig, 
who had spent most of his life with them, often talked with 
me about possible discoveries in the mountains to the right, as 
we rode to Oro Fino, and of what the Indians said of the then 
unknown region. Gallop your horse, as I have a hundred 
times, against the rising sun. As you climb the Sweetwater 
mountains, far away to your right, you will see the name 
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 Col. Craig's attention to 
this peculiar and beautiful 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. Later, in September, '61, when I rode into 
the newly discovered camp to establish an express office, I 
took with me an Indian from Lapwai. We followed an Indian 
trail, crossed Craig mountain, then Camas Prairie, and had all 
the time E-dah-hoe Mount for our objective point. On my 
return to Lewiston I wrote a letter containing a brief account 
of our trip and of the mines, and it was published in one of 
the Oregon papers, which- one I have now forgotten. In that 
account I often mentioned E-dah-hoe, but spelt it Idaho, leav- 
ing the pronunciation unmarked by any diacritical signs. So 
that perhaps I may have been the first to give it its present 
spelling, but I certainly did not originate the word." 

In 1858 the territorial legislature of Washington created a 
county within this territory which contained all lands north 
of the Gearwater, east of the Columbia and west of the Rocky 

mountains. It was named Shoshone for the largest tribe of 
Indians in this section of the country, and in 1861, when the 
population in the mines demanded it, another county was 
formed including all lands lying south and west of the Clear- 
water and named Nez Perce for the next largest tribe of 
Idaho Indians. The rest of the Idaho territory was formed, 
in 1862, into the largest county ever created within the state, 
embracing all lands lying south of Nez Perce and east of Snake 
river and called Idaho county in recognition of this word. In 
1863, Boise county was created, so that Idaho had four coun- 
ties in existence, formed by the Washington legislature, when 
the territory was organized. 

Hon. John Hailey, Idaho's state historian, in his "History 
of Idaho," says, "The organic act passed by Congress and 
approved by the President March 3, 1863, creating and organ- 
izing a territorial government for the people residing within 
and those who might come hereafter, in certain limits and 
boundary lines of territorial lands, gave to that territory the 
name Idaho. Various reasons are given for the origin of the 
name Idaho. By some it is claimed that it is an Indian name. 
One story is that some miners had camped within sight of 
what is now Mount Idaho. In the morning they were awakened 
by the Indians calling 'I-da-ho* and pointing to the rising sun 
just coming over the mountain, hence the term 'The Rising 
Sun.' Another is that the name was taken from a steamboat 
built by the late Col. J. S. Ruckel to run on the Columbia river 
in the early days. This boat was named The Idaho. W. A. 
Goulder, one of the oldest living (now dead) pioneers of Idaho, 
saw this steamer on the Columbia in 1860 and noticing the 
name asked the meaning and was informed that it was an 
Indian word, 'E-dah-hoe,' and stood for 'The Gem of the 
Mountains.' Frederick Campbell, one of the pioneers of the 
Pike's Peak excitement, says that the word Idaho is an Ara- 
paho Indian word and that in Colorado a spring was named 
Idaho before the word was known in the Northwest, and that 
it was even suggested for the name of Colorado." 

Col. William H. Wallace was delegate in Congress from 
Washington territory when the bill was passed in 1863, organ- 
izing, from the eastern portion of Washington, a new territory, 
which was named Idaho. Mrs. Wallace was in Washington, 
D. C., at the time and her account of the episode, which was 
afterwards published in the Tacoma Ledger, is as follows: 
"I may refer with pride to my connection with the establish- 
ment of the territory of Idaho, at the expiring days of the 
session of Congress, 1862-3. Quite a delegation was present 
at Washington city who favored the division of Washington 
territory, which then included all of Idaho and Montana west 
of the Rocky mountains, extending as far south as the northern 
line of California and Nevada. It was an immense region and 
contained South Pass, the great entrance of Oregon, Washing- 
ton and California, by the great immigrant route. The Colonel 
was overjoyed at the assured passage of the bill, which he had 
in charge and his friends who had assembled at his rooms 
joined with him in conferring upon me the high privilege of 
naming the new territory. I answered, 'Well, if I am to name 
it, the territory shall be called Idaho, for my little niece, who 
was born near Colorado Springs, whose name is Idaho, from 
an Indian chief's daughter of that name, so called for her 
beauty, meaning the 'Gem of the Mountains.' Dr. Anson G. 
Henry, the surveyor-general of Washington territory, then on 
a visit to Washington City, was in the room. He clapped his 
hands upon his knees and said to me, 'Mrs. Wallace, Idaho it 
shall be.' The evening of the day upon which the bill was 
passed my husband came home and said, "Well, Lue, you've 
got your territory, and I'm to be governor of it.' A short time 
after the bill was signed my husband was appointed its first 
governor, and at the first election held in the newly organized 
territory, he was selected delegate to Congress." 

There were others beside Mrs. Wallace who claimed the 
honor of naming Idaho territory, and while their contributory 
suggestions may have had some influence in designating it, yet 
the true history of the application of the word to this particu- 


lar geographical territory for political administration dis- 
closes the fact that it occurred in an ordinary way and that 
instead of any sentiment influencing the act, it was simply a 
result of legislative enactment. In the fall of 1861, Wallace, 
Garfield and Lander were candidates for Congressional dele- 
gate from Washington territory and while stumping the coun- 
try during the campaign met at Pierce city. The people in- 
habiting this section of the country were so far from Olympia, 
the capital, and had for some time agitated a division of the 
eastern part of Washington territory ; so through the solici- 
tation and request of these people each of these candidates 
agreed that whoever was elected would favor this division and 
every one agreed that "Idaho" should be the name of the 
new territory. That this agreement was carried out is proven 
by the fact that Mr. Wallace, the successful candidate, at once 
had introduced in Congress a bill creating the new territory of 

The Congressional history of this act shows that in the com- 
mittee to which the bill had been referred three names were 
suggested, namely, Shoshone, Montana and Idaho, and that 
in the bill as it passed the House of Representatives the name 
of "Montana" was applied to this new territory. When the 
matter came before the Senate for consideration, the bill was 
modified very materially, for while it scarcely included what 
is now Idaho, the modified bill included all of the present 
states of Montana and Wyoming, in which form it was 
approved and became the law. Later these states were created 
out of Idaho. Senator Wilson moved to strike out the word 
"Montana" and insert "Idaho" in its stead. To this Senator 
Harding of Oregon agreed, saying, "Idaho in English means 
'Gem of the Mountains'." Senator Wilson's amendment was 
agreed to and when the bill went back to the House it was 
concurred in and the new territory was henceforth designated 

Thus Senator Wilson selected the name Idaho, whilst Sen- 
ator Harding was instrumental in continuing its meaning. 


How the Shoshoni Indian word "Ee-dah-how" was eventu- 
ally transformed into the English word "Idaho" is a task for 
the etymologist ; but, whatever may be its etymology, the word 
"Idaho" and its meaning, "Gem of the Mountains," are for- 
ever fixed as correlated terms in the vocabulary of the people 
of Idaho.