I wrote earlier about the book Idaho Chronology, Nomenclature and Bibliography published in 1918 and received as a gift. It’s a fascinating glimpse into our state’s history. That first article shared the author’s theory as to the meaning and origin of the name Idaho.

Now let’s dive into some of our state’s place names. Again, author John E. Rees offers his best information and beliefs regarding the origins, meanings and history behind the names. Born in 1868, Rees grew up in Lemhi County, taught literature and history in Salmon City for 15 years where he served as a prosecuting attorney the same year this book was published. He died in 1928 of heart failure.

Context is important in reading his entries. Many of Rees’ descriptions, especially of Indians, are tinged with the biases and prejudices of most whites of that era, although to his credit, Rees also touched on the mistreatment of Indians with what at the time was undoubtedly a progressive viewpoint.

History is messy.

The following is a sampling from the top of the alphabet, all direct quotes from the book. More installments in coming weeks.

ALTURAS LAKE, Blaine County. –This name was first applied to one of the counties in Idaho and is a Spanish word meaning “mountainous heights.” It was given to the new county that was formed in 1864, and was said by the miners who inhabited that part of the country to mean “Heavenly Heights.” The county was abolished, by legislative enactment; the name still adheres to this lake.

AMERICAN. –While anything pertaining to the western hemisphere is “American,” yet in all countries the use of this word is restricted to the citizens of the United States and was always so used in the settlement of the West. The Indian name for “American” is “Soo-yaw-pee,” which means “Su-wop,” “ghost” and “Pee,” “people” or “ghost people.” The name was applied to them from the incident of the first meeting with some “Americans” that must have been “Yankees” who were anxious to trade with the Indians, always bantering to “swop,” which word meant “ghost” with the Shoshonis.  The word became applied to all “Americans” by almost all the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin Indians. They have a distinct name for a white man, but it is different with each tribe, while this name is almost universal.

American Falls Dam on Snake River circa 1910.

AMERICAN FALLS, Power County. –These falls derive their name from the circumstances of a number of trappers, members of some of the American fur companies, in going down the Snake River in canoes, not aware of their proximity to the falls, were hurried along by the violence of the current; and passing over the falls, but one of their number survived. This occurred in the late ‘20s. [1820s.] The Hunt-Astoria party were the first white men to see and visit these falls, which they did as they passed them in October, 1811, after losing a boat in trying to get over them.

BANNOCK. –This word is of Scotch origin and means a thick cake made of oatmeal, baked over a fire. The name is generally used for Bannack, although when so used is misapplied.

Bannock People of Idaho.

BANNACK. –This name is derived from a tribe of Indians that belong to the Shoshonean family. The word is of Shoshoni origin and means “Bamp,” “hair” and “nack,” “a backward motion,” alluding to the manner in which the tribe wore a tuft of hair thrown back from the forehead. “Bamp-nack” was changed to the more euphonious word “Bannack” and is an entirely different word from Bannock, which latter is a Scotch word and is always misapplied when used in reference to this tribe of Indians. They call themselves “Panaita,” which they claim means “Southern People.” Their habitat was the country lying between Raft River and the Portneuf Mountains, ceded to them by treaty with Chief Pokatello. They were a proud but quarrelsome people; tall, slender and a lighter complexion than the Shoshonis, and while averse to manual labor, yet were the bravest Indians of the Rocky Mountain region; they were ofttimes heartless, cruel and bloodthirsty. The men were among the finest looking of their race; the women being noted as the ugliest of western tribes. The country occupied by them lay athwart both the Oregon and Overland trails. By various treaties they are now on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.

[Editor’s Note: Today the Fort Hall Reservation is a Native American reservation of the federally recognized Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho, one of five federally recognized tribes in the state. The reservation – 815 square miles in size covering territory in Bingham, Power, Bannock and Caribou counties – is located in southeastern Idaho on the Snake River Plain about 20 miles north and west of Pocatello. All current references are to the Bannock tribe and the Bannock Indian War, noting that the word is both the tribe’s name and a word meaning “baked dough” in Scots English. No current references to the spelling “Bannack” are found, despite Rees’ best efforts to create a distinction between the two spellings.]


BANNACK INDIAN WAR. –The first treaty made between the United States and the Bannacks was at Box Elder, Utah, in 1863. Among other things it stipulated, “The country claimed by Pokatello, for himself and his people is bounded on the west by Raft River and on the east by the Portneuf Mountains.” This treaty having served its purpose, another was entered into at Fort Bridger, Utah, in 1868, stating, “It is agreed that whenever the Bannacks desire a reservation to be set apart for their use, or whenever the President of the United States shall deem it advisable for them to be put upon a reservation, he shall cause a suitable one to be selected for them in their present country, which shall embrace reasonable portions of the ‘Portneuf’ and ‘Kansas Prairie’ countries.” In 1869, President Grant set aside, by executive order, the Fort Hall Indian Reservation for the Bannacks, among other Indians of southern Idaho, but nothing was done about the “Kansas Prairie” country, although the Government officials knew about the mistake in the word “Kansas” and that the Indians claimed “Camas Prairie,” where they had for times past gathered the camas root, yet the “Camas Prairie” country was thrown open to settlement by the whites. This infringement of the Indian’s right, guaranteed by treaty, and the ambitions of Buffalo Horn were the cause of this war.

Fredrick Remington illustration of a Bannock hunting party fording the Snake River during the Bannock War of 1895.

BATTLE OF BEAR RIVER, Franklin County. –In the three hundred years’ contest on the American continent between the white and the red man for supremacy, a victory for the white man was called a “battle,” but a victory for the red man was called a “massacre.” A massacre occurs where one side is helpless and the other, being armed, proceeds to slay without possible resistance. Indians have massacred unarmed white men, women and children, and likewise the whites have massacred unarmed red men, women and children. At Little Big Horn, on June 25, 1876, the Indians threw down the gage of battle. General Custer accepted it, and in the fight which ensued his entire command of 264 men, except a scout, was killed. This is called the Custer “massacre.” At Bear River, on January 29, 1863, General Connor threw down the gage of battle and Chief Pokatello accepted it, and in the fight which ensued 267 Indians, of which ninety were women and children, were killed and only sixteen of his followers escaped. This is called a “battle.” Such nomenclature is scarcely consistent.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).


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