(Editor’s Note: These excerpts are from the book Idaho Chronology, Nomenclature and Bibliography by John E. Rees, published in 1918. In the Nomenclature section, Rees offers his best information and beliefs regarding the origins, meanings and history behind Idaho place names and prominent figures. 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.)

NOMENCLATURE. –It would “make a preacher cuss” to see how many of the names given to streams and places by the Indians and old trappers have been changed to others that have neither sense nor meaning. The class of people who flock to mining regions appear to have about as much originality as so many ganders. Every little town, for instance, must be called city or some other name that has already been used in naming half a dozen other towns in mining regions. This tendency to change the old names of places and streams, as the country settles up, is much to be regretted, as the Indian names and those given by the early pioneers are much more applicable than those of civilization, as a general thing. The United States Postoffice [sic] Department has remedied many names by the process of elimination and union of words.

Grave site of Old Chief Joseph at base of Wallowa Lake in Joseph, Oregon. Photo: National Park Service.

NON-TREATY NEZ PERCES. –There were two main divisions of the Nez Perce tribe: First, the Upper Nez Perces occupying the Clearwater country with Lapwai as the center. They were the “Treaty Indians,” composing the main part of the tribe, numbering about 2,500, and never went upon the warpath; second, the Lower Nez Perces who lived along the Snake River in the neighborhood of the mouth of the Grande Ronde River and including Wallowa and Imnaha valleys, known as the “Non-Treaty Indians” numbering about 1,000. When Spalding established a mission at Lapwai in 1836 he induced the chief of the Lower Nez Perces to settle near the mission and baptized him under the name of Joseph. Spalding abandoned Lapwai suddenly in 1847, after which the Treaty Indians ordered Joseph back to his own country of Wallowa, making of him an enemy to both Indians and whites. Joseph signed the treaty of 1855 which created the Nez Perce Indian Reservation, because it included lands which he claimed. The discovery of gold on the Clearwater and the influx of miners necessitated a new treaty, which was made in 1863, in which Wallowa Valley was left out of the reserve. This treaty Joseph refused to sign or be bound by its limits, hence the name of “Non-Treaty Indians.” President Grant was prevailed upon in 1873 to set aside, by executive order, a reservation for these Indians, which was as follows: Commencing at the right bank of the mouth of the Grande Ronde River; thence up Snake River to a point due east of the southeast corner of T. 1 S., R. 46 E. of the Willamette meridian; thence due west to the west fork of the Wallowa River; thence down said west fork to its junction with the Wallowa River; thence down said river to its confluence with the Grande Ronde River; thence down the last named river to the place of beginning.

Chief Joseph, 1911.

After getting this concession Joseph died in 1873, leaving not only the chieftainship but his hatred to his son, Chief Joseph. In 1875 President Grant revoked his order and restored this reservation to the public domain. In speaking of this affair and especially the nation’s treatment of Indians in general, Gen. O. O. Howard wrote: “It is difficult to explain the almost uniform injustice which the American people have practiced towards the Indians. We can match the massacre of St. Bartholomew, the cruelties of the Inquisition, or the ferocity of London rioters, in our dealings with the red man.” The Non-Treaty Indians were ordered upon the Lapwai Reservation and after several councils they agreed to go, but outrageous acts toward them on the part of the settlers caused them to break loose and declare war in 1988.

OLDS FERRY, Washington County. –Named for R. P. Olds who in 1865 was at the head of the transportation company organized to monopolize the Idaho trade and stage business for Oregon as against California. They endeavored to secure all mountain passes and river crossings over which they maintained toll roads and ferries to levy tribute upon the traffic and travel. The Idaho Legislature granted this ferry certain privileges on Snake River under an act of 1865.

OOTLASHOOTS. –This is the name given by Lewis and Clark to that portion of the Flathead Indians that dwelt along the Clark’s fork of the Columbia in Montana. The word is Salish and was their own name for themselves.

OREGON TRAIL. –This was the first great highway made by white men across Idaho Territory. All early routes of travel were occupied first by Indian trails which had been used by the natives from time immemorial before white people passed over them. The Hunt-Astoria part were the first whites to cross this route, having followed approximately this trail from the Portneuf to the Columbia River. Nathaniel Wyeth and Captain Bonneville passed over parts of this trail in the ‘30s, but it never became actually established until the immense travel to the Oregon country beginning with the immigration of 1843 and continuing to be used until that country was settled and became American soil. It developed into a great wagon road, although called a trail, and was pronounced in early days as one of the finest highways in the world. It entered Idaho at Border where Bear River enters the state and followed that river to Soda Springs and thence west to Portneuf River, down which it passed to Fort Hall, which was the most important station along the route and from which point numerous roads and trails diverged. From this place the road extended westward along the south side of the Snake River to the ford near Glenn’s Ferry and thence northwesterly where Snake River was again crossed, entering Oregon and leading over the Blue Mountains to the Columbia River, being a distance of 415 miles within Idaho. In later times a road extended west from Fort Hall, crossing thru the Lost and Wood River countries, called Tim Goodwill’s cutoff.

ORO FINO CREEK, Clearwater County. –This word is of Spanish origin brought from the south and means “Oro,” “gold” and “Fino,” “pure” and was applied to this stream by Capt. E. D. Pierce of California, the leader of the discovery party that struck placer diggings on this creek in 1860. The creek on which the party camped they named Oro Fino and the gulch where the gold was discovered and which opened into the creek was called Canal Gulch and is the place where placer gold was first mined to any extent in this state. Their camp grew into a town afterwards called Pierce City for Captain Pierce, the discoverer.

OVERLAND TRAIL. –Of this route General Dodge said: “It was made by the buffalo, next used by the Indians, then by the fur traders, next by the Mormons, and then by the overland immigration to California and Oregon.” This trail when first established followed the Oregon Trail to Raft River where it turned off going up the creek and passing City of Rocks and thence into Nevada to California. Afterwards it passed by the northern extremity of Great Salt Lake and did not enter Idaho.

Owyhee River Canyon. Photo: BLM.

OWYHEE RIVER, Owyhee County. –This is the name which Capt. James Cook gave the Sandwich Islands in 1778, but the word is now spelled “Hawaii.” In 1819 Donald Mackenzie outfitted three Owyhees who were employed by the Hudson Bay Company to trap this stream for beaver during the winter. The Indians found and murdered them, since which time this stream has been called the Owyhee River.

(Editor’s Note: From Wikipedia: “Owyhee or Owhyhee is an older English spelling of Hawaiʻi, used in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It is found in the names of certain locations in the American part of the Pacific Northwest, which were explored and mapped by expeditions whose members included native Hawaiians.” In addition to Owyhee River and Owyhee County in Idaho, Idaho has the Owyhee Desert and the Owyhee Mountains.)

Find previous installments of Idaho Nomenclature under the Natural World – History tab.

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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