(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.

Context is important in reading his entries. Many of Rees’ descriptions, especially of Indians and other racial or ethnic groups, are tinged with the biases and prejudices of most whites of that era. He uses language that was common then but is offensive today; an honest recounting from this historic text is presented – with reservations – in a desire to be accurate.)

Big Southern Butte, one of three volcanic formations in Butte County, Idaho. Photo: BLM.

BUTTES TRIOS, Butte County. –These are three conspicuous elevations of volcanic cones situated on the Snake River plains and can be seen a great many miles away and have always been familiar objects for parties passing that way. In 1825, the French Canadian trappers of Peter Skene Ogden’s command called them the “buttes,” which in French means “knolls.” “Trios” is the French word for “three.” Big Butte was held in awe by the Indians, and was called by them “Pee-ah,” meaning “large,” and “Car-did,” “stay,” referring to its permanency and to that feeling of safety which the sight of it gave to any one drifting or perhaps lost in the ever sameness of the trackless Snake River plains and desert.  (Editor’s Note: Big Southern Butte is the largest and youngest – about 300,000 years old – of three domes in the eastern Snake River Plain. It rises nearly 2,500 vertical feet above the lava plain.)

Cache County, Idaho.

CACHE, Teton County. –This is the place where some Hudson Bay trappers, who were the first white men in Pierre’s Hole, cached some furs. The word is French, “cacher” meaning “to hide.” In western pioneering it became necessary at times to abandon temporarily some articles with the intention of returning afterward for them. The property so abandoned was cached or concealed so as to prevent its loss or injury. As ordinarily prepared, it consisted of a deep pit in the ground in the construction of which the point of paramount importance was to avoid any trace of the work which might attract attention when completed. The best site was in dry soil. The pit was lined with sticks and dry leaves and the goods deposited herein. The concealment consisted in removing all evidence of the cache and leaving the ground looking just as it did before. If in turf, the sod was scrupulously replaced; in other places a campfire was built over the cache, serving to divert attention. Occasionally caches were made in the sides of vertical cliffs, also in trunks of trees, in clefts of rocks and other places, but nearly always in the ground. When the cache was opened it was said to be “raised,” and if broken into by those who had to right to do so they were said to be “lifted.” Caches sometimes attained notoriety and have left their names in various localities.

Camas flower. Photo: Jenny Moore, USFS.

CAMAS, Jefferson County. –This name comes from the Chinook language and means “sweet.” It is also spelled Kamas and Quamash. The camas is a western plant having a typical blue flower and edible bulb. The Shoshonis call it “Pahsego,” meaning “Pah,” “water” and “sego,” “a bulbous root,” as it grows on the high moist benches of the Rocky Mountains. It belongs to the Lily family, which furnished the Indians the greater part of their root food. In the commissary department of the native it occupied a place similar to bread in the diet of the agricultural nations, and while resembling an onion it was very nutritious. It formed an important food among all western tribes, and when properly dried kept for years. The bulb is usually prepared for food by prolonged steaming, requiring about three days to properly cook. The annual gathering of the camas root occurred in June and July when it was considered ripe. (Editor’s Note: the plant’s scientific name is camassia quamash.)

Sunrise on Camas Prairie. Photo: IDFG.

CAMAS PRAIRIES. –There are many camas prairies in the West, so named because the camas root grew so abundantly thereon. Big Camas Prairie is situated in Camas County, giving the county its name, and was the bone of contention which caused the Bannack War of 1878, as the Indians always claimed a part at least of this prairie. Little Camas Prairie is situated in Elmore County and is a continuation of the Big Camas Prairie. North Camas Prairie lies between the Clearwater and the Salmon rivers, in Idaho County, and was the scene of many massacres of whites by the Nez Perces in the war of 1877. The greater part of the bodies of land are now converted into splendid farms and homes.

Shoshone with Chief Cameahwait meet with Corps of Discovery, August 18, 1805.

CAMEAHWAIT. –This was the name of the chief of the Shoshonis that inhabited Lemhi at the time Lewis and Clark entered Idaho. The name means “Ka,” “not,” “mee-ah,” “to go,” and “wait,” “incline,” or “not inclined to go.” This name was no doubt given to the chieftain at the time of the whit man’s visit when Captain Lewis came into Lemhi from Shoshone Cover to get the Indians to help his party, then at what is now Armstead, Montana, over the mountain divide. The chief at first did not want to do this, but later was persuaded to go, with horses, and move the explorers and their camp into Lemhi. In persuading him to do this, Captain Lewis offered him many inducements, relating to him the fact concerning his sister, Sacagawea, being a member of the expedition, which did not affect him to any considerable extent; but finally, when told of the colored man, describing him as a “black white man” with “buffalo hair” on his head, it created so much curiosity that the whole tribe became anxious to go at once and see the negro. Lewis and Clark state that he had another name, “Tooettecone,” which meant “black gun,” but properly translated means “Too,” “black,” “ite,” “gun” and “coon,” “fire,” or “He fires the black gun,” showing that it was during his lifetime that this tribe became possessed of firearms.

CANADIAN FRENCH. –The majority of the voyageurs, hunters and trappers which were employed by the Hudson Bay and Northwest Fur companies were French from Canada, and usually being the first white people to visit the fur-producing sections of the country, gave names to many places and objects, many of which survive to this day as is exhibited in Idaho geography. They were in parts of the Rocky Mountains before the coming of Lewis and Clark and from 1820-30 had explored quite extensively the Snake River and its tributaries.

CAYUSE. –This is a word which the stockmen have inherited from the tribes and refers to a breed of Indian ponies. The Shoshonis were the first western tribe to acquire horses, having procured them thru their relatives, the Moquis, who were the first to come in contact with the Spaniards. The rugged and versatile Indian pony is a descendant from those Spanish-Mexican horses. Their name is derived from the Cayuse Indians of Oregon, who were extensive breeders and growers of the pony, and the word has extended thruout (sic) the West. Cayuse is from the French “cailloux,” meaning “pebbly,” referring to the stream upon which the Cayuse Indians were located when the Canadians first came in contact with them.

Gill’s Dictionary of Chinook Jargon, 1909. Photo: Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0.

CENTERVILLE, Boise County. –This place was first a mining camp defended by a stockade built by miners to defend themselves against the Indians and was called the “fort” by the clique which slept in it at night and sallied forth by day to mine in the gulches near by. But as the first settlers and stockholders tried to “hog up” every good claim nd otherwise appeared intensely selfish, the outside world got even with them by calling the place “Hogum,” which honorable epithet stuck to it for many years in spite of all efforts to throw it off. It was a case of the “survival of the fittest.” But time that wears out nearly all things at length effaced this hoggish name, and it is now known as “Centerville,” because it is midway between Idaho City and Placerville.

CHINOOK JARGON. –This was an Indian trade language used from Alaska to California and was the intertribal as well as the interracial language of the Pacific Coast. It was formed by adding grossly corrupted and fancifully used French and English words to the language of the Chinookan family, and as used was a very much aspirated, gutteralized, sputter and swallowed form of expression; however, it was used between the whites themselves, the Indians and the whites, and the Indians themselves, and proved of great service to both the Indian and the white man.

CHINOOK WIND. –This is the name of a warm southwest wind occurring in late winter or early spring, under the influence of which the snow is melted with astonishing rapidity and the weather soon becomes balmy and springlike. It results from the northward passage of a cyclone originating in the Japan current and its effect lasts from a few hours to several days, and the name was first applied by the Hudson Bay Company at Astoria, Oregon, being so called because it blew from over the country inhabited by the Chinook Indians. (Editor’s Note: Known as a föhn wind in Europe, a Chinook can happen in the lee of any mountain range. I experienced them living on the eastern flanks of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state where a foot of lingering winter snow would disappear after a day’s steady Chinook wind.)

To catch up: Idaho Nomenclature: First Installment; Second Installment; Third Installment.

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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