(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.)

Idaho City tourist attraction.

IDAHO CITY, Boise County. –Idaho City, which went at first by the name of “Moore’s Creek,” so named after Marion Moore, one of the first prospectors who discovered gold in that locality and mined extensively there, and who was killed afterwards somewhere near South Pass. After the place began to grow populous, it took the name of Bannack and when still larger grown and able to sport city costumes its denizens voted to call their town “Idaho City.”

IDAHO PIONEER DAY. –This day is June 15th, which was made a holiday by the State Legislature in 1911. That was the day on which Fort Limhi was established by the Mormon people from Utah in 1855. Their historian states that the headwaters of the east ranch of the Salmon River, now known as Lemhi River, was reached by the party and President Smith called a halt. Selecting five brethren of the camp he proceeded, on the 14th of June, about thirty miles father down the river to explore for a suitable place to locate a settlement. On the 15th they selected a site for a fort and a tract of land for farming.

INDIANS. –Columbus called the natives who occupied the country where he landed “Indios,” i.e. natives of India, whence the English word “Indian,” meaning the people inhabiting aboriginal America. There have been many absurd and extravagant speculations as to the origin of the American Indian and the numerous popular fallacies have derived them, both in remote and modern times, from all regions of the Old World. Two theories are most conspicuous; first, that of Welsh Indians, who were descended from a reputed colony founded by Prince Madoc, but the effort to identify such tribes caused the theory to recede farther and farther west until it vanished over the Pacific. It was thought that in the names Moqui and Modoc, Welsh elements were detected; second, that of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, endeavoring by distorted views to make a resemblance in ideas, customs and institutions between the American Indian and the ancient Hebrew; also the Mormon religion is founded upon the dispersion of some of the Jewish race in America. However, no theory of a foreign origin has been proven or even fairly sustained. Scientists now regard the Indian as autochthonic [indigenous] and not of exotic origin, and ethnologists consider them a single specie of the human race and divide them into fifty-five linguistic families. The Indians of Idaho belong to the Shoshonean, Shahaptan, Salishan and Kitunahan families.

Cartoon commentary on Indian agents. Library of Congress.

INDIAN AGENTS. –It was natural that the army should be the first part of our administrative system to come in contact with the aborigines, and therefore all business connected with Indian affairs as, in the beginning, conducted by and thru the War Department. The agents first appointed were military officers and given the rank of major. In 1849, Indian affairs were transferred to the Interior Department and administered by civil officers; however, the empty title of major still adhered to Indian agents. After 1849 each governor of a territory was made the Superintendent of Indian Affairs in his jurisdiction but in 1869 this was changed by President Grant, who assigned to the various religious denominations the appointment of agents from the different churches. This method, however, proved unsatisfactory and was soon abandoned, after which bonded agents appointed from civil life by the President for a term of four years was inaugurated. These appointments were political, according to the spoils system, and continued so until the advent of civil service reform, after which the Indian agent became designated a Superintendent and held his position under rules and regulations of the civil service commission.

INDIAN NAMES. –In the matter of naming individuals it ofttimes occurs that an Indian attains manhood or even old age before acquiring a permanent name, whilst at other times a striking exploit might cause a change and another name be received. It was found, while taking the census of the Lemhis, in 1900, that about one-fourth of the children, up to the age of fifteen years, had no name at all and were designed “Ka” meaning “not” and “nany-ack,” “name” or “not named.” The spirit which actuated the event that selected his true name was a propitious affair and therefore this particular designation, together with the physical body, the recipient of that name, were most sacred things to him and to tell that name or have that body photographed was to lose part of his nature which would be missed by him hereafter. When asked to give his name he will not do it, but an Indian with him may give it, and he would almost as soon give up his life as to have his picture taken. Civilization with its commercialized practices has changed many of his ways. The Indian had no extensive or permanent geographical names and only referred to localities from some peculiarity of characteristic of the place. Eight-tenths of Indian geographical names were coined on the spot from some particular attribute which was most striking in the Indian’s mind at the time.

Map of Idaho counties with the state’s five Indian reservations noted.

INDIAN POLICY. –The nations of Europe recognized the Indian as the owner of the soil and before the land could be acquired the Indian’s title must be extinguished by treaty. The United States claimed the paramount title to all lands and the Indian’s only right therein was that of occupancy. From 1789 to 1869 Indian tribes were recognized as separate nations and treaties were made with them relative to their occupancy of the land. Up to 1890 the United States had made 450 treaties with 157 tribes. After 1869 the tribes were no longer treated as independent nations but as wards of the Government and all acts relative to the disposition of the lands which they occupied was made by executive orders. The Indian was controlled in an indefinite way by the War Department until 1848 at which date the Interior Department was created to which the Bureau of Indian Affairs was transferred, changing the control from military to civil rule. In 1869 the reservation system was inaugurated whereby the Indian was to stop roaming and settle down on the reserves, which were made permanent, but the constant demands made for settlement and the gradual encroachments of the whites caused the government, in 1887, to pass the allotment act forcing the Indians to take lands in severalty and selling the surplus, thus destroying the reservations and tribal conditions.

JERKED BEEF. –This is a Peruvian Indian name, “char-qui,” meaning pieces of beef cut in long strips about an inch wide and dried in the sun. The word has been corrupted into “jerked” under which title it is best known.

JOHN DAY’S DEFILE, Lemhi County. –Donald Mackenzie, in the fall of 1819, led the Snake country expedition into Lemhi County where they trapped during the winter and where in February, 1820, one of the party, John Day, after whom John Day River in Oregon had been named, died and his bones lie buried somewhere in what is now Birch Creek Valley. Before passing away he had written and witnessed, in camp on this mountain stream, his last will, in which among other things he bequeathed some money, in the hands of his former master, John Jacob Astor, for whom he had worked in the establishment of Fort Astoria, Oregon. This will was probated in New York in 1836, proving to be the first will executed, not only in Lemhi, but on Idaho soil, and perhaps on the Northwest Coast, and the fur trappers named the Creek John Day’s Defile, which is now called Birch Creek, from the amount of birch timber growing thereon. In 1855 the Mormons called it Clear Creek. Mr. Irving was mistaken when he stated in “Astoria” that John Day died about the year 1813.

(Ed. Note: In geography, a defile is a narrow pass or gorge between mountains or hills.)

JOHN GRAY LAKE, Bonneville County. –This lake was named for a Canadian trapper in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company, who in 1819 discovered it.

JORDAN CREEK, Owyhee County. –This stream was named for Michael M. Jordan who was a leader of the party that discovered gold on this creek in May, 1863, while looking for the “lost mine.” He was killed at an Indian fight in the Owyhee country in 1864.

Chief Joseph, 1911.

JOSEPH, Idaho County. –Named for Chief Joseph of the Non-Treaty Nez Perces. Most things, among whites, that are mysterious or weird are named for the Devil, as “Seven Devils,” or his abode, “Hell,” as “Hellgate.” Hundreds of geographical names are thus derived. Likewise, anything that is mysterious or weird to the Indian mind is designated “Thunder,” as in Thunder Mountain. Joseph possessing a somber nature was designated accordingly, so that his Indian name, “Hinmaton,” meant in English, “The thunder that passes through the earth and water.” “Joseph” was a baptismal name given Chief Joseph’s father by Rev. Henry H. Spalding and it became a tribal name to him who should succeed to the chieftainship. In the Nez Perce War of 1877 he was war chief of the tribe and after their defeat by Gen. O. O. Howard at the battle of Clearwater, he advised his tribe to remain upon the lands of their inheritance and fight it out there giving up their lives only on the soil of their homes. But other counsel prevailed. He then led the tribe, consisting of men, women and children, a distance of 1500 miles, it requiring the services of forty companies of soldiers and hundreds of volunteers and scouts for three months to capture them, and so masterly was this retreat conducted that he became known as the “Xenephon of the red men.” Afterwards he became reconciled to civilization and discouraged the vices and aided in the education of his tribe, yet it is said that he was ofttimes seen to brood over his campfires as if he observed some mournful scene within its consuming flames. The account of this war and its results by the Indians of this tribe is very pathetic and is quite beyond description.

(Ed. Note: Xenophon of Athens, c. 430 – 354 BC, was an ancient Greek philosopher, historian, soldier, mercenary, and student of Socrates.)

You can find all 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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