(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.)

Lake Pend Oreille. Photo: US Army Corps of Engineers, 1993.

PEND OREILLE INDIANS. –This name is of French origin meaning “Pend,” “drop” and Oreille,” “ear” or literally “earrings” and was doubtless given by the Canadian French explorers to Pend Oreille Lake on account of the peculiar shape of the lake, being that of an ear. Some authorities state that the name was originally given to the tribe of Indians that inhabited the shores of this lake because of their custom of wearing earrings, but there is no evidence either of observation or tradition that they ever wore ear ornaments, besides, the custom of wearing ear ornaments was so universal among Indians that it could not have been considered a distinct tribal characteristic. The Indians call themselves “Kalispels.”

PEND OREILLE LAKE, Bonner County. –The geologic feature of this lake is that of a drowned valley which is held by a gravel dam on the west. It is about fifty miles long and from two to fifteen miles wide and is said to be very deep. As it is long and narrow and lies between mountains 2000 to 3000 feet high it must, if the reported depth of water is correct, occupy a canyon rivaling in size and depth the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in Arizona.

(Editor’s Note: Pend Oreille Lake is 43 miles long and 1,150 feet deep, making it the 38th largest lake by area in the United States, and the fifth deepest in the nation. The Grand Canyon is 6,093 feet deep.)

PHYSICAL FEATURES. –Idaho is situated between 42˚ and 49˚ north latitude and 111˚ and 117˚ west longitude. The lowest elevation is Lewiston, 738 feet; the highest is Hyndman Peak, 12,078 feet; the mean elevation being 4,500 feet. It contains 83,354 square miles of land surface, 534 square miles of water surface, making a total area of 83,888 square miles, and ranks the twelfth among the states of the Union in area. Three features roughly divide the state. First, the Rocky Mountain region comprising the irregular eastern boundary and northern portions; second, the Plateau region comprising the intermontane elevated plains lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade Range; and third, the Great Basin region consisting of a small southeastern portion, the drainage from which flows into Great Salt Lake.

Teton Mountains, called Pilot Knobs by Hunt-Astoria party in 1811. Photo: National Park Service.

(Editor’s Note: According to The World Almanac of the USA (1996), Idaho ranks 14th among states with total square miles of 83,547, 11th for land square miles of 82,751 and 32nd for water square miles of 823. Wikipedia lists Hyndman Peak as 12, 009 feet above sea level, and Lewiston at 745 feet.)

PIERRE’S HOLE, Teton County. –This place was named for an Iroquois Indian trapper who first discovered it in 1819 while trapping for the Hudson Bay Company and who was afterwards killed on Jefferson River in 1827. His Canadian French name was Vieux Pierre. This place is now called Teton basin. The word “pierre” in French means “stone.”

PILOT KNOBS. –This is the name given to the Teton Peaks by the Hunt-Astoria party in 1811, as they were used as guiding points by the members.


PIONEER, Butte County. –This place was named in honor of that great class of people who, thru many hardships and privations, made it possible for western civilization to exist. The pioneer is the Hesperus that leads out the stars which shine in the firmament of history. Upon the stage of American history the pioneer and the Indian have played important parts. Upon the Avenue of Palms at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition stood the American pioneer and the Indian, the latter sculptured in “The Lost Trail.” It was the pioneer that blazed the trails of progress which have broadened into palm-bordered avenues upon the royal highway of achievement, where, today, the red man seeks in vain the trail of his old wild ways.

Guernsey Ruts. Photo: NPS.

(Editor’s Note: From National Park Service: “Guernsey Ruts – Deep Rut Hill- Guernsey, Wyoming: At this site, where the trail was forced away from the river and crossed a ridge of soft sandstone, the track is worn to a depth of five feet, creating some of the most spectacular ruts remaining along the entire length of the Oregon-California Trail. The geography of the area dictated that practically every wagon that went west crossed the ridge in exactly the same place, with impressive results.”)

POKATELLO, Bannock County. –This is a Shoshoni Indian word meaning “Po,” “road,” “ka,” “not” and “tello,” “to follow” or “He does not follow the road,” and was applied to this chief of the Bannack Indians because of his stealthy habits and thieving raids. In 1862 he and his followers massacred a California emigrant train near the City of Rocks in Cassia County, for which deed Gen. P. E. Connor of Fort Douglas, Utah, surrounded his winter camp on Bear River on January 29, 1863, and almost annihilated the entire band. On July 29, 1863, the Government made a treaty with Pokatello and his followers, called the Northwestern Bands, as follows: It is agreed that friendly and amicable relations shall be re-established and it is declared that a firm and perpetual peace shall henceforth be maintained. And the said Northwestern Bands hereby acknowledge to have received provisions and goods to the amount of $2,000 to relieve their immediate necessities, the said bands having been reduced by war to a state of utter destitution. 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. When the Fort Hall Indian Reservation was formed in 1869 most of this country was included in that reserve and all the Indians were placed upon it. In 1864 Ben Holliday opened a stage route from Salt Lake City to Virginia City, Montana, and located a station along the route which he named “Pocatello” for this chief. The place developed into the present town of Pocatello which is near Batise springs, a great Indian camp and resort in olden days.

Pocatello, Idaho, 1909.

PORTNEUF RIVER, Bannock County. –This stream was named for a Hudson Bay trapper who was with Peter Skene Ogden’s Snake country expedition of 1825 and who that year was murdered by the Bannack Indians while making the rounds to his traps along this stream. The ill-starred canyon on the Portneuf, memorable in all its early and recent history for murder, robbery and disaster, has been a favorable haunt for stage robbers and highwaymen. Its flow is constantly interrupted by low lava rock dams, resulting in quiet pools and successive cascades from an inch to four feet in height, from which incident some think that this “gate way of rocks” gave the name to the canyon, as the Canadians, many of whom trapped this stream, which was considered one of the best beaver streams in the West, would say “Port” meaning “gate” and “neuf,” “ninth” or the stream with “nine gates” along its course.

A bucking cayuse pony, 1873 engraving.

POTLATCH RIVER, Latah County. –This is a Chinook jargon word derived from a tribal ceremonial and means “giving.” In the early days a Nez Perce by the name of Shucklatumna Hi Hi, which means “white owl,” had a cayuse pony with which he carried footmen, who were traveling thru the country, to the mines across the river, charging a quarter of a dollar for the service. One day the stream was high and a big Irishman, weighing about 200 pounds, wanted to be taken across. The Indian first took the blankets across and then came back and got the Irishman behind him on the cayuse. When in midstream the pony stumbled. The Irishman fell off and was being swept into the main stream of the Clearwater. The Indian followed him on his pony, hollering to him, “Potlatch quarter! Potlatch quarter! Then drown if you want to.” From this incident it was called “Potlatch,” but before that time the Indians called it “Yaka” meaning “black bear.”

(Cover photo: “Emigrants Crossing the Plains” or “The Oregon Trail” by artist Albert Bierstadt, 1869.)

Previous installments of Idaho Nomenclature can be found under the History tab, Natural World category, in the menu.

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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