My father-in-law recently revealed a fun fact about how Idaho, his former home, got it's name. It was such a preposterous story that I laughed out loud. But having a curious mind, I couldn't dismiss it. I had to verify or debunk what he told me about Washington's neighboring state.
He told me that Idaho's name began as a joke.
And what I discovered when searching for the origin of the name "Idaho," is that you will come across a lot of speculation, misinformation, and folklore.
Idaho - Land of Many Waters
One popular story is that the word Idaho comes from the language of the Nez Perce Native Americans. It allegedly means "land of many waters." So accepted among Idahoans is this explanation that the phrase spread far-and-wide by Idaho gift shops selling t-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards to tourists.
Grand Teton Brewing even paid tribute by naming one of it's craft beers the Land of Many Waters.
But the thing is, it's not true.
Idaho - Gem of the Mountains
Idaho is referred to as "the Gem State." This is appropriate for a landscape that has been so abundant with gold, silver, copper and other rare minerals.
The slogan also connects nicely to another explanation of the name Idaho, attributed to the Shoshone Native American tribe. In this origin story, the word Idaho means "Gem of the Mountains." At least, this is what Congress was told by Mining lobbyist George M. Willing when suggesting a name for the new state.
Willing also said that the proper way to pronounce Idaho is "Ee-Dah-How." It's easy to see how that pronunciation evolved over time, for anyone who only saw the name in print, but never heard it spoken by a local.
One quick thing, though... While George M. Willing was very much a real person, who is responsible for the name Idaho, his entire backstory about its Shoshone origins was fiction. A lie.
Ready for Another Twist in the Story of Idaho?
Everything Willing presented to Congress was an effort by him to name a territory now known as... Colorado. It's true. Once the fiction of the name "Idaho" was revealed, Congress decided on Colorado.
But the name Idaho lingered in people's consciousness. And more territories needed to be named. So the name Idaho found it's home in the Northwest.
Why Did Willing Lie About the Name Idaho?
Willing was a political hopeful, running to become a representative of what is now Colorado. Initial election results were in his favor. But the title of representative was stripped away from him when evidence of massive fraud was discovered.
His opponent and frenemy B.D. Williams replaced Willing as representative of the territory in need of a name for statehood. Williams liked the sound of Idaho, many agreed it was pleasing to the ear, and so he pushed for it.
Later, questions arose as to the legitimacy Idaho's supposed Native American origins. Williams must have done some digging, because he requested that the name be changed to something else.
So why the lie? Maybe it was some sort of trick to make his replacement look bad. Or maybe it was a practical joke pulled on all of us.
An explanation did appear in the New York Daily Tribune on December 8, 1875. Former Aide to Abraham Lincoln, William O. Stoddard, told the Tribune how his 'eccentric friend" Willing (now passed), had coined the name. And he said that Willing frequently told the tale ‘with the most gleeful appreciation of the humor of the thing.’”
So there you have it. My father-in-law had it right. The name Idaho stems from a joke.
The official state motto of Idaho is "Esto perpetua," a latin phrase meaning "let it be perpetual." Or sometimes translated as "mayest thou endure forever."
The expression has been traced back to Venice, Italy, and credited to theologian and mathematician Paolo Sarpi (a/k/a Fra Paolo). And it's a fitting way to end our story, which most certainly won't put a stop to the folklore and mythology surrounding the name Idaho. They will go on, Esto perpetua.
Or, to put it another way, "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
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