Back in the olden days when I was a radio announcer in Boise several of us were sitting around in an office trying to determine what we would call a radio station that had the irritating call letters, KJOT. K-Jot? Thumbs down to that. Someone called out “K-105.” There was already a K-106, so that seemed silly. I said, “How about J-105.” Brilliant. That became the name.
Let the kudos roll in for that one. The point is, that I happened to open my mouth first about a very limited number of choices. Big deal.
There is a claim, similarly not astonishing, regarding the naming of Idaho. It comes from Mrs. William H. Wallace, who was called “Lue.” William H. Wallace became the first territorial governor of Idaho. A letter from the son of Mrs. Wallace (below) tells of her fondness for a little girl who was named Idaho. When a discussion took place in the Wallace home regarding the name of the new territory being formed from part of Washington Territory, Mrs. Wallace spoke up, saying that her preference was Idaho. Only three names were under consideration, Idaho, Montana, and Lafayette, according to the letter. So, Mrs. Wallace may indeed have the distinction of “naming” Idaho.
Mrs. Wallace would likely have proclaimed the name was an Indian word meaning “Gem of the mountains.” That was a popular story at the time. It has since been quite thoroughly dashed by linguists. There is some evidence that George M. Willing, a lobbyist for the territory that would eventually become known as Colorado, coined the word in early 1860 as a substitute for naming the territory Jefferson. He may also have given birth to the “Gem of the mountains” definition.
People apparently liked the sound of it. A Columbia River steamer seems to be the first to use the name. It was launched on June 9, 1860, operating between the Cascades and The Dalles. On June 22 the Idaho Town Company was created in Colorado to get things rolling in a town that to this day is called Idaho Springs. Then, on December 20, 1861, the Washington Territorial Legislature named a new county Idaho County. It contained the gold mining areas of Warren and (fabulous) Florence.
Idaho had kicked around as a potential name for Colorado and Montana territories for some time. Those in Congress debating the territorial bills didn’t especially care which name went where. Idaho Territory was going to be called Montana Territory practically up to the last minute. Soon-to-be Territorial Governor Wallace’s own copy of the bill had the name Montana printed on it. That was scratched out with Idaho written in (see below) to reflect the late change.
So, who named Idaho? A lobbyist may have come up with the name, but Mrs. Wallace probably has as good a claim as anyone for attaching it to this place where we live. Linguists and historians may continue to debate where the name came from and what it means, but I think everyone is missing the point. It’s simply the name of my favorite state and as such holds enormous meaning.
Much of this story depends on the research of Merle W. Wells and an article he wrote for the spring 1958 issue of Idaho Yesterdays.