Idaho may be the only state whose name is based on a hoax, or it could be from a Native American word. But if the latter is true, no one has authoritatively identified the native language from which it comes. No one really knows where the name comes from.
We do know that the name was first applied to the town of Idaho Springs in what is today Colorado in 1860. Also in 1860, an effort was made to organize a territory in the Pike’s Peak region and the name Idaho and was one of the leading contenders, but Colorado eventually won out. Many years after the fact, in 1875, a supposed delegate to Washington from the territory and notorious self-promoter named George Willing claimed to have invented the name after a conversation with a young girl named Ida. He translated the “alleged” Indian word as “gem of the mountain.” Willing is a very untrustworthy source (among other things, he lost the election for delegate but went to Washington anyway and posed as a legitimately elected delegate). How much credence one should put in Willing’s account is highly questionable. The claim that the name is a hoax may in fact be a hoax.
In 1861, the territory of Washington created Idaho County, which would eventually become the state we know today as Idaho. Poet Joaquin Miller was an early popularizer of the name and claimed it came from Shoshonean roots, ee (down) + dah (sun or mountain) + how (exclamation), or literally something along the lines of “light coming down the mountain!” or “sunrise!” Many accept Miller’s explanation uncritically, although there is no particular reason to believe it.1
1Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names: United States and Canada, edited by Kelsie B. Harder (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 247;
Erl H. Ellis, “That Word “Idaho"," Western Folklore 10, no. 4 (Oct. 1951): 317-19.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton