Fudging Facts to Name a State

I’m a native Idahoan now living in Montana. Basically, I moved next door, after a thirty-year stint in Nevada (also next door). I love all three states and would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

Nevada Territory 1860

The origin of Nevada’s name is straight forward—Nevada means ‘snow-covered’ and referred to the many mountain ranges in Nevada, particularly the Sierra Nevada, which often have snow year round. The origin of Idaho and Montana’s names, however, is not so straight forward. In fact, those origins involved deception.

When I learned Idaho history in the fourth grade, we were taught that the name Idaho came from the Shoshone term Ee-da-how, which means ‘sun comes up in the mountains’. Not so.

In the early 1860’s Congress was considering making a new territory in the Rocky Mountain area, which would eventually become Colorado. A (fraudulently elected) lobbyist named George M. Willing suggested the name Idaho, saying it was a Shoshone term meaning ‘gem of the mountains’ or ‘sun comes up from the mountains’. He’d made the whole thing up. Congress figured it out before the territory was named, and that territory became Colorado Territory.

Colorado Territory

By that time, however, the name Idaho was in common usage. A steam ship on the Columbia River was named Idaho, and when gold was discovered on the Clearwater river in the 1860s, the area was called the Idaho diggings. A few years later, when Washington Territory was broken into two sections, the new section was named Idaho Territory.

Idaho Territory 1863


The origin of Montana’s name also involved a touch of deception. Montana was part of Idaho Territory until 1864, when a former congressman named Sidney Edgerton brought samples of gold to Washington and suggested the creation of a new territory. The Union needed gold, so congress set to work. Ohio congressman James Ashley suggested the name Montana for the new territory, explaining that ‘montana’ was the Spanish word for mountainous, which perfectly described the area. There was one small problem—there was nothing Spanish about the area, which bordered Canada. Other names were suggested–Shoshone, Jefferson and Douglas. Senator Charles Sumner wanted an Indian name for the territory. One of the original Montana settlers, George Stuart, suggested Tay-a-be-shock-up, which is Snake for ‘the country of the mountains’.  Some unknown person, however, convinced congress that the name Montana was not so much Spanish as it was Latin. Congress could accept a Latin name and Montana Territory was blessed with a name that could be easily pronounced.

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

29 thoughts on “Fudging Facts to Name a State”

  1. What a wonderful blog, Jeannie. I never knew _any_ of that before, which means my education was lacking. I wonder if it’s because I lived in the Northeast and much emphasis was put on Colonial times. Two other possibilities: (1) Maybe we remember more about what’s closer to where we live, or (2) I’m old and just forgot!!! 😉 Anyway, thanks so much.

    • My husband grew up in the Northeast and he mainly learned about the Revolutionary War. As a kid I was jealous that our history in Idaho was so ‘new’. ? And amen to that forgetting thing.

  2. Since I was born in Montana, raised in Idaho and Wyoming for the most part, and Nevada was the state you went through to get to California or out of. Very interesting facts of history that I missed in my education.

  3. Really interesting post, Jeannie. I like to watch the TV show Survivor, and it’s funny to me when it’s time to pick a new tribe name how many times a contestant will come up with a random word and claim it means something significant in the native language of the area when it fact it’s totally made up. Yet everyone goes along with it. Apparently there is nothing new under the sun. 😉

    • I had no idea about the Survivor name thing, Karen. That’s really funny. I don’t understand why someone would do such a thing, but apparently it’s not uncommon. Go figure.

  4. How interesting, Jeannie. Poor Montana. I’m really glad they chose that name instead of one of the others, especially the Native American name that I can’t pronounce or spell. I loved this bit of history.

  5. I took a PNW history class at the local community college when I first moved to Washington state but never learned about where the names Idaho and Montana came from. Also didn’t realize so much of Montana was part of Idaho territory. I did learn many people wanted Oregon to be named Jefferson. Thanks for the history lesson.

  6. Growing up, I was taught that my state of Kentucky was the Iroquois word “ken-tah-ten,” which means land of tomorrow. Your post makes me wonder if this is really true. Thanks for an interesting post!

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