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.
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.
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.
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.