Following a post about how California got its name, Boing Boing
added an interesting reader comment alleging that Idaho got its name because of a hoax:
"When a name was being selected for new territory, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested 'Idaho,' which he claimed was a Native American term meaning 'gem of the mountains'. It was later revealed Willing had made up the name himself, and the original Idaho territory was re-named Colorado because of it. Eventually the controversy was forgotten, and modern-day Idaho was given the made-up name when the Idaho Territory was formally created in 1863."
I had never heard this before, so I did a little research. It turns out that Willing did indeed claim to have invented the name Idaho. But whether he did or not is uncertain, since his claim was first published fifteen years after the first appearance of the word. Plus, he was a bit of a self-promoter and not entirely trustworthy. I found the following discussion of the Idaho question in an article by Erl H. Ellis published in Western Folklore
, Oct. 1951:
The first known use of this name was by or before a Congressional committee early in 1860, when the proposal to create a new territory of the Pikes Peak region was before the Congress. In the April 18, 1860 issue of the Rocky Mountain News, Mr. S.W. Beall wrote back to Denver and stated that this name Idaho seemed the most popular suggestion before the committee. On May 10 and 11, 1860, the Congressional Globe mentions the proposals for the Territory of Idaho, and noted that Idaho was an Indian name signifying "Gem of the Mountain." When the territory with Denver as its center was later created, the name Colorado was substituted at the last moment for Idaho. How this name came before the Congress very early in 1860 is unknown. If this was an Indian name known to the miners who flocked to the gold fields in 1859, no mention of the fact was ever made in the newspapers of those days. So perhaps the name was invented by one Dr. George M. Willing; at any rate he claimed to have done so. Willing came to Denver in 1859 from St. Louis and became a candidate for election as delegate to the Congress, despite the lack of any right of the gold miners to have a delegate in Washington. Even though Willing lost the election, he went on to Washington and posed as the properly elected delegate. He claimed that he there invented the name Idaho, it being suggested by the presence of a little girl, Ida. His relation of the matter was published by a friend of his, William O. Stoddard, in the New York Daily Tribune for December 11, 1875...
The Territory of Colorado was actually created February 28, 1861. That was the end of the official interest in the word for the Pikes Peak area. It was after these "Colorado" events that we find the word being used in what became the state of Idaho. In December, 1861, the territorial legislature of Washington created an Idaho County, and it later became a county of the state of Idaho. Joaquin Miller, the "poet of the Sierras," was responsible for several versions of how the word Idaho was first put into that form by him in the winter of 1861-1862. In one of these accounts Miller spells the name "E-dah-hoe" and says that it was an Indian word meaning "the light or diadem on the line of the mountain." A number of historians of the state of Idaho have accepted this story from Miller, but others have noted that the name was well known and used before Miller appeared upon the scene. The Territory of Idaho was created on March 3, 1863, again after the Congress nearly adopted another name, Montana.
Even if Idaho did get its name from a hoax, Des Moines can lay claim to a funnier name origin
. The Peoria indians told the first white settlers that the tribe living in that area (their rivals) was named the Moingoana, which became the root of Des Moines. But it turns out that Moingoana was really the Peoria word for "shitfaces".