The year 1860 brought a lot of drama and history to the United States. A pivotal election year, growing unrest between the North and the South, and the ever-present issue of slavery all contributed to an environment that felt like a powder keg. With all of these things clamoring for attention, it would not be surprising if something as insignificant as a name failed to grab the public’s attention — even if it was the name for a new territory that would soon become a state.
As the American West continued to develop, Congress took up the issue of granting territorial status to a rapidly growing mountainous region. As the Congressional committee considered the matter, they sought suggestions for an appropriate name for the territory.
The Congressional Globe for May 10 and 11 of 1860 reports significant discussion centering around the name “Idaho,” noting that it was an Indian name signifying “Gem of the Mountain.”
Support seemed to be growing for this exotic name. By the time the measure came up for vote, however, on February 28, 1861, sentiment had changed. As it turns out, “Idaho” is not an Indian word meaning “Gem of the Mountain.” In fact, it isn’t even a real word. Evidently, the word was made up by Dr. George M. Willing, who crafted the word in honor of his daughter, Ida.
There are some who discount Willing’s claim to have created the name. There’s good reason to question the man’s word since he was no stranger to dishonesty. He traveled to the new territory from St. Louis and ran as a delegate to Congress. Although he lost the election, he still went to Washington, D.C. and held himself out as the duly-elected delegate from the new territory, actively lobbying on behalf of the interests of the region.
Whatever the source for the made-up name, Congress, fortunately, got wind of the hoax just in time. When it created the new territory, it chose a different name: Colorado.
So what happened to the supposed “Gem of the Mountain”? Even though “Idaho” didn’t actually mean anything, it sort of grew on folks. Ten months after Colorado achieved territorial status a new territory to the north of it was ready to be formalized. Congress created Idaho County. On March 3, 1863, the Territory of Idaho came into existence — but only after Congress narrowly voted down their alternate name: Montana.
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