The year is 1859. Throughout the region popularly called Pikes Peak, a hoard of gold-hungry miners are swarming around the front range of the Rocky Mountains, spurred by discoveries of the rich mineral at Cherry Creek and Clear Creek and in the foothills that rise above the little supply town of Denver. Even as the hills are being turned from wilderness into mining camps, some settlers are already looking beyond the muddy streets and make-shift laws toward a goal: statehood.
But what to call this new addition to the Union?
The history books usually don’t say much about how Colorado got its name. But the story is intriguing, because the early inhabitants first wanted to call it Jefferson, then almost got it named Idaho, and finally settled for the original Spanish name that the conquistadors had used—Colorado, meaning “reddish” or “colored.”
In that chaotic year of 1859, when Horace Greeley of “Go West, young man” fame was urging folks to cash in on the Pikes Peak gold rush and, at the same time, disenchanted prospectors were telling them to go back to Missouri, the name Jefferson must have seemed appealingly dignified to the foothills crowd. Jefferson was adopted as the choice for the new territory’s name during the summer, when the new arrivals held meetings to draft a constitution governing the region.
Unfortunately, when agents from the Pikes Peak area got to Washington, D.C., to lobby for territorial status, they discovered that Republicans, who had gained control of the House of Representatives in 1858, were not terribly keen on naming a new region after a famous Democrat. The agents were forced to come up with a politically neutral name.
Without wasting much time they found one … a name not only neutral but actually made up, it appears, to suit the occasion. That name was Idaho.
What apparently happened was that George M. Willing, one of the agents, either invented the word or heard it from a friend. He went around telling his fellow lobbyists that it was an Indian word meaning “gem of the mountains.” When a bill was drawn up in the House for establishment of the new territory, Idaho was the name given to it.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, the Senate was considering its own version of the territorial bill, which proposed the name Colorado. B. D. Williams, the main delegate from the proposed territory, insisted that “Idaho” be used instead. An Oregon senator, Joseph Lane, objected. The word, he said, was “a corruption certainly, a counterfeit.”
Nobody seemed to care much except Williams, who began to ask questions among his friends. He found, rather to his consternation, that there were no grounds for supposing that “Idaho” was really an Indian name. It has never become clear who actually invented the word. Williams quickly switched his support to the name Colorado for the new territory, and that name became official on February 28, 1861.
But still, “Idaho” had a nice ring to it—nice enough so that miners a few miles west of Denver had already applied it to their camp, Idaho Springs. And at The Dalles on the Columbia River in Oregon, a riverboat operator liked the word so much he called his new steamboat the Idaho . The steamer took miners to the new Nez Perce gold mines, according to Merle Wells of the Idaho Historical Society, and pretty soon folks were referring to the region as the Idaho mines. By 1861, despite the knowledge back east that the word meant nothing, northwestern newcomers were talking about staking out a new territory and naming it just that. Another proposal was “Montana,” and for some time the question of what the new territory would be called wavered back and forth between these two. At the last moment, in February, 1863, it was decided that “Idaho” was the winner.
For several years apologists attempted to establish an Indian origin for “Idaho,” sometimes spelling it “E Dah Hoe.” As for the meaning favored by some, “gem of the mountains,” one scholar pointed out that “gem” would have been foreign to western Indians anyway, since that was purely a white man’s concept. Researchers looking for Arapaho and Shoshone origins of “Idaho” failed too. It didn’t make any difference. As a pamphlet put out by the Idaho Historical Society says, “it was just as good an Indian name as a great many of those supplied by such eminent originators of Indian names as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.”
While Idahoans made peace with their state name, however, Coloradans made a point of mispronouncing theirs. The difference between a newcomer to the state and a native is that the former pronounces it close to its Spanish equivalent, with the vowel in the third syllable—“ra”—coming out about the same as in “rot.” The native, on the other hand, lazily rolls it off the tongue as “Callaradda,” with the third syllable coming out as in the word “radish.”
Indeed, Coloradans seem intent on twisting Spanish place-names. Buena Vista, for example, is referred to by its residents as “Bee-you-na Vista,” Pueblo as “Peeeh-blo.” It’s an old American custom, after all. Let’s not forget “Peer” (Pierre), South Dakota, “Cay-roh” (Cairo), Illinois, and “Terrah hawt” (Terre Haute), Indiana.
The funny thing is that Colorado is still trying to justify the Indian origin of “Idaho,” long after the Idahoans have abandoned that tack. A booklet sold in Denver stores called “Nature’s Names for Colorado Communities,” written by Richard M. Pearl and published by a Colorado Springs outfit, includes the following explanation for Idaho Springs:
The derivation of Idaho is controversial. One version says that it means “gem of the mountains” or rocks, but another says that Ee-da-how is Indian for “the sun is coming down the mountains.” Still another expert suggests that the Indian name may be Idahi, which is what the Kiowa-Apache called the Comanche. At any rate, the springs have been a tourist attraction since 1868.
Oh, well. For my own part, I’m sorry the Pikes Peak crowd didn’t insist on Jefferson. Colorado is a symbol of the West, and Thomas Jefferson was the man whose sponsorship of the Lewis and Clark expedition did more than anything except the gold rushes to make the original eastern states aware of what lay on the road to the other ocean.
But at any rate, Colorado ended up with a name that has an authentic etymology, which is somewhat more than can be said of Idaho.