How Idaho got its name and became the nation's 43rd state - East Idaho News

How Idaho got its name and became the nation’s 43rd state

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Editor’s note: Portions of this article were originally published on July 3, 2021. It has been updated with new information.

IDAHO FALLS – Idaho had been a territory for nearly 30 years when President Benjamin Harrison officially made it the nation’s 43rd state on July 3, 1890. He later paid a visit to the Gem State and planted a tree at the Statehouse in Boise.

This year marks 132 years since Idaho’s inauguration into statehood.

Since becoming a territory on March 4, 1863, it has grown from a fledgling state of roughly 88,000 people to the second-highest growing state in the nation. Idaho’s population grew 2.9% from 2020 to 2021, according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, bringing its current population to about 1.9 million.

The road to statehood

Information on display at the Museum of Idaho indicates Idaho’s road to statehood was a long-fought battle and was apparently a divisive issue.

“For years, tensions mounted between the northern and southern parts of the territory. Many times, the northern panhandle tried to break away and at one point, Nevada even tried to claim part of Idaho,” the Museum of Idaho reports.

Twenty-seven years before when the U.S. was in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln officially created the Idaho territory. The prospect of making more space for the transcontinental railroad was an attractive idea to Lincoln, along with the area’s abundance of mineral deposits and natural resources. Idaho has 72 types of precious and semi-precious stones, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. This is how Idaho got nicknamed the Gem State.

Museum displays do not specifically state why statehood was such a divisive issue, but its natural resources and geographic features likely had something to do with it.

In an interview with KTVB in 2020, retired Idaho State Historian Keith Petersen elaborated on the conflict in the northern and southern part of the state and all that was happening in the Idaho territory at that time.

“Nevada was making a play to annex much of southern Idaho,” Petersen said. “The most serious action came in 1887 when both houses of the United States Congress passed a bill which would have allowed the Idaho panhandle to secede from Idaho and join Washington, but President Grover Cleveland refused to sign it so it was pocket-vetoed.”

The movement for statehood gained a lot of momentum the following year.

Petersen explains there were a growing number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settling in the territory. Latter-day Saints voted primarily Democrat in those days because Democratic presidents were the most sympathetic to the church’s views on polygamy. (Church leaders later abolished the practice of polygamy in 1890).

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Cleveland was a Democrat and so there was widespread support for him among church members, who turned out in large numbers at the ballot. Cleveland ended up winning as a result.

The Republicans’ attitude toward Latter-day Saints was not as sympathetic. In the next election cycle, the GOP launched a measure called the Idaho Test Oath which barred church members from voting, holding public office or serving on a jury, according to

The measure “disenfranchised all Mormon voters,” according to Petersen, and led to a Republican victory in both houses of the United States Congress. This was the beginning of the state’s dominance in conservative politics.

“The Idaho Republican Party had strong allies in Washington, D.C. suddenly. All of a sudden, the idea of Idaho perhaps becoming a state gained great momentum,” Petersen explained.

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The Republican-elected President Benjamin Harrison was sworn into office on March 4, 1889 and signed Idaho into statehood more than a year later. In 2014, the Idaho Legislature established March 4 as Idaho Day to commemorate the creation of the territory in 1863.

map of idaho
Courtesy Idaho State Historical Society via KTVB

How did Idaho get its name?

There seems to be some confusion on how Idaho got its name. Some believe that “Idaho” was the name of an Indian chief living in the territory at that time, but that’s not true.

According to the Museum of Idaho, a local leader living in the area said “Idaho” was an Indian word that meant “gem of the mountains,” and suggested that’s what they call it.

“Shortly after Congress voted on the name, they found out that this wasn’t, in fact, a native word, but was just made up. In the meantime, the name ‘Idaho’ was cropping up in a few places in this territory, namely in the mountainous mining regions. People still believed the name meant ‘gem of the mountains,’ and with the abundant natural resources available in the mountains, the name stuck … even if it really is just a made-up name,” a museum exhibit reads.

The fight for Idaho’s borders continues

In recent years, a grassroots movement to move Oregon’s mostly rural eastern and southern counties into Idaho has gotten a lot of attention.

The inspiration for the bill, as stated by its sponsor, Mike McCarter, is because they believe they’d be better served in Idaho’s more conservative political environment.

“We don’t want to change anything about Idaho at all, we like what they’re doing, we like the way that they are. But we’re a group of pretty conservative people in rural Oregon and we just want to maintain those conservative values if we can,” McCarter told KIVI in 2021.

RELATED | Handful of Oregon counties vote to consider move into Idaho

To date, nine eastern Oregon counties have voted in support of considering becoming part of Idaho. Matt McCaw, a member of the movement’s leadership team, tells all or portions of another eight counties are expected to vote on the measure sometime this year.

oregon counties map
Map showing Oregon counties that have voted in favor of joining Idaho and counties that will vote next on the issue. |

Once it’s approved in Oregon, Idaho voters would have to approve it and apparently more Idahoans are in favor of the measure than those who are opposed to it. McCaw cites an Oct. 2021 poll which determined 51% of participants supported it.

And McCaw says several Idaho lawmakers have expressed support for the idea, saying they are “willing to work towards making this happen.”

A plan is in the works to get members of both state legislatures to draft a joint memorial to move the discussion forward.

“We’re meeting with legislators all the time on both sides of the border to talk about how we can make this happen,” says McCaw.

If both states reach an agreement, the measure would have to pass the Idaho Legislature. If approved, it will then head to the U.S. Congress where it will need to be approved in both the House of Representatives and Senate before any changes would be made.

Though it’s an uphill battle, McCaw is optimistic that eastern Oregon will one day be joined with Idaho.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was possible for this to happen. I think it’s a great solution to a longstanding problem that will strengthen both states, but more importantly, when we put this idea in front of voters, they thought it was a great solution,” he says.


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