Idaho, the Gem of the Mountains. The name of our 43rd state… and almost the name of the 38th.
Discovery of gold at Pike’s Peak had triggered a surge of people moving to the area, and the residents had quickly assembled a constitutional convention and passed a simple state constitution. They elected a delegate to Washington D.C. to argue for recognition by Congress. They also chose a name for their proposed new state. Jefferson.
The delegate’s name was George M. Willing, and he was ready to argue for Jefferson. There were only two problems. First, the Congress was controlled by Republicans, and Jefferson was considered one of the Democrats’ greatest heroes. Second, he wasn’t exactly elected fairly.
As evidence of vote fraud emerged, a second delegate was sent, B.D. Williams. Despite Willing’s presence in D.C., Williams was the person who argued for recognition from the Congress… and got nowhere with the name. “Jefferson” was dead on arrival. Scrambling for an alternative, Williams offered “Idaho”, a Native American word meaning “Gem of the Mountains”.
After some wrangling, a previously proposed bill for a Colorado territory was modified to define the boundaries of the soon-to-be-state, Idaho.
This name was accepted… until Senator Joseph Lane of Oregon spoke. He rejected the name Idaho because he did not believe it had originated with any “Indian” tribe. The objection did not win the day, and Idaho was set to be adopted as a new territory (and eventually the 38th state.)
Williams, the man who had proposed the Idaho name, however, became concerned. He asked the person who had suggested Idaho to him… the other prominent resident who happened to be in D.C. at the time, George M. Willing… what tribal language used “idaho”.
And that’s when he discovered that Willing had played a practical joke on him and handed Williams a completely made-up word.
Williams, horrified, hurried back to Congress and petitioned them to change the name. Without any viable alternatives, it was shifted to become “Colorado”, the name for the other proposed territory whose bill had been modified.
Not Jefferson, not Idaho, but Colorado. And the Idaho joke avoided becoming a potential national humiliation, especially after the territory was granted statehood in 1876.
A few years after the confusion, though, a name was needed for another proposed territory. Someone who had remembered the previous name had almost passed… but apparently didn’t remember why it had been scuttled in the final minutes… proposed that famous Indian word “Idaho” again. This time, with none of the key players from 1860 around, the name stuck, eventually becoming a state in 1890. And, in so doing, cementing the state name as one of the most successful pranks of all time.
Question of the night: What’s a prank you’ve been involved with?