Spokane, Hillyard, Coeur d’Alene, Fairchild, Rathdrum – these are the words we use every day, sometimes every hour. They are place names, constituting the music of our region. But where did they come from? Most of us use them without knowing their meanings. So we decided to take a look – or should we say, a listen – to our place names with an ear toward the main categories: Indian names, biographical names, descriptive names, railroad names and idealized names, to name a few. In our search, we had help from the standard place-name reference books (see below) and also from Grant Smith, an English professor at Eastern Washington University and a nationally known authority on place names. Smith is the past president of the national Place Names Society and the vice president of the International Council of Onomastic Sciences, onomastics being a “big long word for how names function in language,” said Smith. Here’s a list of area place names, by category:
Names from Indian languages
Spokane: It comes from the answer given by a local Indian chief when early fur traders asked him his name: Ilm-wh S-pok-ah-ne, which was rendered by visitors as “Illim-Spokanee.” Ilm-wh meant chief, and S-pok-ah-ne means sun. (It’s actually more complex than that – see sidebar).
One surprising fact: This is the only name in Spokane proper to come from the local tribe’s tongue, said Smith.
Manito Park: Manito or Manitou is an Algonquin word meaning “nature spirits” and was given to the area by the land’s developers.
Camp Sekani: This Boy Scout camp near Spokane was given a name from a Canadian tribe, because the camp’s originator had just spent some time in Canada and liked the name.
Latah Creek: This is not the Spokane tribe’s name for the creek (that was more like “Sin-sin-too-ooley”). This was a word imported from the Nez Perce. (The creek is also called Hangman Creek, referring to the incident in which Col. George Wright hung seven Indians near its banks).
Chewelah: An Indian name referring to a small striped snake.
Tum Tum: From Chinook jargon, referring to spirit or heart (think of it like “thump-thump,” from a heartbeat).
Wellpinit: A Nez Perce word meaning “water gushing.”
Kaniksu: The Coeur d’Alene Indian word for “black robe” (i.e., Jesuit missionary).
Cheney: Named for Benjamin P. Cheney of Boston, a director of the Northern Pacific Railway. The town was renamed for him after he donated money and land for a college site.
Pullman: Named after George M. Pullman, president of the Pullman Car Co.
Hillyard: Named for James J. Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railway, with “yard” added because it contained rail yards.
Creston: So named because it was the highest point, or crest, on the Central Washington Railroad line.
Freeman: Named for Truman W. Freeman, telegraph operator for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul line.
Northport: Named because it was the most northerly U.S. town on the Spokane Falls and Northern Railway line.
Oakesdale: Named for Thomas F. Oakes, vice president of the Northern Pacific line.
Sprague: Named for Gen. John W. Sprague, a Northern Pacific director.
Starbuck: Named for Gen. W.H. Starbuck, a railroad financier.
Yardley: East Spokane neighborhood, so named because it contained the Northern Pacific’s rail yards.
Avery: Named for Avery Rockefeller, director of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul railroad.
Hope: Idaho town named for Dr. Hope, a veterinarian who worked for the Northern Pacific.
Names of prominent settlers
Dishman: Named for A.T. Dishman, who established a rock quarry there.
Liberty Lake: Named for Stephen Liberte, a French-Canadian guide and mountain man who settled on the lake in 1869.
Cusick: Named for Capt. Joe Cusick, early settler and pioneer riverboat skipper.
Dartford: Named for the Dart family, who owned an early sawmill in the area.
Davenport: Named for J.C. Davenport, who started a store close by. (This is the town, not the hotel, which was named for its owner, Louis Davenport).
Hunters: Named after James Hunter, the first settler in the area.
Peone Prairie: Named after Louis Peone, an early Hudson’s Bay Co. trader.
Ritzville: Named for early settler Philip Ritz.
Spangle: Named for early settler William Spangle.
Tiger: Tiny settlement on Pend Oreille River, named for early settler George Tiger.
Plummer: Named for Henry Plummer, who was not exactly a settler; he was an outlaw who had a hideout nearby.
Browne’s Addition: Named for J.J. Browne, pioneer who developed the neighborhood.
Wives and daughters’ names
Almira: Named after the wife of Charles C. Davis, an early merchant of the area.
Veradale: Named for Vera McDonald, daughter of the man who helped plat the townsite.
Rosalia: Named for the wife of the first postmaster, T.J. Favorite.
Ione: Named for Ione Stecker, daughter of an early settler.
“For wives and daughters, it’s most often the first name,” said Smith. “For guys, it was most often the last name.”
Indian Trail: So named because of an Indian trail that led down the river.
Indian Canyon: So named because it was a traditional camping spot for the Spokane tribe.
Airway Heights: Named because of its proximity to Geiger Field and Fairchild Air Force Base.
Medical Lake: So named because the lake was thought to have medicinal properties. It had a health spa and resort for many years.
Deer Park: Named for the many deer that wintered there.
Fishtrap Lake: Named for the fishing weirs that Indians operated in the lake.
Metaline Falls: So named because early prospectors thought the land was covered with valuable metals.
Newport: Named because of the “new” river landing built for sternwheelers.
Sandpoint: Comes from a David Thompson journal entry from 1809 mentioning a point of sand at that spot.
Names of tribute
Fairchild Air Force Base: Named in honor of Gen. Muir S. Fairchild, a World War I pilot and first secretary of the air staff.
Geiger Field: Named for Maj. Harold Geiger, a World War I pilot killed in a crash in 1927.
St. Joe River: Named by missionaries for Saint Joseph, later shortened colloquially to St. Joe.
Havermale Island: Named for the Rev. Samuel G. Havermale, Spokane’s first resident preacher.
Mead: Named for the Civil War’s Gen. George Meade (it somehow lost the final “e”).
Selkirk Mountains: Named for Sir Thomas Douglas, Fifth Earl of Selkirk, and a shareholder in the Hudson’s Bay Co.
Seltice: Named for Andrew Seltice, an influential Coeur d’Alene Indian chief (Saltese is also named after him).
Enaville: Named for Princess Ena, granddaughter of Queen Victoria and later Queen of Spain.
Harrison: Named for President Benjamin Harrison.
Names from the French
Coeur d’Alene: It means “heart of the awl,” or “needle-hearted,” and may refer to either the sharp trading practices of the local tribe or to the awl-like shape of the lake when seen on a map.
“I’ve heard both, and I lean more toward the shape on the map,” said Smith.
Pend Oreille: It means something like “hanging ears” and apparently refers to a supposed Indian habit of wearing heavy ornaments in their ear lobes (however, most local tribe members wore no such thing).
Grande Ronde River: Literally “great round,” it refers to the curved shape of the river’s course.
Palouse: Possibly from “la pelouse,” which translates roughly as “grassland country.” Another plausible theory has it from an Indian word, palus, which meant “something sticking down in the water.”
Cabinet Mountains: So named because of the recesses in the gorge walls.
Why so many French names in the region?
“Because of all the French trappers,” said Smith. “Also, the missionaries all had French roots.”
Wandermere: A poetic-sounding development name made by pairing wander with “mere,” meaning the sea. Probably a play on “Windermere,” a lake in England’s Lake District.
Opportunity: A name picked out by local citizens for its inspirational quality.
Named for other places
Usk: Named for the Usk River in Wales.
Athol: Named for the Atholl region of Scotland.
Avondale: Named for Avondale, Scotland.
Rathdrum: Named after the Irish birthplace of an elderly resident.
Odessa: Named by railway officials because so many of the settlers were Russian.
Naples: A town in Idaho named by Italian railroad workers after the Italian city.
Spion Kop: A group of peaks in North Idaho named for a hill in South Africa and site of a Boer War battlefield.
Tekoa: From a biblical name of a town in Judah, meaning “sound of trumpet” in Hebrew.
Names with stories behind them
Diamond Lake: So named by a hunter who found an ace of diamonds in the forest surrounding the lake.
Bottle Bay: (on Priest Lake) Named because some campers had a habit of stacking their bottles behind their cabin instead of throwing them away.
Millwood: A compromise, combining the names “Milltown” and “Woodard.” Woodard was the original name, from a local family, and Milltown was proposed later when a paper mill was built.
Fourth of July Pass: Named because Capt. John Mullan’s crew engraved the date July 4, 1861, in a tree nearby.
Eloika Lake: Not a local Indian name as most residents and reference books assume, according to Smith. He believes it actually combines El, a Hebrew word for God, combined with Oika, a Greek word for “place of,” thus, “place of God.” He speculates an early preacher gave it that name.
Hayden Lake: Two settlers were playing cards in a cabin and agreed to name the lake after the winner. Matt Heyden won (the spelling was later changed for some reason).
Tensed: Residents of this little Idaho town south of Plummer originally wanted to name it “DeSmet,” after the Jesuit missionary. However, another nearby community had already taken that name. So the residents decided to reverse the spelling to Temsed. A clerical error turned it into Tensed.
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