The Owyhee. A cultural cornerstone in the heart of Boise


As a new day raises the morning haze of our mountain valleys, so this story begins with the earliest stirrings of European exploration in southwestern Idaho. With the beaver trap, a Polynesian chant, and the Hudson Bay Company, the first wave of a new era came to the isolated lower Snake River Valley.

With this vanguard arrived the name “Owyhee.” Surprisingly, “Owyhee” is English, its heritage is that of English exploration of the Pacific Basin and Captain Cook’s discovery of the Sandwich Islands in 1778. Those islands became a stopover point for food and water for English vessels searching out the West Coast of America. The name of the natives of the Sandwich Islands, who had only a spoken language, was originally rendered from phonetics into English as “Owyhee.”

Among early trappers in this area were the Owyhees from the Islands. The sketchy diaries of these old fur parties report that Donald Mackenzie, operating out of Fort Nez Perce in 1818 led a Snake Country expedition which included a number of the Owyhees. Arriving in what is now southwestern Idaho, he directed a group of three Owyhees to go off to the South to trap in unexplored watersheds of a large unnamed river. The three disappeared and were assumed killed by the Indians. The river where this happened was named the Owyhee River. Other Owyhees continued in this area, providing the main contingent of men in the late 1840′s in Old Fort Boise, located at the confluence of the Boise and Snake Rivers.

Look to the Southwest of Boise some forty miles, and there you will see the blue ridges of the Owyhee Mountains. There and in a vast territory extending far into Nevada rises the river bearing this name of destiny, named before there was an Oregon or Idaho Territory and before even England and Spain had renounced their claims to this area. There in a high mountain valley in the 1860′s developed fabulously rich Silver City, from whence came many of Boise’s earlier settlers.

This is the history of our name. The Islands Missionaries later revised the English translation for the limited phonetic language of the Sandwich Islands, changing its spelling  to “Hawaii.” Nowhere else does the old spelling survive except to designate the mountains and famous river of Southwestern Idaho and to commemorate the long forgotten opening of the Snake River Country. The Owyhee is proud to have derived its name from this earliest history of the Pacific Northwest.