Boisé or Woody (Boise), a distinctive name of French origin

Photo Mark Quasius

Hell Roaring Creek straddles the Idaho-Montana border at its source before flowing into the Read Rock River, a tributary of the Beaverhead River which, in turn, joins the Jefferson River, a tributary of the Missouri that feeds at its mouth the mighty Mississippi. This is the route the French took to reach the capital and most populous city of Idaho.

These waterways reaching into Idaho are part of the Mississippi Basin and, therefore, were part of Colonial French Louisiana. At that time, the Nez Perce, the Cœur d’Alene, the Pend d’Oreille, the Flathead and the Snake People were the predominant tribes of Idaho, an invented name that has no meaning in itself, contrary to Boise. On the other hand, Nez Perce is the name that French-Canadian fur traders, who visited the area regularly in the 18th century, gave to these people because some of them were wearing shell ornaments in pierced septums.

The predominant tribes of Idaho

The Schitsu’umsh, meaning “Inhabitants of this charming land” or “Those who live here”, were named Coeur d’Alene on account of the legend that the charming lake at the heart of their country was carved by the Creator using an awl, a finishing tool, to embellish the lake’s contour. National Geographic magazine recently described Lake Coeur d’Alene as one of the five most beautiful lakes in the world. The name “Pend d’Oreille” was given to these people because at the time of Colonial French Louisiana decorative earrings made of shell or bone were dangling from their ears.

Flathead family in Idaho

The Flathead people got their name because of the flat-headed hat proudly worn by some members of this native Nation. In 1805, Three-Eagles, or Tcleskaimi, who was their leader, met the Lewis and Clark exploration party. The two explorers expressly noted in their diary that the Flatheads resided in more than 450 huts and possessed about 500 horses.

The first written mention of the Snake People was that of Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye, originally from Trois-Rivières, Quebec, during a meeting he had with the Mandans in 1739 in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.

Later in time, English traders and American settlers adopted the French spellings(without the accent) for many of these Native American Nations of the Far West, including the Nez Perce tribe. These historical treasures show that for many Native Americans, French was the first European language they heard. This rich French heritage is for many U.S. citizens today a surprising discovery.

The city of trees

Boise, the “city of trees”

The trees of Boise are the city’s best distinct landmark and its most distinctive natural beauty. For visitors of modern times and those of yesteryears it is a wonderful wooded oasis. Its original French name, Boisé (Woody in English), was rightly given to it by French-Canadians in the 18th century because the place was covered with cottonwood trees providing relief to all travelers.

More than twenty communities in Idaho carry a French name, notably, Arbon, Blanchard, Bruneau, Culdesac, Dubois, Grandjean, Jacques, Labelle, Michaud, Montour, Paris and Payette.