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How the Owyhees were named after 3 Hawaiian fur trappers

The men were left to set up traps in the summer of 1818 but were never found. Soon after, other fur trappers started calling the area the "Owyhees."

OWYHEE COUNTY, Idaho — First organized and named in 1863, Owyhee County is the Gem State's oldest county. It shares its name with the Owyhee River, Owyhee Mountains and the Owyhee Cayonlands.

Owyhee is the old phonetic and white-man way to say and spell Hawai'i. While the Hawai'ian Islands and the Gem State are a little more than 2,800 miles apart, their histories cross paths thanks to Canadian fur trader John Cook and the idea that having a Hawaiian in their hunting party would make it easier to interact with Native Americans.

Eriks Garsvo, the director of the Owyhee County Historical Museum, explained to The 208 that in the early 1800s, the North West Fur Company out of Canada went searching for workers from a place Captain James Cook called "Owyhee."

Around 1818, Garsvo explained, Donald MacKenzie, who was working for the company, led an expedition that included three Hawaiian men through the Pacific Northwest.

"They came into the rugged frontier here so they really forged up the Columbia River and got all the way up to this border of Idaho-Oregon area," Garsvo said.

MacKenzie then split up his expedition and kept the Hawaiian men together to go set up traps that summer. He wrote about the decision in his journal.

"And his quote is 'three Owyhees,' spelled the way we spell it, Owyhee, 'went along a small river to trap where no danger was seen,'" Garsvo read and explained. "Probably a year later they were supposed to reconvene with MacKenzie and they never did. And they located the camp along the small river where they were camping but they were nowhere to be found."

It didn't take long before others in the region started calling it by what we know it as today.

"And by at least 1820, 1821 maps and other fur traders were already using the name 'Owyhee River' and they were writing it on maps, so that little river started bearing the name of the lost Hawaiians right away and it has never changed," he said.

Some have speculated that it could have been Native Americans and not native Hawaiians but it has never been proven.

Before the county got its name, the Owyhee River was first named, followed by the mountains. A stage stop in Ada County once bore its name too.

Garsvo added that the Snake River wasn't always named that but the Owyhees have only had one name.

"They got lost but we didn't forget them," Garsvo said.

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