How Many Names?
Nevada's Longest River (1827 - 1845)
Almost three hundred miles long, the
Humboldt River was a major part of the trail when thousands of hardy souls
made the tough journey following their dreams to striking it rich in California.
An unusual river imprisoned in the Great Basin, it begins with barely drinkable
water from the mountains in Elko County. By the time it empties into the
Humboldt Sink west of Lovelock it has taken on so much alkali it is awful
Mark Twain wrote in Roughing It, that
people feel disappointed standing on the banks of the Humboldt. It is just
a sickly rivulet compared to rivers back east. Twain commented that one
of the pleasantest [sic] and most invigorating exercises one can contrive
is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till he is overheated, and
then drink it dry.
Humboldt is its name today but there
for awhile no one really knew what to call it. It is certain that area
Indians called it something but that name is lost in the past.
Around 1827, Peter Skene Ogden, Chief Trader of the Hudson's Bay Company,
led a band of fur trappers into northern Nevada. He wrote in his journal
that it was the Unknown River. Joseph Paul, one of the trappers, died on
December 18, 1828 and was buried on the banks of the river. Now it was
called Paul's River. During the time Ogden was in the area, the river is
also referred to as Mary's River.
Mary was Ogden's Indian wife. She has
been compared to Sacajawea of Lewis and Clark fame. She guided Ogden's
trappers along the Snake River to the Humboldt headwaters. Once, when Ogden's
fur laden horses were stolen by nearby trappers (her baby was strapped
to one of animals), she jumped on her horse and galloped to the thieves'
camp where she grabbed her child and one of the pack animals then rode
Some people referred to the river as
Ogden's. In 1829 Ogden noted it as the Swampy River. Guess he just couldn't
make up his mind. Then Joseph Walker came through the area and renamed
it the Barren River.
Finally, around 1845, explorer John Charles Fremont decided to name the
river after Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
The Baron, a German naturalist, traveler and statesman, never saw the river
named for him. He probably would not have been impressed if he had visited
Six names and 18 years passed before
the river took on its How Many Names?
present name. We are blessed that Fremont didn't put von Humboldt's whole
name on his map.
Sources: Pioneer Nevada I, Harold's Club, Reno,
1951; Nevada Atlas and Gazetteer, DeLorme, Freeport, Maine, 1996;
Nevada Place Names, Helen S. Carlson, University of Nevada Press,
©Copyright 2004 by Howard Hickson.
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