Place-Name Problem

By Eilene Lyon

If you’re a historian or genealogist working with original stories, you may have encountered this problem. The writer mentions a geographic place name, and try as you might, you can’t find it on a map — anywhere.

This happened to me yesterday. I’m reconciling various accounts of events leading up to the Idaho gold rush. One participant mentions being chased by the Nez Perce to a place called “Double Canyon.” It was clearly between present-day Lewiston, Idaho, and Walla Walla, Washington.

I checked the USGS Board of Geographic Names for Double Canyon, but nothing came up anywhere near Idaho or Washington. A Google search came up with a winery in Washington State – also nowhere near Walla Walla. Stumped, I am. Strike one!

Next, I read through an edited version of Elias D. Pierce’s account of an event that took place several months after the Indian chase. He says his prospecting team gathered “at the mouth of two canyons.” Ah ha! thinks I. “Two canyons” equals “Double canyon.”

Back to my USGS and Google searches. Nothing, again. Strike two!

My third reading selection was an article in Idaho Yesterdays magazine from the early 1960s. The author, Ralph Burcham, Jr., wrote unpublished Master’s and PhD theses about Elias D. Pierce. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but his work is none-the-less valuable to my research for Pierce’s biography.

His article is also an edited version of Pierce’s memoir as above, excerpted from the portion about starting the gold rush. Burcham’s version reads, “… we moved out to the mouth of the Tucannon.” Home run, Ralph!

Tucannon is a river in exactly the right area. The word is Nez Perce for “digging” and has nothing to do with canyons, or quantities thereof.

Clearly Pierce thought of the name phonetically, and perhaps concluded it meant two canyons. The other participant heard “two canyons” and many years later it came out of his memory as “Double Canyon.” It’s difficult to work the problem backwards:


The other way is a little easier to figure out:


If you’re having trouble finding a geographic place, look for other mentions by different people. You might eventually find a phonetic connection that then became misinterpreted as something different entirely. (Think of some of those crazy misheard song lyrics!)

(You may have noticed Tucannon River on the map above and think I should have figured it out a little quicker. Then again, I did look at a map showing much more detail, but I was totally focused on trying to find Double Canyon.)

26 thoughts on “Place-Name Problem

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  1. Fascinating Eilene, I was just watching “Highwaymen” on Netflix, about the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde…it’s ok…two good performances by the leads and not as sloppy as some of the Netflix stuff,the era reminded me of some of the content of your posts…not sure how authentic the representation of the period is, would be interested in hearing your opinion…JIM


  2. Eilene,

    You ‘traveled’ a looonnggg way to get there, good on you. I never stop to think of such challenges when reading about different historical events and the places in which they occurred, but wow!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. There’s a little town in OH called Red Lion. I cannot find anything about its history even though there’s an old Methodist church in the middle of it. I can’t remember the exact date on the church but it’s from the 1800s so I figure this little town has a history. This is total curiosity btw, nothing genealogical.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have been a victim of the same problem for years. Like you, I have tried to broaden my perspective rather than pin-point it. Especially here in Italy, I have found many, many different spelling for the same place, name or event do to linguistic differences hereabouts. You did a great job!

    Liked by 2 people

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