NAMPA — Before Nampa was the largest city in Canyon County, filled with people and trees, it was a bare, desert area where the Oregon Short Line was building track.
Lynda Clark, a grant writer for the Nampa Economic Development Center, has studied Nampa history and wrote a book on the subject.
“There's a myth that the name Nampa came from a Shoshone tribe chief,” Clark said. “But really the name comes from the railroad track.”
Clark said that when the Oregon Short Line was building tracks through the area that is now Canyon County in 1883, the company would install full water towers. A water tower placed in the future site of the city had the word Nampa painted on its side.
“It was the Oregon Short Line at that point but it became Union Pacific,” Clark said. “From my understanding, as the railroad went along in southwestern Idaho they were using derivatives of Shoshone terms. Nampa was a water tower and there was no town here.”
The folklore behind the town of Nampa was the name came from a Shoshone chief who had an unusually large foot. The chief was named Nampuh and he led his tribe through the desert until modern day. In reality, the old tale was created by Fred Wilson, the original secretary of the Nampa Harvest Festival. When the Harvest Festival began in 1908 it became a popular success among farmers and townspeople who wanted to celebrate a successful harvest season.
According to documents from the Idaho State Historical Society, Wilson wrote to a fellow Nampa resident named Fred Mock about a publicity idea to bring more people to the festival.
“We have decided that a stunt, new and different than anything ever tried here, would be to seek out and find Chief Nam-Puh," Wilson wrote to Mock.
"Mock, played as Ogal Alla, Chief of the Nampah and Kunah Tribes, consented to do so and give the name of the Indian sought as 'War Chief, Big Foot Nampa!'" the historical society stated.
The “great war chief” attended the Harvest Festival in full regalia. A reception was held before his teepee one night of the festival, and he also rode in the parade. He even made a speech to the assembled crowd. He had become "the doughty warrior after whom this city was named."
Such a fanciful tale caught the imagination of most people who believed from then until the present time that the town had been named actually after an Shoshone chief, War Chief Big Foot Nampa.
While there was never a real Shoshone chief with extra large feet, the name Nampa may have derived from Shoshone words. According to the historical society, a man named F.G. Cottingham, a past Nampa resident, felt the need to research the word Nampa. In 1904 a Shoshone man told him the word Nampa meant moccasin. Cottingham started writing letters to Shoshone tribesmen in Idaho and Nevada in search for the real meaning behind the word Nampa. Cottingham wrote in an article for the Nampa Messenger, the town's newspaper, that the only conclusion the Native Americans could come up with is that the word Nampa sounded like the word namb, which means moccasin.
Then Cottingham received a letter from George Haggett, from Nevada, who said the local Shoshone tribes said the word might mean footprint.
“I asked quite a good many of the Indians here and some of the best informed of them say that it, the word, is of Shoshone origin, and primarily means 'footprints' as the imprint of the moccasin in the sand or earth,” Haggett stated in his letter. “Some use it as implying the moccasin or shoe, but this is probably a secondary use, or borrowed one, as we sometimes speak of the cause for the effect.”
Years later, historian Annie Laurie Bird, who has written multiple books about the history of Nampa and Canyon County, discovered that Shoshone men and women would stuff their moccasins with sage brush leaves in the winter to keep them warm. When they would stuff their shoes with leaves they would leave larger footprints than usual. In her books she writes the word Nampa does mean “big foot” but not because of an old Shoshone chief, but instead because of Shoshone practices while living the cold deserts of southern Idaho.
Alexander Duffes and his wife, Hannah, homesteaded on the site of the Nampa water tower and established the town in 1885. They took 160 acres of land with the goal of creating a town east of the Caldwell, which had become a large success. With the help of their friend James McGee, the Nampa Land and Improvement Company was formed. The company divided parts of the land into plots that could be purchased for construction or homesteading.
Clark said the Duffes were a religious family and dreamed of Nampa as a town with no saloon. Because of this he refused to sell any plot of land to people wishing to sell alcohol for business. This created a backlash, and the local paper in Caldwell, which later became the Idaho Press-Tribune, wrote in an editorial that Nampa was the “New Jerusalem.”
“It's ironic to me because most of the first businesses in Nampa ended up being saloons,” Clark said.
“The Nampa Progress,” Nampa’s first newspaper, lists 28 businesses in Nampa in June 1888. Three were saloons. Ironically, 21 years later, the Duffes home was moved, and a brewery built in its place.
Besides the great bar scene, many people homesteaded in the town of Nampa because the founders promised irrigation for farming. In 1890, the Phylliss Canal was created and brought irrigation to Nampa, Caldwell and surrounding areas. The next year the extension of the Ridenbaugh Canal was created. These canals opened up 150,000 to 300,000 of irrigated farmland around the original site of Nampa. On April 17, 1891, Nampa's first municipal government was formed, and the city of Nampa was incorporated. By 1900, the town of Nampa had 800 residents.
The city became more successful when the railroad was expanded, and more farmers found fertile ground to raise crops and cattle. The Harvest Festival was created which led to the Snake River Stampede. Today, the city is the largest in Canyon County, is home to almost 90,000 people and trains are still a large part of the city's landscape.
Clark said the location of original water tower the city was named after is unknown.