The Snake River has been a resource for people for thousands of years. First, for Native Americans, particularly, the Shoshones, who lived along and regularly fished the river for hundreds of years. Then, in the 1800s European explorers arrived and other settlers began to inhabit areas along the river’s path. Present day, the river is still a spawning ground for Salmon and is regularly used for recreational fishing. It’s also a water resource for farming, used as a shipping route, recreational boating, and hydroelectric power from dams.  Ice Harbor Dam Dedication May 9, 1962

How did the Snake River get its name?

The river had various names throughout the 1800s, in fact, 15 different names, including the Shawpatin River, Lewis River (Lewis & Clark), Saptin River, Mad River, and Shoshone River. It officially became the Snake River in 1912 when the United States Geographic Board made it so. The story of how the USGB came to that decision came down to a language barrier.


The Snake River would likely have a different name if it wasn’t for this simple misinterpretation.

In the early 1800s, explorers from Europe, who were in direct contact with the Shoshone tribe, misinterpreted Shoshone sign language. The Shoshone people described the river using an “S” shape swimming motion with their hands. The explorers interpreted this motion as a snake, not realizing what they really meant was a “river of many fish” or Salmon. Another version from Wikipedia, says, “the sign language used by the Shoshones representing weaving baskets was misinterpreted to represent a snake”.  The Basket River? The Weaving River? The Salmon River?

Should the Snake River’s name be changed?

Getty-Canva Shoshone Falls, Idaho

No, the name shouldn’t be changed, and thank goodness there is no one proposing a name change because the story of how it became known as the Snake River is quite a tale.

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