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An old cabin is seen in 2015 on Shoofly Creek in Owyhee County.

Editor’s note: This column previously ran Feb. 7, 2013, in the Times-News and at

The first county in Idaho was named for the last state in the nation.

Doubt it? Say “Hawaii” out loud; now say it again, this time without pronouncing the “H.”

The Hawaiian Islands were discovered in 1777 by British Capt. James Cook. Cook named Hawaii the “Sandwich Islands” after the Earl of Sandwich, but the name didn’t stick.

After Cook left Hawaii, he explored and mapped the northern Pacific coastline to the Bering Strait, looking for the famed “Northwest Passage” that would connect the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in the Arctic. Failing to find the Northwest Passage, Cook returned to Hawaii, where he was killed by natives in 1779.

From then until the Panama Canal was completed, Hawaii was a regular stop for trade ships that sailed around Cape Horn. In the years after Cook’s death, many Hawaiians boarded ships as crew members or fur trappers.

The fur trade with China was huge at the turn of the 19th century. John Jacob Astor — the richest man in America at the time — wanted to capitalize on the fur industry in the Pacific Northwest, but there were no ports along its coast. Astor thought that he could gain control over the fur trade by establishing a fort at the mouth of the Columbia River. In 1810, Astor hired Wilson Price Hunt to lead an expedition over uncharted territory west of St. Louis to Ft. Astoria.

In 1811, Hunt and his group were the first known Euro-Americans to travel through what would become southern Idaho.

Astor’s ownership of Ft. Astoria was short-lived. During the War of 1812, Astor sold the fort to the British-owned North West Co., and Ft. Astoria then became Ft. George.

Donald Mackenzie, one of the explorers in the Hunt party, returned to Idaho in 1818 with a group of fur trappers that included three natives from Hawaii — or Owyhee, the early phonetic spelling of Hawaii. The three Hawaiians left Mackenzie’s group during the winter of 1819-20 and disappeared into the mountains, never to be seen again.

The fate of the men is not known, but many historians assume they were killed by Indians.

The area where the Hawaiians disappeared became known as “Owyhee.”

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Mychel Matthews reports on rural issues for the Times-News. The Hidden History feature runs every Thursday in the Times-News and at

If you have a question about something that may have historical significance, email Matthews at or call her at 208-735-3233.


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