HOWARD HICKSON'S HISTORIES
[Index]

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 to drink. 
      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 away.
      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 his namesake.
      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, Reno, 1974.

©Copyright 2004 by Howard Hickson.

[Back to Hickson's Histories Index]