The many names of the Humboldt River

“October 1st. The stream had already attained the size of which we supposed Mary’s river to be, and yet its course was due N.W. Distance 20 miles.”

Still in doubt about whether they had found Mary’s River or not, the company continued on.

Without the Humboldt River, the journey across the Great Basin would have been impossible, for Bidwell’s group or any subsequent travelers. By the time emigrants reached this point in their trek, their supplies, their animals, and their own bodies were exhausted. The river made it possible for them to traverse the harsh environment of the Great Basin.

Drawing the the Humboldt River Valley by 49er Daniel Jenks.

The Humboldt was known to Bidwell as Mary’s River. Before he came that way it had had other names, and by the time the Gold Rush came the name would change again.

This area of northern Nevada was sparsely inhabited by Paiute and Shoshone Indians,  What they called this river I don’t know. The first recorded sighting of the river was on November 9, 1828, by Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper for the Hudson Bay Company.  Ogden explored the river for several hundred miles, making the first known map of the region. He initially named the river “Unknown River”, since he had no idea where it came from or where it went, but later he named it “Paul’s River”, after one of his trappers who died on the expedition and was buried on the river bank.

Ogden later changed it again to “Mary’s River,” after his Native American wife, and this is the name that “Broken-Hand” Fitzpatrick used.  Ogden, who couldn’t seem to make up his mind, later suggested calling it “Swampy River,” because it ended in a marshy sink.

Evidently the explorers Benjamin Bonneville and Joseph Walker hadn’t got the word about any of these names, or else they just wanted to put their own mark on the map. When they came exploring in 1833 they called it “Barren River.”  Not content with this, Washington Irving, who made Bonneville famous with his book about the expedition, called it “Ogden’s River”, a name that was used by many early travelers. But at Fort Hall they hadn’t heard of Washington Irving, and still called it “Mary’s River.”

In 1845 the river was explored by the “Pathfinder”, John C. Fremont. By his day the explorations of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt were well-known to all.  Humboldt had never been anywhere near either the Humboldt River or Humboldt County on the northern California coast, but his explorations of South and Central America were famous, so Fremont must have thought it fitting to give his name to this river. It’s certainly better than “Swampy River” or “Barren River.” Although I must admit “Unknown River” has a certain appeal.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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