Utah Centennial Studies


What's In a Name: UTAH Packet A


Utah The Riddle behind the name
by Lynn Arave Deseret News staff writer
Deseret News July 10, 1994

What's in a name?

Plenty if you're talking about "Utah," because there's considerable disagreement in history and reference books regarding the original meaning of the name for America's 45th state. This is one topic where the record would best be set straight before the state's centennial in 1996.

Consult five different history books, and you'll likely receive five variations on the meaning of the word Utah.

Two of the more common meanings ascribed to the word are "top of the mountains" and "people of the mountains."

You'd think if anyone has the definitive answer on what the name Utah really means, it should be members of the Ute Indian Tribe. But according to Larry Cesspooch, public relations director for the audio/visual department of the Ute Tribe in Fort Duchesne, the Utes don't even have such a word in their language.

He said Utah - Anglicized from "Yuta" -- is what the Spanish called the Utes, and his research indicates it meant "meat eaters." Cesspooch has used this explanation in various public presentations, and he said he's never been challenged on it.

The Ute name for themselves as a people is "Noochee" -- meaning "the people," Cesspooch said.

Of the many books written about Ute Indians, few have come from tribe members themselves. However, Fred A Conetah, a Ute born in Fort Duchesne, wrote "A History of the Northern Ute People." His account agrees with Cesspooch that the Utes own name for themselves is "Noochee."

Conetah, who died in 1980, stated that Spanish writers also referred to the Utes as "Quasutas," a for of the word Yutas. This word apparently referred to all Indians who spoke a Shoshonean dialect.

One of the most recent books written on the subject -- "Utes, The Mountain People" -- was published by Jan Pettit in 1990. This book says Utah's name comes from the Ute word "Yutas," also said to mean "the people."

Pettit also uses the word "mountain" in the title of her book because, she says, the neighboring Pueblo Indians referred to the Utes as "the mountain people."

W.H. Jackson, a photographer on the U.S. Geological Survey expedition to Utah in 1877, recorded an interesting description of the Utes. He reported: "The Utah, Yutas or Utas, as the name is variously written, occupy the mountainous portion of Colorado with parts of Utah, New Mexico and Nevada. Those living in the mountains where game abounds have a fine physical development, are brave and hardy and comparatively well to do."

So where did the "top of the mountains" reference to the Utes name originate?

It is likely a "Mormonization" of Ute Tribe references to mountains and may have had its beginning in a verse in the Old Testament -- Isaiah 2:2:

"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it."

The completion of the Salt Lake Temple at least partially fulfilled that prophecy for many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It's also amazing how many Utah history books skim over the origin of the stat's name. Most provide ample detail of the meaning of Deseret -- the original name provided for the territory and state -- but usually provide only limited details about "Utah" itself.

Spanish spellings of the word Utah also vary considerably.

Here are a few of the published references to Utah and the Ute Indians -- none of which is entirely correct or complete: The "Utah Place Names" book by John W. Van Cott (1990) states only that the word Utah was taken from native Ute Indians. It includes information about the name "Deseret," but nothing else on the origins of the word "Utah."

  • "'Utes,' a term meaning 'upper people' or 'hill dwellers.' Early journals spelled the name a number of different ways, including Yuta, Eutaw, Utah, etc. Yuta was Anglicized to Utah." -- From a 1954 publication by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.
  • "The word 'Utah' means 'top of the mountains' and is derived from the Ute Indian language." --From a Utah tourist brochure dated June 1955.
  • "The word 'Utah originated with the people inhabiting that region..of the Utah nation, which belongs to the Shoshone family. There were many tribes...There were the Pah Utes...and many others. Pah signifies water. ...Pah Utes, Indians that live about the water." --from Hubert H. Bancroft's "History of Utah." published in 1964.
  • "Utah comes from the Ute tribe and means 'people of the mountains." --From the Information Please 1994 almanac.
  • "Utah -- from a Navajo word meaning upper, or higher up, as applied to a Shoshone tribe called Ute. Spanish form is Yutta. English is Uta or Utah." --From The 1979 World Almanac and Book of Facts.
  • "Ouray -- Chief of the Utes," a book by P. David Smith, refers to the Utes by a white man's nickname -- "The Blue Sky People." It spells the word "Yutahs" and states that the word refers to the Utes as people who speak clearly.
  • "People of the Shining Mountains," by Charles S. Marsh, is titled after the nickname the Utes had for their own territory. This book spells the original Utah word from the Spanish "yuutaa."
  • The book "American Indians of the Southwest," by Bertha P. Dutton, says the Utes called themselves "Nunt'z" a term that means "The people."
  • An article in the January 1928 Utah Historical Quarterly says "Utah" was originally spelled "Ute-ahs," "Uintas," or ""Wa-tue-weap-ah-ute-ah," is said to mean "lad or country of the Utes."
23 state names stem from words of Indians

Indian words are among the most popular sources for the naming of states -- at least 23 owe their names to such words.

Of course, American Indians already had pretty much everything named by the time the white explorers and settlers arrived on the continent, and so a lot of renaming took place.

As with the origin of Utah's name, Idaho's is in dispute. By one source, the name Idaho is a coined word with an invented Indian meaning '' "gem of the mountains." The name was supposedly originally given to Pike's Peak mining territory in Colorado, then applied to this newer mining area of the Pacific Northwest. Other sources claim there is no clear cut knowledge where Idaho's name comes from.

Utah Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona encompass may places and features named after the Utes, but Utah's state name is the most prominent of all. here are the brief origins of three other Western state names:

  • Montana is a latinized Spanish word for "mountainous."
  • The origin of the name "Oregon" is unknown, but it apparently came from the writings of English army officers.
  • "Nevada" is a Spanish term meaning "snowcapped."