How the Snake River Got Its Name

Dave Hansen Whitewater by Dave Hansen Whitewater

The Snake River Doesn’t Have Snakes!

Have you ever wanted to take a rafting trip on the Snake River but you were scared because of the name of the river? Have no fear! As it turns out, the Snake does not actually have any snakes in it. Why, then, is it called the Snake? While some may think that the reason it is called the Snake is because its shape has many twists and winds similar to a snake, it is actually believed to have received its name from a Native American hand symbol.

Brief History of Names of the Snake River

Throughout the years, many explorers gave different names to the Snake. In 1800, David Thompson first recorded the Native American name of the Snake as Shawpatin. Next, Lewis and Clark gave the name Lewis River or Lewis Fork in 1805. Other American explorers’ records after Lewis and Clark show a variety of names associated with the river. Various stretches of the Snake have held at least fifteen different names throughout the years. These names include the Shawpatin River, Lewis River, Mad River, Shoshone River, and Saptin River. It wasn’t until the year 1912 that the United States Geographic Board made official the name, “The Snake River.”

The Snake River Got It’s Name From a Misinterpretation

Over 11,000 years ago, the Snake was a vital source of life for the Native Americans, specifically the Shoshones, that were living along the banks of the river. While they weren’t Snake River rafting as we are today, the Snake was very important to them primarily because of the salmon from the Pacific Ocean. The Snake was given its present day name when it was derived from an S-shaped hand sign made by the Native American tribe, the Shoshones. European explorers misinterpreted this hand sign representing swimming fish  as a snake. This hand sign is now thought to have truly meant, “the people who live near the river with many fish.”

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