What's in a Name?

by Director-Curator Meg Davis

(This article first appeared The Village Chronicles, The Gem County Historical Society periodical, Winter, 2006.)

Thomas D. Cahalan was born in Ireland in 1841. His family immigrated to the United States in 1849, when Tom was eight years old. As seems typical of many of many immigrant families, the Cahalans moved a number of times before finally settling in Iowa. Thomas received his education in Iowa and Illinois. He taught school and studied law in Independence, Missouri - The Gateway to the West.

When the War between the States commenced, Thomas joined the Confederate Army. In 1862 Thomas and Ester "Hettie" Walter Baker were wed, but by 1863 Thomas was a prisoner of war at Sedalla, Missouri. A year later he was paroled from prison to continue teaching and reading law in Missouri. At least one of Tom's brothers fought on the Union side.

May 3, 1863, Emmett Lee Cahalan was born in Edina, Missouri. Emmett was named for his father's two heroes - Irish insurrectionist, Robert Emmett, and Robert E. Lee. By the summer of 1864 the Cahalan family was on the Overland Road bound for the West with an oxen-pulled wagon.

The story is told that one-and-a-half year old Emmett won the attention of a band of Indians who attempted to trade a number of horses for the boy so they could make a chieftain of him. The negotiations failed.

By that fall the Cahalans pulled into Martin's Ferry (end of North Wardwell Ave.). Eventually they crossed back to the south side of the river and settled 160 acres, seven miles below Martinsville, on the Payette River Ranch -- the "Old Kesgard Place." Thomas was appointed postmaster in 1868 so the post office at Martin's Ferry was moved to the ranch.

When Territorial Delegate to Congress E. D. Holbrook was visiting Tom at the ranch one day, the question came up of naming the new town that was to grow around the new post office. Mr. Holbrook suggested naming it for Cahalan's son, Emmett. Then and there the place was christened Emmettsville.

In 1885 postal authorities dropped the "ville." To quote Mr. Cahalan, "The government ran short of ink in writing the name." Actually, the postal authorites kept confusing Emmettsville, Idaho with Emmettsville, Iowa. Last year I received a call at the museum. A lady on the other end of the line thought the museum was in Emmett, Iowa. So much for ending the confusion!

By 1869 the Cahalan family moved to Boise City. Tom said he "had it mind to be a farmer, but when I investigated matter I decided that I did not have sense enough to make a successful farmer." He became a lawyer in high esteem, held several political offices in Ada County, served on the school board and was a territorial delegate. Thomas D. Cahalan was laid to rest in Boise in 1918. Hettie had died in 1910.

The post office moved several times before it settled, at last, at Martinsville, carrying its name with it. By 1871 Martinsville became Emmettsville, with Nathaniel Martin serving as postmaster.

Not much is known of Emmett's life. We do know he was reared and educated in Boise, and practiced law there. He married Miss Ella Chamberlain - also a pioneer. Ella, with her parents, had made the long voyage around Cape Horn to the Pacific Coast.

We know that Emmett did visit the town of Emmett with his father once or twice when his brother James lived on the Bench. Emmett moved his family to Bruneau about 1920 to be a cattle ranch and for some time he was Justice of the Peace for Owyhee County.

Emmett Lee Cahalan died November 2, 1935, at the age of 74, in Brunau. He was buried near his parents. His wife, three sons and four daughters all survived Emmett.

At least every year or so a descendent of the Cahalan family comes to the museum to share information about their family and to see the town named for one of their ancestors.


Cahalan family file and Emmett Index articles in Gem County Historical Village Museum files.

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