By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current

Today’s article might be titled, “A Dozen Clues You’re Not From Montana.”

Newbies to the state quite often mispronounce one or more of the following place names or family names:

Olney, Pablo, Choteau, Havre, Worden, Ronan, Ravalli, Pondera, Helena, Meagher, Wibaux and Deschamps.

So newcomers – here’s your opportunity to never be mistaken for a clueless interloper in the Big Sky State!

Let’s start with “Worden.” It actually has two correct pronunciations, depending on whether you’re referring to the place or a family name.

Worden, the town in Yellowstone County (where my mother was raised on the Huntley Project), is pronounced WAR’-den. The town is said to be named “after Senator Joseph Dixon's wife's maiden name (or her father),” according to montanahistory.net.

Frank & Lucretia Worden
Frank & Lucretia Worden
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The famous Worden family name (in the Missoula area) is pronounced WORD’-en. Frank Worden was co-founder of the town of Missoula.

Among the most mispronounced place names in Montana is Olney. Many folks would probably guess OL (as in whole), but it’s actually AWL (as in haul): ALL’-nee.

Right up there with “Olney” would be “Meagher County.” Folks unfamiliar with the name tend to pronounce it just like Meager (inadequate, scanty, paltry). But in fact, it’s pronounced “MARR,” after Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader of the Irish Rebellion of 1848.

Thomas Francis Meagher
Thomas Francis Meagher
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The seditionist was sentenced to spend his life in Australia, but escaped and made his way to New York, then Montana, where he was “named Montana's Territorial Secretary of State by President Andrew Johnson, and served as acting territorial governor.”

His fascinating story is best told in Timothy Egan’s excellent book, “The Immortal Irishman.”

Moving on, Montana’s capital city, Helena, is sometimes pronounced as though it were Mount St. Helena in California (Hell-EE’-nuh). Sorry, but it’s just plain, old HELL’-en-uh.

The name Deschamps (pronounced DAY’-shaw) is a widely known in western Montana. The Deschamps were one of the earliest white families to settle there.

Pablo (PABB’-low) is one of many places named after indigenous people. Michel Pablo served as an interpreter for white ranchers moving into the area near Flathead Lake. He is most remembered as the man who saved the native bison of the region.

Choteau (northwest of Great Falls) is named after a prominent family of fur traders from Missouri. The family earlier had founded the city of St. Louis. The original family name was spelled Chouteau (with an extra “u”). The name is pronounced, SHOW’-tow. The family name's original spelling is preserved in the Montana County of Chouteau.

Havre (pronounced HAVE’-ur), as best we can determine, is named after the French seaport city of Le Havre. But its original name was “Bullhook Bottoms.” I actually like that name better – but my vote doesn’t count.

Anyway, when the Great Northern Railway laid tracks through the area, they gave the locals the opportunity to name the spot. Through a series of meetings, they decided to honor Simon Pepin, a French-Canadian who emigrated to Montana in 1863, and gave the spot a French name.

Now we come to Ronan (commonly mispronounced as ROW’-nun). It’s actually row-NANN.’ The place was originally called Spring Creek but was later changed to honor Major Peter Ronan, the Flathead Indian reservation agent (1877-1893).

Sketch of Major Peter Ronan ca 1920s
Sketch of Major Peter Ronan ca 1920s
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Ravalli County, the location of the first white settlement in Montana (Stevensville), and the town of Ravalli, north of Missoula, are both named for Jesuit priest Father Anthony Ravalli, who came to western Montana in 1845. Don’t say ruh-VOLL’-ee, say: ruh-VALL’-ee.

I can’t tell you how many people tend to pronounce Pondera, Ponn-DARE’-uh, but it’s a lot. The proper pronunciation is the same as Idaho’s large panhandle lake, Pend d’Orielle: Pond-err-AY.’

Then there’s Wibaux. Yes, it’s French, but it’s not pronounced Vee-BOW.’ And it’s not French for a wee box! It’s pronounced WEE’-bow, after Pierre Wibaux, a Frenchman who immigrated to the U.S. in 1883.

Finally, I’m almost afraid to tell you about Teton County, but here goes:

Yes, it’s actually named for the French word meaning nipple, or teet. It’s pronounced TEE’-tawn – not, TEET’-uhn.

There you have it, newcomers. You’ll never be mistaken for a clueless interloper in the Big Sky State.

Unless, of course, I have erred in some way (an event that, I’m certain, has never happened in my lifetime) – making me the clueless interloper!

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at fuzzyfossil187@gmail.com. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.

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