TAHOE — For generations, Lake Tahoe has inspired untold numbers of people fortunate enough to view its pristine waters and forest-cloaked mountains. For countless summers, American Indians of the Washoe, Maidu, and Paiute tribes foraged, fished and hunted the region's natural bounty.
Their ancestors, prehistoric nomadic tribes who spent their winters in the high desert and California valleys, also took advantage of the mild alpine summers in the Sierra Nevada to collect edible and medicinal roots, seeds and marsh plants. In the Truckee area, there is archeological evidence of Washoe villages dating back at least 8,000 years. The Washoe had named the Truckee River “a'wakhu wa't'a,” and they called Lake Tahoe “da'aw.”
The region's nomenclature changed dramatically in 1844 when Captain John C. Fremont led a small expedition into present-day Western Nevada. Fremont had earlier surveyed the Rocky Mountains, but this was his first mapping mission of the geographical region he later named the “Great Basin.” The Paiute chief Truckee was certain that the Anglo-Americans were the tribe's ancestral white brothers and he greeted them warmly. In his journal, Charles Preuss, a European cartographer with the Fremont expedition, noted one of their first encounters with the tribe: “January 15, 1844. During a short day's march we reached a deep lake [Fremont named it Pyramid for the giant pyramid-shaped rock near its eastern shore], but do not yet know whether it is Mary's Lake or not.” [Mary's Lake was the name for the end of the Humboldt River. Pyramid Lake is the terminus of the Truckee River.] Preuss continued: “The lake has no outlet, but a small river flows into it. Near where we are camping, the river is swarming with magnificent salmon-trout. We traded a few trinkets for a whole load of fish from the Indians and I almost ate myself into oblivion. The winter is rather mild here, if only the wind would not blow so often.” After observing the abundant fish in the desert stream, Fremont called it “Salmon-Trout River.” The name would be changed to Truckee River later that same year after the chief helped the first immigrant wagon train (Stephens-Murphy-Townsend) in their epic overland crossing into California.
Fremont and his band continued their journey south, where they came upon two more streams emanating from the snow-covered mountains. Fremont named the first one “Carson” after his friend and guide Christopher “Kit” Carson. The third and most southern of the rivers was named for Joseph Walker, a noted mountain man accompanying this expedition. He blazed Walker Pass in the southern Sierra, the first snow-free route to the Pacific Ocean. Fremont spoke to the Indians about reaching California. One of the tribal elders told him that “before the snows fell it was six sleeps to the place where the whites lived, but that now it was impossible to cross the mountain on account of the deep snow. And showing us that it was over our heads, he urged us strongly to follow the course of the river [Carson], which he said would conduct us to a lake [Tahoe], in which there were many large fish.”
In desperate need of supplies, Fremont decided to tackle the mountains despite the warnings. He wrote: “In the morning I acquainted the men with my decision, and explained to them of the beautiful valley of the Sacramento, with which they were familiar from the descriptions of Kit Carson, who had been there some 15 years ago, and who had delighted us in speaking of its rich pastures and abounding game. Carson drew a vivid contrast between the summer climate less than 100 miles distant, and the falling snow around us.”
The men prepared as best they could by dressing in leggings, along with moccasins and heavy clothing to resist the snow and cold. Fremont's men were uncharacteristically silent, but they pushed on using large wooden mallets to break the snowpack's crust. Pruess complained, “This surpasses all the hardships that I have experienced until now. Here all we have is a buffalo hide on the snow as our bed.” On Feb. 14, 1844, while climbing an isolated peak, Preuss and Fremont “discovered” Lake Tahoe. Fremont named it Lake Bonpland in honor of Aime Bonpland, a French botanist. But for once Fremont's official appellation didn't stick because in 1854, supporters of California's governor John Bigler named the lake for him. During the Civil War, Union sentiment objected to calling the lake Bigler because the former governor was an outspoken secessionist, and a political movement was started to designate the phonetically-sounding Washoe name, “Tahoe” meaning “water in a high place.” California did not restore the lake's original Native American name until 1945, when the State legislature officially renamed it Lake Tahoe in honor of the first “Americans” to call it home.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and photographer. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. Follow Mark's blog at www.tahoenuggets.com