Tahoe Historical Tour Tahoe Snapshot History


TAHOE NUGGET #238: LAKE TAHOE: WHAT’S IN A NAME? 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.


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.”

Known locally as “Big Blue,” Lake Tahoe never fails to impress. A lake of superlatives.

The region’s nomenclature changed dramatically in 1844 when Captain John C. Frémont led a small expedition into present day Western Nevada. Frémont 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 Frémont expedition, noted one of their first encounters with the tribe: “January 15, 1844. During a short day’s march we reached a deep lake [Frémont 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.]

In January 1844, Frémont and his men reached Pyramid Lake which the explorer named for obvious reasons. Today Pyramid Lake is the site of a Pauite Indian Reservation. Note the field artillary piece. The group lugged their trusty cannon along for months until they lost it in the deep snow near Walker Pass in February 1844.

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.”

There are no known photographs of Chief Truckee, but this is his son Chief Winnemucca.

After observing the abundant fish in the desert stream, Frémont called it “Salmon-Trout River.” The name would be changed to Truckee River later that same year after Chief Truckee helped the first immigrant wagon train (Stephens-Murphy-Townsend) in their epic overland crossing into California.

Captain Elisha Stephens successfully led the first wagons over Truckee’s Pass in the fall of 1844. Later the pass would be renamed after the 1847 Donner Party tragedy.

Frémont and his band continued their journey south, where they came upon two more streams emanating from the snow-covered mountains to the west. Frémont 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.

Christopher “Kit” Carson (left) with Capt. John C. Frémont. The two men explored much of the western United States together during a series of mapping expeditions from the Rockies to the Pacific Ocean.

Frémont 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.

In desperate need of supplies available at Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento), Frémont 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.”

Terminus of the Truckee River which drains Lake Tahoe, Pyramid Lake has a surface area almost as large as  Tahoe. Pyramid Lake is the largest remnant left over from the ancient Lake Lahontan, a huge inland sea that once covered much of Nevada and the Great Basin.  The lake is part of the Pyramid Lake Pauite Tribe’s reservation and is a productive fishery. Anglers flock to Pyramid Lake year-round to try their luck catching the world’s largest cutthroat trout that thrive here.

The men prepared for their Sierra crossing as best they could by dressing in leggings, along with moccasins and heavy clothing to resist the snow and cold. Frémont’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 February 14, 1844, while climbing an isolated peak, Preuss and Frémont “discovered” Lake Tahoe. Frémont named it Lake Bonpland in honor of Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist. But for once Frémont’s official appellation didn’t stick because in 1854, supporters of California’s third governor John Bigler named the lake for him.

Approximate view of Lake Tahoe from Red Lake Peak as seen by John Frémont and Charles Preuss on Valentine’s Day 1844. Although the expedition was reduced to eating mules, peas, and dog meat, all the men survived the trans-Sierra journey to Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley. Photo courtesy David Antonucci.

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” or “edge of the lake.”

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.




























By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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