The Discovery of Lake Tahoe

Chief Truckee

When Mark Twain first set eyes on Lake Tahoe in 1861, he mused “… it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”

Twain can be forgiven if his remark barely captures the lake’s visually striking milieu of blue water, changeable sky and picturesque mountains. It’s a draw-dropping scene of natural beauty that never fails to rouse the spirit and often leave one speechless.

The soon-to-be famous American humorist and bestselling author was an avid Tahoe booster his whole life, but the young man from Missouri was certainly not the first to be impressed by Big Blue. For literally thousands of years, Lake Tahoe has inspired those fortunate enough to view its pristine waters and forested mountains.

For 400 generations, American Indians of the Washoe, Maidu and Paiute tribes foraged, fished and hunted the basin’s natural bounty. They took advantage of mild summer weather in the Sierra to collect edible and medicinal roots, seeds and plants. The town of Truckee is built on a traditional Indian campground and there is ample archeological evidence of Washoe villages dating back about 9,000 years in the region. The Washoe named the Truckee River “a’wakhu wa’t’a,” and they called Lake Tahoe “da’aw.”

Frémont meets native tribes
The region’s nomenclature changed dramatically in 1843-44 when topographical engineer Capt. John C. Frémont led a small band of men into present-day Western Nevada on a mapping mission of the geographical region that he later termed the Great Basin. Despite the rifles and military cannon in the Frémont expedition, the Paiute and Washoe natives were not afraid. They had occasionally seen Anglos passing through before, bearded men whom they believed were the Indians’ long-lost brothers.

Paiute tradition taught that at the beginning of time there were four children, two boys and two girls. One girl and one boy were dark skinned, the others white. For a time the siblings got along well, but soon they grew quarrelsome with each other. The ancestral father voiced his disapproval of their cruelty to each other and the children hung their heads in shame. Their behavior forced the father to separate the children by banishing the white children “across the mighty ocean.” Nevada Indians believed that there were only two races, their own (red/dark) and the whites. The tribe was quite startled the first time they saw black men, whose skin was darker than theirs.

A friendly Paiute Indian chief adopted the name “Truckee” after meeting Frémont in December 1843. The medicine man frequently used a word that sounded like “tro-kay” in his verbal communication with Anglos, a term that meant “everything will be ok.” A few years later, Chief Truckee was brevetted a captain in the U.S. Army while fighting with Frémont and the Americans in the war against Mexico. For the rest of his life he preferred to be called Cpt. Truckee.

In January 1844, the Frémont expedition came upon a deep lake in the desert. Frémont named it Pyramid due to the large angular rock near its eastern shore. This lake is the terminus of the Truckee River. In the stream feeding Pyramid Lake, Frémont observed abundant pink flesh fish and he named it the “Salmon-Trout River.” The name would be changed to Truckee River later in 1844 after Chief Truckee helped an emigrant wagon train reach Donner Pass. The Stephen’s Party was the first to bring wagons to the Pacific Coast and open the legendary California Trail.

Crossing the Sierra
Frémont and his band continued their journey south along the eastern Sierra where they came upon two more rivers emanating from the snow-covered mountains. Frémont named one of them “Carson” after his friend and guide, Kit. The second is known as the Walker River for Joseph Walker, a noted Western trailblazer.

In his journal, Frémont recorded a meeting with the Paiutes. “I told them that we had come from a very far country, having been traveling now nearly a year, and that we were desirous simply to go across the mountains [Sierra Nevada]. There were two who appeared particularly intelligent, one a somewhat old man [probably Chief Truckee]. He told me that due to snow it was impossible to cross the mountain. And showing us, as the others had done, that the snow was over our heads he urged us to follow the course of the [Truckee] river, which he said would conduct us to a lake [Tahoe], in which there were many large fish.

Despite the warnings of the Paiutes and deteriorating weather, Frémont decided to tackle the mountains in mid-winter. 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. I informed them that almost directly west and only about 75 miles distant, was the great farming establishment of Captain Sutter [present-day Sacramento].”

The men prepared for the mountain crossing by equipping themselves with leggings, moccasins and heavy clothing to resist the snow and cold. Frémont’s men were uncharacteristically silent, “for every one knew that the enterprise was hazardous and the issue doubtful.”

Their Indian guide shook his head in warning as he pointed to the icy peaks towering over their heads. Cartographer Charles Preuss wrote, “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, Frémont and Preuss climbed a nearby peak and “discovered” Lake Tahoe when they saw it from a long distance away. Frémont named it Lake Bonpland in honor of Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist. But for once, Frémont’s appellation didn’t stick, because in the 1850s the California legislature named the lake after the current governor John Bigler.

During the Civil War, Union sentiment among California’s citizens led them to reject calling the lake Bigler because the former governor was an outspoken secessionist. A movement was started to designate the Washoe Indian name “Tahoe” meaning “big water.” California did not restore the lake’s original Native American name until 1945 when it was officially renamed Lake Tahoe in honor of the first people to call it home.