History, politics influence naming of Lake Tahoe, Part I

Ex-governor John Bigler, circa 1879. | Wikimeda Commons

The Washo are the Indigenous Native Americans who have lived at Lake Tahoe for thousands of years. Since the last glaciers receded, the Tahoe Basin has been the spiritual center of this peaceful society that revered bountiful dá’ aw aga for the game, fish, berries, seeds and medicinal plants it provided.

The tribe spent their time in Tahoe and the surrounding area, leaving only when deep snow drove them out each winter, down into the high desert of present-day western Nevada. It was the encroachment of outsiders who exploited the natural resources of the region and forced the Washo from their beloved ancestral home.


But once the name Tahoe, a mispronunciation of dá’ aw, was politicized in the mid-1850s, it became a quarrelsome issue for Californians and Nevadans.

Washo is derived from the ancient name Washiw, later Wa She Shu, (plural), which means “the people.” According to “California Place Names,” a geographical dictionary written by Erwin G. Gudde, dá’ aw is the root word for lake, pronounced with a ‘t’ sound for the “d” and a glottal stop between the two letter pairings. Dá’ aw aga refers to Lake Tahoe specifically, but after contact with European-descent interlopers in the 1840s, and especially during the California Gold Rush, a plethora of new names were applied to the beautiful lake.

Origins of the name Tahoe
As a curious geographer, I found another intriguing possibility for the origin of the word Tahoe. The Great Basin-based Washo Tribe had contact with California Indians who would have warned them of the Spanish soldiers and missionaries who arrived in the late 1700s to establish a colonizing foothold in California. To develop their mission system, Indigenous people were captured and enslaved to work at the religious outposts where they would be force-fed Catholicism and the Spanish language.

The Spanish word for steep cliff or cleft is Tajo, pronounced “Ta ho,” which accurately describes the geologic deep gorge filled with water that is the Tahoe Basin. Darrel Cruz, director of the Washo’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office, advised me that the Aboriginal Washo language predates Spanish, while also informing me that the tribe respectfully requests research regarding the tribe be vetted by his office before publication, which I did.

Most of the new appellations implemented by Anglo Americans did not gain traction and only a few appeared on contemporary maps. Others endured amid controversary. But once the name Tahoe, a mispronunciation of dá’ aw, was politicized in the mid-1850s, it became a quarrelsome issue for Californians and Nevadans. For decades it was a point of contention for cartographers, the Washo Nation, politicians, journalists and others who preferred the name Tahoe.

Frémont expedition’s influence
Historians credit Lieutenant John C. Frémont and Charles Preuss with being the first Anglos to see Lake Tahoe. On Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1844, Frémont, a topographical engineer and Preuss, an artist and cartographer, climbed a ridge and got a glimpse of the lake. Frémont wrote: “With Mr. Preuss, I ascended today the highest peak to the right [Red Lake Peak]; from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet…so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.” Although he only used mountain lake as a descriptive term, on the map attached to Frémont’s government report published in 1845, it bears the name Mountain Lake, but in the comprehensive rendering of their exploration, Map of Oregon and Upper California, drawn by Preuss and published in 1848, it is named Lake Bonpland.

Amie Jacques Alexandre Bonpland was a French physician and botanist who accompanied Prussian-born explorer Alexander von Humboldt on a research expedition of South America and Mexico. Nevada’s Humboldt River is named after this acclaimed scientist who, in the early 1800s, presciently proposed the concept of plate tectonics and crustal evolution, along with the effects of human-induced climate change. Every stream, river and mountain in our region had names originating in Indigenous dialects, but Frémont’s influence on our modern etymology persisted. Mountain Lake and Salmon-Trout (Truckee) River did not endure, but Pyramid Lake and the Carson River bear names he bestowed.

Bigler: Politics at play
Gold Rush-era maps and guidebooks used Preuss’ Bonpland, as well as Frémont Lake, Truckee Lake, Maheon, Big Truckee Lake or the original Mountain Lake. It seemed that almost everyone who saw the lake gave it a name. In 1853, California Surveyor General W. M. Eddy broached the name Bigler after John Bigler, recently elected as third governor of California. Lake Bigler was also proposed by Seneca H. Marlette (Marlette Lake), a civil engineer and the state’s next Surveyor General.

Marlette and Sherman Day were surveying a wagon road over the Sierra from Placerville to the Carson Valley at the western edge of Utah Territory (Washo country). Day was a civil and mining engineer from Connecticut who would later serve in the California State Senate. It’s likely that Marlette and Day pitched the name as a form a political patronage for Gov. Bigler who commissioned the survey and secured the funding.

That year a map was published with Bonpland renamed Lake Bigler. It wasn’t an official change yet, that would come in 1854, but it was now literally “on the map.”

John Bigler was a Pennsylvania-born newspaper editor, lawyer and future diplomat who was elected in November 1851 and assumed duties on Jan. 8, 1852, his 47th birthday. Bigler had a hero’s reputation for leading an 1850 rescue effort from Placerville to Lake Valley (South Lake Tahoe) that saved a group of snowbound emigrants. Additionally, while others fled, Bigler, as Speaker of the Assembly, had remained in Sacramento to assist doctors and undertakers during the city’s 1850 cholera epidemic and contracted the disease himself but survived.

Bigler beat his political opponent by little more than 1,000 votes, possibly the closest gubernatorial election in state history. He was fervently anti-Chinese — as was a sizeable portion of the electorate and thus his victory — and did as much as he could to shut down the pipeline of “coolies” (laborers) from China. He resurrected the 1850 Foreign Miners Law, demanding $3 per month exclusively from Chinese miners. When the flow of Asian migrants failed to slow, however, Gov. Bigler signed into law a $50 tax per head for those entering California ports. That legislation was later ruled unconstitutional by the California Supreme Court. Bigler’s anti-Chinese rhetoric was supported by California’s Democrat-led legislature.

In 1854, at the peak of his popularity, lawmakers paid homage to their admired leader by officially christening Lake Bigler. The governor, however, was not re-elected for a third term in November 1855 due to perceived fiscal mismanagement.

In 1855, George H. Goddard, an English-born civil engineer, was conducting another wagon road survey on the Placerville-Carson Valley Road at which time he commented on the montane body of water:

“There is no lake in California which, for beauty and variety of scenery, is to be compared to Bigler Lake.”

Goddard was utilizing altitude and azimuth transits and chronometers to determine by astronomical observations the longitude and latitude of survey points on the route. Even so, the exact border between California and Nevada remained unresolved for decades.

Read Part II in our next edition and at TheTahoeWeekly.com.