Confederate ties, Twain’s rebuke influences Lake Tahoe’s name

Bigler versus Tahoe historic plaque in Kings Beach. | Mark McLaughlin

In June 1859, Dr. Henry De Groot journeyed from San Francisco to the newly discovered Comstock silver lode in western Utah Territory (Nevada). De Groot studied law and medicine, wrote for technical mining journals and worked as correspondent for “The Sacramento Daily Union” and “San Francisco Bulletin” newspapers.

His 1861 Map of the Washoe Mines, which includes Lake Bigler, is considered the best, an extraordinarily detailed rendering of Nevada’s early mining era. As a linguist, De Groot explored the Tahoe Sierra with a Washo guide in order to compile a list of the tribe’s vocabulary. Research led him to suggest Ta-hoe-ee or Tah-oo, Washo for “big water” or “water in a high place,” he said. John S. Hittell, an historian and influential editor at San Francisco’s “Daily Alta California,” also supported the effort to change the name.

While gazing at Lake Bigler, [William Henry Knight, chief cartographer with the U.S. Department of the Interior] wondered why such a beautiful body of water should have such an ugly name?

Dr. De Groot and Hittell collaborated with William Henry Knight, chief cartographer with the U.S. Department of the Interior. Knight reached the Golden State in 1859 by horseback via Carson Pass. While gazing at Lake Bigler he wondered why such a beautiful body of water should have such an ugly name? Knight and De Groot brainstormed together and finally resolved to go with De Groot’s Washo interpretation: “Tahoe.”

Knight telegraphed his superiors in Washington, D.C., and successfully obtained permission from the General Land Office to use the Washo-derived word on federal maps. Noted San Francisco-based historian and ethnologist Hubert H. Bancroft published Knight’s highly detailed rendering of the Pacific states with Tahoe on it, and the Dept. of the Interior began using the name on it prints, as well. But that did not settle the brewing controversary.

Twain: Tahoe name “repulsive”
Newspapers conjured a variety of stories implying that the word “Tahoe” was unacceptable, of “vulgar significance” and worse. Even Mark Twain, one of America’s most popular writers and humorists, entered the fray.

Samuel Clemens acquired his famous nom de plume in Virginia City, Nev., in the early 1860s. Twain was known for his condescension and racism against Native Americans and although a common attitude at the time, he had the power of the pen. In a Feb. 12, 1864, report that he wrote for the Virginia City’s “Territorial Enterprise,” Twain asserted, “Bigler is the legitimate name of the Lake, and it will be retained until some name less flat, insipid and spooney than ‘Tahoe’ is invented for it.”

In a September 1863 article published in the “Territorial Enterprise,” he ranted: “I hope some bird will catch this Grub the next time he calls Lake Bigler by so disgustingly sick and silly a name as ‘Lake Tahoe…’ Of course, Indian names are more fitting than any others for our beautiful lakes and rivers, which knew their race ages ago, perhaps in the morning of creation, but let us have none so repulsive to the ear as ‘Tahoe.’

He griped: “They say it means ‘Fallen Leaf’ – well suppose it meant fallen devil or fallen angel, would that render its hideous, discordant syllables more endurable? ‘Tahoe’ – it sounds as weak as soup for a sick infant.”

He did not stop there. In his 1869 novel, “Innocents Abroad,” Twain again derided the word: “People say that Tahoe means ‘Silver Lake’ – ‘Limpid Water’ – ‘Falling Leaf.’ Bosh! It means grasshopper soup.”

Bigler’s Confederate ties
Many disagreed with Twain. John Bigler’s exceptionally close gubernatorial race indicates that he was only a marginally acceptable politician when first elected, with nearly half of those who filled a ballot voting against him. A large majority of pro-slavery Democrats from Southern California threatened to divide the state in two if Bigler’s administration did not accept slavery in California, specifically in the southern regions. Bigler pushed back.

Based on the federal Free Soil Party platform, he helped form a similar faction in the Golden State that argued against the spread of slavery in Western states and territories. The move split California’s Democrat Party, as it did nationally, but the electorate in densely populated Northern California approved and Bigler was re-elected to a second term. No other governor in the state would win back-to-back elections until 1914.

But when the Civil War broke out in 1861, ex-governor Bigler did an about-face and publicly supported the Confederacy, something that did not go over well in pro-Union Northern California. Bigler’s public approval ratings plummeted and more people began expressing dissatisfaction with the name Lake Bigler.

Tahoe gains support
That year, Sacramento’s “Daily Union” reported that some representatives in the legislature — again ignoring Tahoe — were considering changing Lake Bigler to Tula Tulia, “an Indian name of the lake.” A short time later, the newspaper editorialized: “Why the finest sheet of water in the mountains should be named after a fifth-rate politician we have never been able to see. Let’s call it Tahoe. Fine fishing in Tahoe. Who’s going on a pleasant excursion this Summer to Tahoe? Poetical name; Indian name; proper name. Tahoe is suitable. Who don’t say Tahoe?”

In 1870 the “Daily Union” stated pragmatically: “We have a Tahoe Post office, Tahoe Hotel, and Tahoe toll-road, and it will not pay to change all these names.”

In 1863, Rev. Thomas Starr King visited the lake. King was an immensely popular Unitarian Church minister from San Francisco, who considered Bigler treasonous and did not approve of the then Congressional candidate’s support of the Confederate cause, or of Bigler’s fierce opposition to Abraham Lincoln’s administration. King injected his influential opinion into the battle of cognomens, asserting that the name should be permanently changed to Lake Tahoe, a term that was steadily increasing in popular usage.

In 1864, the “Virginia Daily Union” suggested: “To obtain a more convenient and correct pronunciation, we would have the word ‘Tahho” introduced. By employing the spelling, a nearer approach is made to the Aboriginal sound than is generally made. The name of the lake is written ‘Tahoe,’ which causes us to pronounce it as though it were ‘Tay-ho.’

But all the bickering was to no avail because on Feb. 10, 1870, both the House and Senate of the California legislature, still dominated by Democrats, doubled down and reaffirmed that Lake Bigler was the official name, in honor of “Honest John,” then and into perpetuity. Or at least for 75 years until July 18, 1945, when the state government officially established “Lake Tahoe.”

Despite controversy related to his anti-Chinese immigration stance, common at the time, and his endorsement of slavery in the American Civil War, considered unacceptable in Northern California, Bigler’s imposing granite monument holds a prominent place at Sacramento Historic City Cemetery, where he is honored as a permanent resident.

Read Part I at