WHERE DOES THE NAME "TAHOE" COME FROM?
On a blustery St. Valentines Day, February 14, 1844, an exploration party headed by Captain John Charles Fremont and guided by Christopher "Kit" Carson, struggled through the heavy snows in upper Hope Valley toward a pass that the Paiute Indians had indicated would lead them over the Sierra Nevada into the Valley of the Sacramento. Fremont, representing the United States Topographical Engineers, had been searching for the mythical Buenaventura River and Mary's Lake. Now he, Carson and the remnants of their original group of 39 men were caught in the Great Snowy Range in mid-winter. Two weeks had been spent in breaking trail through the mounting snowdrifts. Their Indian guides and bearers had deserted. Provisions were running low and in order to survive they muse scale the formidable barrier rising ahead.
As the men neared the first summit divide, Fremont and his topographer, Charles Preuss, struck northwest toward "the highest peak to the right of the pass" to take observations. Upon gaining the top they looked north across what would become known, a decade later, as Luther Pass and Lake Valley. In the distance, some 16 miles away, they were astonished to see a vast expanse of blue water. Fremont later wrote, "We had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about 15 miles in length, and so entirely surround by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.
On February 21, one week later, Fremont and his party viewed the lake for the second time. The pathfinder observed: "Immediately above the eastern mountains was repeated a cloud-formed mass of purple ranges, bordered with bright yellow gold; the peaks shot up into a narrow line of crimson cloud, above which the air was filled with a greenish orange; and over all was the singular beauty of the blue sky. Passing along a ridge which commanded the lake on our right - we began to discover an outlet through a chasm on the west."
Fremont was now between Twin Lakes and Little Round Top due south of Tahoe, and the "chasm on the west" that he judged to be the stream leading out of the lake was actually the canyon of the South Fork of the American River, which heads at Audrain Lake, less than a mile, airline distance, from the Upper Truckee River.
Although the explorer erred in identifying the lake's outlet, not realizing that it was actually on the west side of Tahoe and the headwaters of the Salmon Trout River (Truckee) which he had located and named several weeks before, he did establish a number of "firsts." The initial winter crossing of the Central Sierra Nevada mountains by white men had been made, the first peak in the Sierra surmounted, Lake Tahoe discovered and the Kit Carson Pass route, over which a floodtide of '49'ers would move, had been run out.
Now the lake acquired the first of the numerous and conflicting names placed upon its waters by white men. Fremont called it Lake Bonpland, after Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland, the eminent French botanist who accompanied Baron Alexander von Humboldt on his western exploration.
Charles Preuss' narrative maps of the expedition, however, show Tahoe as "Mountain Lake" and it was generally known as such until 1852. Fremont also substituted "Mountain Lake" for Bonpland in his reports of 4/45-46, but the name Bonpland was placed upon the maps published in Europe for the French emigrants.
Gold region maps variously record Tahoe as "Fremont's Lake" and Mountain Lake (or Lakes), with several early cartographers failing to place the lake at all. On the United States exploring Map of Upper California (1849), Tahoe is shown but not named and its outlet is designated as the South Fork of the American River.
W.M> Eddy, surveyor general of California, identified Tahoe as Lake Bigler on March 15, 1853, showing its fill extent as lying on the eastern scarp of the Sierra In Utah Territory (Nevada).
The name Bigler had become unofficially entrenched during the previous year. California's third governor, John Bigler, who held office between 1852 and 1858, personally led a rescue party into Lake Valley in the winter of 1852 to bring out a snowbound group of emigrants. Upon their arrival in Hangtown (Placerville), Bigler was feted by a gathering of dignitaries, who it is said gracefully (many insisted disgracefully) named the lake "Bigler" in his honor.
William Bartlett's Emigrant Guide to California , published in August of 1853, mentioned Truckee Lake and Bigler, applying both names to Tahoe. J.H. Coulten's Map of California , distributed in 1855, lists Bigler but shows the lake as being two-thirds in Utah Territory and one-third in California, completely reversing the final division between the Territory and State.
The confusion was compounded by Baker's Map of the Mining Regions (1855) that showed a complete stranger, "Maheon Lake" on the actual location of Tahoe itself, and Milleson's Map of the Southern and Middle Mines (1854) continued to use "Mountain Lake" in the old Fremont-Preuss tradition.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, on April 12, 1861, former Governor John Bigler's name, as applied to Tahoe, once again became the subject for debate. He was recognized as an ardent Democrat and Southern sympathizer, supposedly having worked for a "Pacific Confederacy." The pro-Union papers raised the cry of "change from this Secesh appellation" and "no Copperhead names on our landmarks for us." Another faction of Unionists, bucking the Democratic "100 Drinks Legislature" of California, were now agitating to change the name of Tahoe to the fanciful "Tula Tulia," which they stoutly declared was the true Indian designation. Nothing came of this.
Still another chronicler of the times, Edward Vischer, referred to Tahoe as "Big Truckee Lake" following the lead of Bartlett's Guide , published nearly a decade previously. But in spite of bitter opposition the name Lake Bigler remained in the foreground.
William Henry Knight, map maker for the United States Department of the Interior, now stepped into the picture. He had been gathering data for a General Land Office Map of the Pacific States and Knight issued instructions to the map's draughtsman, V. Wakenreuder, to omit the name of the lake until a more suitable one could be found.
In February, 1862, Knight invited Dr. Henry DeGroot, ace writer on the old Evening Bulletin and at the time correspondent for the Sacramento Union , to join him at the Bancroft Publishing House in San Francisco, for a review of the partially completed map. DeGroot remarked that the name Lake Bigler was missing. Knight replied that many were dissatisfied with the name and that it would be a good chance to substitute another one. Several were suggested - Washington, Lincoln and Fremont among others. Knight finally asked DeGroot for an Indian word, whereupon Degroot consulted his notebook and found "tahoe," which, he said, meant "big water," "high water," or "water in a high place." The euphonious Indian appellation was decided upon and Knight requested that the Land Office in Washington D.C., use the name on all future maps and publications.
With the support of the press of California the name Tahoe gained immediate public support and the hotly contested debate that ensued made excellent newspaper copy. However, the Legislature of what was now Nevada Territory, considered it high handed indeed for California to proceed without consulting them and fuel was added to the verbal conflagration.
In June of 1863, the Nevada Washoe Times , under the headline "What's in a Name," lamely insisted that it would be sensible to change Bigler to Sierra Lake, if it were not for the fact that a small sheet of water near the Downieville Buttes (California) had already been given the name. On May 18 of the same year the Sacramento Union also promoted "Sierra Lake" along with "Te-ho." In their opinion either was more acceptable than Bigler. "Largo Bergler" was actually a name that would be even more fitting, the paper declared, "as it would stand as a punishing illusion to the bibulous habits of 'Honest John' Bigler when he was Governor of the State."
The Washoe Times responded in agreement, "If a lake of beer is discovered Bigler will obviously be more suitable, but until that time arrives the native designation should be accepted."
Late in the summer of the same year the eminent Unitarian pastor from New York, Reverend Thomas Starr King, visited the lake, where he gained the inspiration for one of his most famous sermons, "Living Waters from Lake Tahoe." The good minister stanchly defended the name Tahoe: "It stems from the Washoe Indian 'Tache' (Much Water) plus 'Dao' (Deep or Blue Water) and is the name that should rest upon its waters."
In spite of the widespread denunciation of Bigler as applied to the lake, the Democratic California Legislature passed an act on February 10, 1870, that officially legalized the appellation, and stated "the lake shall hereinafter be known as Bigler." However, the name Tahoe was firmly, if unofficially, linked to this great body of water through usage and the battle of words continued.
Surprisingly enough, Mark Twain was one of the few who vented his spleen against "Tahoe." Undoubtedly he was prejudiced because of his unflattering opinion of Indian lore, Indians generally and Digger Indians in particular. In his Innocents Abroad he calls down "sorrow and misfortune" on the heads of those who still promoted the use of this "unmusical cognomen" which, he declared, could never do justice to the lake's varied wonders and magnificent setting. His final thrust chides the attempts at defining the word "Tahoe."
"People say that Tahoe means 'Silver Lake' - 'Limpid Water' - 'Falling Leaf.' Bosh! It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe - and of the Pi-utes as well."
On January 29, 1870, the Placerville Mountain Democrat stated flatly, "Tahoe was a renegade Indian who lead a band of his murderous followers in pillaging forays on the whites. Was this therefore a logical choice for the naming of those beautiful waters?" it asked.
Several days later the Sacramento Union quoted "Captain Jim," Chief of the Washoe tribe, when he rumbled: "Ta-ho mean Big water, not Big-Ler," and a scribe from the Truckee Republican ventured the thought that Tahoe was probably the idiomatic Indian word for whiskey - "Big Water."
Nevada's Daily State Register joined with Mark Twain and the Mountain Democrat when it leveled a devastating salvo of editorial grapeshot at the name "Tahoe." The paper scornfuly advised the public, "Tahoe was nothing but a thieving, conniving, mean, treacherous Indian, so bad in fact that he was actually outlawed by his own miserable tribe of Washoes, while Bigler is the name of a man who actually saved an early emigrant party in Lake Valley from those same thieving Indians. That was, and is, all that Tahoe signifies," the Register added.
It was getting so bad that even the Lakers and Washoeites were entirely confused on the issue. One of the junior legislators in Carson City went so far as to draw up a bull to change the name of Nevada's part of the lake. Things had really reached a ludicrous level.
In 1875, the Carson Appeal wheeled up its biggest guns and touched off a broadside, "Tahoe means an Indian squaw in mourning with burgundy pitch trimmed with chimney soot in her hair and the other parts of her physical economy in proportionate cleanliness." The Appeal had evidently exhumed Mark Twain's diatribe and added several new touches of its own. IN May of 1877, the paper was still at it. "Not anybody, living or dead, knows what Tahoe means," they complained. "It is mock gibberish."
Naming of the lake had even become a political issue as shown by the Appeal's complaint, "Every time we allude to Bigler all the Sharon newspapers with 200 miles of Carson rise up to howl that we have sold out to Democracy." The Appeal insisted, "California legalized the name in 1870 - and this therefore proves we are absolutely right."
On August 12, 1881, the Reno Gazette belatedly tossed its editorial hat into the ring on the Tahoe question when it advised darkly: "Tahoe has an obscene meaning in Consumnes Digger Indian jargon, from which it was taken," concluding in a complete about-face, "Tahoe is considered the aboriginal, appropriate, non-personal, legal, non-political and legitimate name and is so carried on the official maps."
W. F. Edwards, Truckee publisher, questioned the native origin of the name when he complained in the year 1883, "If Tahoe is an Indian word, it must be an importation from the lingo of an extinct tribe in Massachusetts, or some other eastern state. Certainly the Washoes of the present day claim that they have no knowledge of its meaning."
John Charles Fremont, in 1844, had heard "Tah-ve" from the friendly Washoe Indians defined as "snow." Henry DeGroot, who listened attentively to the Washoes and Paiutes, interpreted "Tah-oo-e" as meaning "much water" and "Tah-oo" as simply "water." Other spellings of the word were given as "Taa-joe," "Ta-ho," "Ta-jo," and even "Pah-hoe." To complicate matters further a Nevada newsman voiced the opinion that "Ta-au" in Washoe dialect was pronounced "Was-soo" and sometimes even "Da-au" with the word meaning "lake."
Clear water, deep water, big water, snow water, and fish lake were additional fist shaking translations argued back and forth with every interpretation actually the opinion of some white man.
One of the more logical explanations of how the word Tahoe came to be applied to the lake is that Spanish explorers preceded Fremont in the discovery of this body of water, possibly in the early 1800's and noting its obvious resemblance to a deep chasm filled with water gave it the Spanish name, "Tajo," pronounced "Ta-ho."
As "Tajo" is variously translated "cleft," incision" and "cut," in addition to chasm, it is conjectured that "Tajo" could have entered the Washoe Indian vocabulary as easily as other Spanish words have entered native languages.
Pronunciation of the word Tahoe has also been the source of heated debate for nearly a century. Pioneer Lakers pronounce "Ta-hoe" as "Tay-hoe," and the true mark of the early lake resident is the inflection he or she gives the word. One venerable gentleman, who had lived 80 years in the Tahoe region, insisted that tey always used to say "Tay-ho" and "Tellec." Another old-timer with a background of seven and on-half decades at the lake indicated that "Tay-ho" was the accepted pronunciation until the steamer Tahoe was launched in 1896, at which time the pronunciation was changed to "Ta-hoe."
Editor R. E. Wood, writing in the Tahoe Tattler during the summer of 1881, added and element of confusion to the accepted version of Tahoe's early day pronunciation. He chided his readers, "Only the Washoe Indians say 'Tay-hoe,' the white men say, and correctly so, 'Ta-hoe'."
On August 21, 1886, the Truckee Republican wrestled masterfully with the problem. Taking a resigned, tongue-in-cheek attitude, the paper summarized a conversation overheard between a group of vacationers "deep in a discussion of our great lake."
The First Tourist: "I think Taw-who is magnificent."
The Second Tourist: "Tay-hoe's sunsets are simply gorgeous!"
The Third Tourist: "Never such beautiful colors as at T-hoo."
The Fourth: "They say a body of a person drowned never rises in Tay-how."
The Fifth: "Never ate finer trout than caught in Taw-o."
The Sixth: "I'm bringing my wife and daughter up to Tay-ho-ee."
The Seventh: "Taw-whoo is it."
And finally the reporter: "Ta-hoe is fine, but leave out the tourists and their pronunciations."
"Tay-hoe," R. E. Woods admonitions to the contrary.
The generally accepted interpretation of Tahoe today is "Big Water" and, in spite of the eminent Mark Twain's views, Tahoe symbolizes the epitome of magnificence found in those high country reaches of the world wherever blue sky, towering mountain peaks and snow water combine.
Rather appropriately, as Mrs. Sigouney once said, when referring to Indian appellations, "Their names are on your waters and you may not wash them off."
This holds true today with the name Tahoe, although it took a full 75 years from the passing of the statute legalizing Lake Bigler, before the California Legislature solemnly convened and rescinded the act.
The new statute read, "The lake known as Bigler shall hereinafter be known as Lake Tahoe." A spirited issue had at last been laid to rest.
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