CHAPTER V. THE VARIOUS NAMES OF LAKE TAHOE
We have already seen that Fremont, the discoverer of Lake Tahoe, first called it Lake Bonpland, after Humboldt's scientific co-traveler. That name, however, never came in general use. When the great westward emigration began it seemed naturally to be called by its Indian name, Tahoe.
In Innocents Abroad Mark Twain thus petulantly and humorously expresses his dislike of the name, Tahoe, and sarcastically defines its meaning.
"Sorrow and misfortune overtake the legislature that still from year to year permits Tahoe to retain its unmusical cognomen! Tahoe! It suggests no crystal waters, no picturesque shores, no sublimity. Tahoe for a sea in the clouds; a sea that has character, and asserts it in solemn calms, at times, at times in savage storms; a sea, whose royal seclusion is guarded by a cordon of sentinel peaks that lift their frosty fronts nine thousand feet above the level world; a sea whose every aspect is impressive, whose belongings are all beautiful, whose lonely majesty types the Deity!
"Tahoe means grasshoppers. It means grasshopper soup. It is Indian, and suggestive of Indians. They say it is Pi-ute - possibly it is Digger. I am satisfied it was named by the Diggers - those degraded savages who roast their dead relatives, then mix the human grease and ashes of bones with tar, and 'gaum' it thick all over their heads and foreheads and ears, and go caterwauling about the hills and call itmourning. These are the gentry that named the Lake.
"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. It isn't worth while, in these practical times, for people to talk about Indian poetry - there never was any in them - except in the Fenimore Cooper Indians. But they are an extinct tribe that never existed. I know the Noble Red Man. I have camped with the Indians; I have been on the warpath with them, taken part in the chase with them - for grasshoppers; helped them steal cattle; I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance.
"But I am growing unreliable."
With all due deference to the wisdom - as well as the humor - of Mark Twain as applied to Lake Tahoe, I emphatically disagree with him as to the Indians of the Tahoe region, and also as to the name of the Lake. Tahoe is quite as good-sounding a name as Como, Lucerne, Katrine or Lomond. A name, so long as it is euphonious, is pleasing or not, more because of its associations than anything else. The genuine Indian, as he was prior to the coming of the white man, was uncorrupted, uncivilized, unvitiated, undemoralized, undiseased in body, mind and soul, a nature-observer, nature-lover and nature-worshiper. He was full of poetic conceptions and fired with a vivid imagination that created stories to account for the existence of unusual, peculiar or exceptional natural objects, that, in brilliancy of conception, daring invention, striking ingenuity and vigor of detail surpass, or at least equal, the best imaginative work of Kipling or Mark Twain himself. It seems to me that his - the Indian's - name for this Lake - Tahoe - is both euphonious and full of poetic and scientific suggestion. It is poetic in that it expresses in a word the unequaled height and purity of so large a body of water, and scientific in that it is truthful and accurate.
But Fremont, the discoverer, evidently did not ask or seek to know its Indian name. As stated elsewhere he erroneously conceived it to be the headquarters of one of the forks of the American river, flowing into the Sacramento, and he so depicts it on his map, giving to it the two names "Mountain Lake" or "Lake Bonpland." But neither of these names was acceptable and they practically dropped out of sight.
When the first actual determination of Tahoe's outlet through the Truckee River was made is not definitely known, but its approximate location was well enough established in 1853 to enable the official map-maker of the new State of California to depict it with reasonable accuracy, and, for some reason, to name it Lake Bigler, after John Bigler, the third Governor of California.
Citizens are still living both in Nevada and California who well remember when the Lake held this name, and the majority of people undoubtedly used it until 1862. Officially, also, it was known as Lake Bigler in 1862, for in the Nevada Statutes there is recorded an Act approved December 19, 1862, authorizing certain parties to construct a railroad "to be known as the Lake Bigler and Virginia Railroad Co., to commence at a point on the Kingsbury-McDonald road known as the Kingsbury and McDonald Toll House, thence along the southern and eastern shores of Lake Bigler, and in most direct practical route, to the divide between Virginia City and Washoe Valley on east side Washoe Lake, over and through the most practical pass to Virginia City," and a further right to construct branch road from Virginia to Carson City, Nevada.