Like so many other great discoveries that were to have an important effect upon the lives of countless numbers of people, the discovery of Lake Tahoe was accidental. Nor did its finder comprehend the vast influence it was to possess, not only upon the residents of California and Nevada, but upon the travel-loving and sight-seeing portion of the population of the whole world.

John C. Fremont, popularly acclaimed "the pathfinder," was its discoverer, on the 14th day of February, 1844. In the journal of his 1843-44 expedition he thus records the first sight of it:

    Accompanied by Mr. Preuss, I ascended to-day the highest peak to the right from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so nearly surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.

It cannot be deemed out of place in these pages, owing to the significance of the discovery by Fremont, to give a brief account of the exploration and its purposes, in the carrying out of which Tahoe was revealed to the intrepid and distinguished explorer.

Fortunately for us, Fremont left a full story of his experiences in the Nevada country, complete in detail, and as fresh and vivid as if but written yesterday. This account, with illuminating Introduction, and explanatory notes by James U. Smith, from whose pioneer father Smith Valley is named, was republished in the Second Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, from which, with the kind permission of the secretary, Professor Jeanne Elizabeth Wier, the following extracts are made.

Fremont had already made his first exploration of the Rocky Mountains and South Pass in the summer of 1842. It was in this expedition that, standing on the highest peak of the Rockies, he looked down into the vast area beyond, known as the Great Basin, comprising with its mountain ranges the whole western portion of the continent of North America. This he determined to explore, and it was on this second expedition that Lakes Pyramid and Tahoe, the Truckee River, etc., were discovered.

Later, Fremont made his third western journey, that in which he came into conflict with the Mexican officials of California, became governor of California, and was finally placed under arrest by General Kearny, and taken back to Washington to be tried for mutiny. The results of that unfortunate Kearny conflict are well known.

At the official close of the dispute he made his fourth expedition and finally his fifth, all of which are fully treated in Smucker's and Bigelow's Life of Fremont.

To return now to the second expedition. In the words of Mr. Smith:

    The object of the expedition was purely for the purpose of exploring and otherwise getting scientific information about the great territory between the Missouri frontier and the Pacific Ocean. Emigrants were making their way westward to the new Oregon Territory, and hunters and trappers had been visiting portions of that region. Farther north the fur companies had their posts and did a regular business with the trappers and Indians. But little was known about the regions further south, and especially the great territory between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountain chains, and that little was freely adulterated with fiction.

    Great Salt Lake was supposed to be a very strange and wonderful lake, the islands of which were covered with woods and flowers, through which roamed all kinds of game, and whose waters were sucked down in a great awe-inspiring whirlpool into an underground passage under the mountains and valleys to the distant sea. Another myth, or rather pair of myths, in which geographers placed sufficient faith to give a place on the maps of the time, was the great Buenaventura River, and that semi-tropical Mary's Lake, the waters from which found their way through the Sierra Nevadas to San Francisco Bay. Mary's Lake was supposed to be a body of water such as a traveler dreams about, whose clear waters were bordered by meadows ever green, a place on whose shores he could pitch his tent and cast aside all thought or care of the morrow. Fremont counted on this lake as a place where he could recuperate and make ready for a final dash eastward across the unknown country to the Rocky Mountains and thence home to the Mississippi River. Contrast these anticipations with the hardships and fears he encountered while groping his way through the Black Rock Desert, north of Pyramid Lake.

    But Fremont was a good leader followed by courageous men, and disappointments did not make weaklings of either him or his men. His party, on leaving Missouri, consisted of thirty-nine men - Creoles, Canadian-Frenchmen, Americans, a German or two, a free negro and two Indians. Charles Preuss was Fremont's assistant in topography, and it is likely that he made his sketches, several of which were published in the original report. Another member of the party, and one who joined it in the Rocky Mountains and is of special interest to us, was Christopher Carson, commonly known as "Kit" Carson. Fremont speaks of him in very friendly and flattering terms. At the time of the meeting with Carson, he says: "I had here the satisfaction to meet our good buffalo hunter of 1842, Christopher Carson, whose services I considered myself fortunate to secure again." On another occasion, when Carson had successfully performed a responsible errand, he says: "Reaching St. Vrain's Fort ... we found ... my true and reliable friend, Kit Carson." Fremont left Kansas City, Mo., May 29, 1843.

    His general route was along the old "Oregon Trail," then the new "Oregon Trail," but at many places his route was different. He followed up the Kansas River instead of the Platte. But he crossed the Rocky Mountains over the South Pass, which is that of the Union Pacific Railroad, and was common to the Oregon Trail and the emigrant road to California. During nearly the whole journey to Oregon Fremont divided his party. One part he placed in charge of Fitzpatrick. This consisted of the carts with the bulk of the supplies and about half of the men. The other part consisted of a mounted party with packhorses and the howitzer. Fremont, of course, took charge of the latter party, for, traveling light as it did, he was able to make detours covering country he wished to explore, always, however, using the other train as a base of supplies. The course of the other party was generally along the emigrant road to Oregon.

    After crossing the Rocky Mountains, Fremont went south with his party to explore Great Salt Lake. Thence he returned north again to the emigrant road, which then followed in a general way the Snake or Lewis River to the Columbia, with the exception of the great bend in northeastern Oregon which was traversed by a shorter route. Along the bank of the Columbia the road followed to the Mission Station at the Dalles, or great narrows of the river. At this point many of the emigrants transferred their baggage to barges and floated with the current to their destination on the Willamette River. Others continued by land down the river. Fremont's division reached the Dalles November 4th. Fitzpatrick's train did not come in until the 21st. The latter left his carts at the mouth of the Walla Walla River according to Fremont's orders; and, after making pack-saddles, transferred what was left of his baggage to the backs of his mules for the trip down to the Dalles. In the meantime Fremont, with Preuss and two of the other men, had gone down to Fort Vancouver in canoes. This was the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company for the West. Here supplies for the return journey were obtained.

    Having transported these supplies up to the Dalles in barges propelled by Indians, he was ready to take up the final preparation for the homeward journey. It is best to let him describe these preparations in his own words. He says:

    "The camp was now occupied in making the necessary preparations for our homeward journey, which, though homeward, contemplated a new route, and a great circuit to the south and southeast, and the exploration of the Great Basin between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.

    "Three principal objects were indicated, by report, or by maps, as being on this route, the character or existence of which I wished to ascertain, and which I assumed as landmarks, or leading points, on the projected line of return. The first of these points was the Tlamath Lake, on the tableland between the head of Fall River (this is now called by its French name, the Des Chutes River), which comes to the Columbia, and the Sacramento, which goes to the Bay of San Francisco, and from which lake a river of the same name makes its way westwardly direct to the ocean.

    "This lake and river are often called Klamet, but I have chosen to write the name according to the Indian pronunciation. The position of this lake, on the line of inland communication between Oregon and California; its proximity to the demarcation boundary of latitude 42 deg.; its imputed double character of lake, or meadow, according to the season of the year; and the hostile and warlike character attributed to the Indians about it; - all make it a desirable object to visit and examine. From this lake our course was intended to be about southeast, to a reported lake called Mary's, at some days' journey in the Great Basin; and thence, still on southeast, to the reputed Buenaventura River, which has a place in so many maps, and countenanced the belief of the existence of a great river flowing from the Rocky Mountains to the Bay of San Francisco. From the Buenaventura the next point was intended to be in that section of the Rocky Mountains which includes the heads of Arkansas River, and of the opposite waters of the California Gulf; and thence down the Arkansas to Bent's Fort, and home.

    "This was our projected line of return - a great part of it absolutely new to geographical, botanical, and geological science - and the subject of reports in relation to lakes, rivers, deserts, and savages, hardly above the condition of mere wild animals, which inflamed desire to know what this terra incognita really contained. It was a serious enterprise, at the commencement of winter, to undertake the traverse of such a region, and with a party consisting only of twenty-five persons, and they of many nations - American, French, German, Canadian, Indian, and colored - and most of them young, several being under twenty-one years of age.

    "All knew that a strange country was to be explored, and dangers and hardships to be encountered; but no one blenched at the prospect. On the contrary, courage and confidence animated the whole party. Cheerfulness, readiness, subordination, prompt obedience, characterized all; nor did any extremity or peril and privation, to which we were afterward exposed, ever belie, or derogate from, the fine spirit of this brave and generous commencement.

    "The course of the narrative will show at what point, and for what reasons, we were prevented from the complete execution of this plan, after having made considerable progress upon it, and how we were forced by desert plains and mountain ranges, and deep snows, far to the south and near to the Pacific Ocean, and along the western base of the Sierra Nevada; where, indeed, a new and ample field of exploration opened itself before us."

From these quotations it is evident that Fremont had no idea of entering California at this time. He was simply driven to it by circumstances over which he had no control.

Leaving the Dalles, Fremont followed up the Des Chutes River to its headwaters in southeastern Oregon, thence he crossed over the divide to the waters of the Klamath, which he followed southward to what is known as Klamath Marsh. This he called "Klamath Lake."

Now started the hunt for Mary's Lake and the San Buenaventura River. The party came down through southeastern Oregon into Nevada, where they camped on the night of December 26, in Coleman Valley, on what is called Twelve-Mile Creek, and about eleven miles from the present California line. It may be noted here that at that time the parallel between Nevada and California on the south and Oregon on the north, was the southern boundary of the territory of the United States. Fremont was, therefore, about to cross into Mexican territory.

He then progressed southward through what are now Washoe, Humboldt, Churchill and Lyon counties, and over the California line into Mono County, back again into Douglas, and thence over the mountains south of Lake Tahoe, but did not find Mary's Lake, nor the places upon which he relied to recruit his animals and give rest to his party. He did, however, find Pyramid Lake. This being the body of water into which the Truckee River flows, and the Truckee being the only outlet to Lake Tahoe, it is well that this portion of the account be given in full. Fremont and Carson were on ahead. The day was January 10, 1843. Fremont writes:

    Leaving a signal for the party to encamp, we continued our way up the hollow, intending to see what lay beyond the mountain. The hollow was several miles long, forming a good pass (some maps designate this pass as Fremont Pass, others as San Emidio Canyon), the snow deepened to about a foot as we neared the summit. Beyond, a defile between the mountains descended rapidly about two thousand feet; and, filling up all the lower space, was a sheet of green water, some twenty miles broad (Pyramid Lake). It broke upon our eyes like the ocean. The neighboring peaks rose high above us. One peak, on the eastern side of the lake, rises nearly forty-four hundred feet above the lake, and on the side (toward which Fremont was looking) one peak rises 4925 feet above the lake; and we ascended one of them to obtain a better view.

    The waves were curling in the breeze, and their dark-green color showed it to be a body of deep water. For a long time we sat enjoying the view, for we had become fatigued with mountains, and the free expanse of moving waves was very grateful. It was set like a gem in the mountains, which, from our position, seemed to inclose it almost entirely. At the western end it communicated with the line of basins we had left a few days since; and on the opposite side it swept a ridge of snowy mountains, the foot of the great Sierra. Its position at first inclined us to believe it Mary's Lake, but the rugged mountains were so entirely discordant with descriptions of its low rushy shores and open country, that we concluded it some unknown body of water, which it afterwards proved to be.

    On January 13th we followed again a broad Indian trail along the shore of the lake to the southward. For a short space we had room enough in the bottom; but, after traveling a short distance, the water swept the foot of the precipitous mountains, the peaks of which are about 3000 feet above the lake. The trail wound around the base of these precipices, against which the water dashed below, by a way nearly impracticable for the howitzer. During a greater part of the morning the lake was nearly hid by a snowstorm, and the waves broke on the narrow beach in a long line of foaming surf, five or six feet high. The day was unpleasantly cold, the wind driving the snow sharp against our faces; and, having advanced only about twelve miles, we encamped in a bottom formed by a ravine, covered with good grass, which was fresh and green.

    We did not get the howitzer into camp, but were obliged to leave it on the rocks until morning. The next morning the snow was rapidly melting under a warm sun. Part of the morning was occupied in bringing up the gun; and, making only nine miles, we encamped on the shore, opposite a very remarkable rock in the lake, which had attracted our attention for many miles. It rose, according to our estimate, 600 feet above the water, and, from the point we viewed it, presented a pretty exact outline of the great pyramid of Cheops. Like other rocks, along the shore, it seemed to be incrusted with calcareous cement. This striking feature suggested a name for the lake, and I called it Pyramid Lake; and though it may be deemed by some a fanciful resemblance, I can undertake to say that the future traveler will find much more striking resemblance between this rock and the pyramids of Egypt than there is between them and the object from which they take their name....

    The elevation of this lake above the sea is 4890 feet, being nearly 700 feet higher than the Great Salt Lake, from which it lies nearly west, and distant about eight degrees of longitude. The position and elevation of this lake make it an object of geographical interest. It is the nearest lake to the western rim, as the Great Salt Lake is to the eastern rim of the Great Basin which lies between the base of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada - and the extent and character of which, its whole circumference and contents, it is so desirable to know.

The Indians then directed him to a river of which he says:

    Groves of large cottonwood, which we could see at the mouth, indicated that it was a stream of considerable size, and, at all events, we had the pleasure to know that now we were in a country where human beings could live. Reaching the groves, we found the inlet of a large fresh-water stream (the Truckee River), and all at once were satisfied that it was neither Mary's River nor the waters of the Sacramento, but that we had discovered a large interior lake, which the Indians informed us had no outlet. It is about 35 miles long, and, by the mark of the water-line along the shore, the spring level is about 12 feet above its present waters.

    In the meantime, such a salmon-trout feast as is seldom seen was going on in our camp, and every variety of manner in which fish could be prepared - boiled, fried and roasted in the ashes - was put into requisition; and every few minutes an Indian would be seen running off to spear a fresh one. Whether these Indians had seen whites before, we could not be certain; but they were evidently in communication with others who had, as one of them had some brass buttons, and we noticed several other articles of civilized manufacture. We could obtain from them but little information about the country. They made on the ground a drawing of the river, which they represented as issuing from another lake in the mountains three or four days distant, in a direction a little west of south; beyond which, they drew a mountain; and further still, two rivers; on one of which they told us that people like ourselves traveled.

They still wandered to the south, passing near where Dayton, Nevada, now is, and reaching Bridgeport and Mono and Twin Lakes. Here they struck north and west again and soon had to leave the howitzer. Passing through Antelope Valley they reached Markleeville in deep snow, passed Graver's Springs, entered Faith and Hope Valleys, and here it was Fremont gained his view of Lake Tahoe. It was February 14, 1844. He says:

    The dividing ridge of the Sierra is in sight from this encampment. Accompanied by Mr. Preuss, I ascended to-day the highest peak to the right [probably Stevens Peak, 10,100 feet above sea-level], from which we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about fifteen miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet [Lake Tahoe]. We had taken with us a glass, but though we enjoyed an extended view, the valley was half hidden in mist, as when we had seen it before. Snow could be distinguished on the higher parts of the coast mountains, eastward, as far as the eye could extend. It ranged over a terrible mass of broken snowy mountains, fading off blue in the distance. The rock composing the summit consists of very coarse, dark, volcanic conglomerate; the lower parts appeared to be of a slaty structure. The highest trees were a few scattered cedars and aspens. From the immediate foot of the peak, we were two hours reaching the summit, and one hour and a quarter in descending. The day had been very bright, still, and clear, and spring seemed to be advancing rapidly. While the sun is in the sky the snow melts rapidly, and gushing springs cover the face of the mountain in all exposed places, but their surface freezes instantly with the disappearance of the sun.

    I obtained to-night some observations, and the result from these, and others made during our stay, gives for the latitude 38 deg. 41' 57", longitude 120 deg. 25' 57" [the correct longitude for this place is 119 deg. 58'], and rate of the chronometer 25.82.

The next night they encamped on the headwaters of a little creek, where at last the water found its way to the Pacific. The following morning they started early.

    The creek acquired a regular breadth of about 20 feet, and we soon began to hear the rushing of water below the icy surface, over which we traveled to avoid the snow; a few miles below we broke through, where the water was several feet deep, and halted to make a fire and dry our clothes. We continued a few miles further, walking being very laborious without snowshoes.

    I was now perfectly satisfied that we had struck the stream on which Mr. Sutter lived; and, turning about, made a hard push, and reached the camp at dark. Here we had the pleasure to find all the remaining animals, 57 in number, safely arrived at the grassy hill near camp; and here, also, we were agreeably surprised with the sight of an abundance of salt. Some of the horse-guard had gone to a neighboring hut for pine nuts, and discovered unexpectedly a large cake of very white, fine grained salt, which the Indians told them they had brought from the other side of the mountain; they used it to eat with their pine nuts, and readily sold it for goods.

    On the 19th, the people were occupied in making a road and bringing up the baggage; and, on the afternoon of the next day, February 20, we encamped, with the animals and all the materiel of the camp, on the summit of the pass [Carson Pass, at the head of Hope Valley] in the dividing ridge, 1000 miles by our traveled road from the Dalles to the Columbia.

    The people, who had not yet been to this point, climbed the neighboring peak to enjoy a look at the valley.

    The temperature of boiling water gave for the elevation of the encampment, 9338 feet above the sea.

    This was 2000 feet higher than the South Pass in the Rocky Mountains, and several peaks in view rose several thousand feet still higher. Thus, at the extremity of the continent, and near the coast, the phenomenon was seen of a range of mountains still higher than the great Rocky Mountains themselves. This extraordinary fact accounts for the Great Basin, and shows that there must be a system of small lakes and rivers scattered over a flat country, and which the extended and lofty range of the Sierra Nevada prevents from escaping to the Pacific Ocean. Latitude 38 deg. 44', longitude 120 deg. 28'. [This latitude is that of Stevens Peak, the highest in that ridge, 10,100 feet, and of course he did not go over the top of that peak, when Carson Pass, 1600 feet lower, was in plain view; this pass is the lowest one visible from the route on which they had come; another pass much lower leads out from the other or northern end of Hope Valley, but was not visible from their trail. The summit of Carson Pass is approximately latitude 38 deg. 41' 50"; longitude 119 deg. 59'. Fremont's longitude readings are unreliable, owing to error in his chronometer.]

From this point on, following the south fork of the American River, sixteen days from the summit landed Fremont and his party at Sutler's Fort, March 8. Of their arrival Fremont says:

    A more forlorn and pitiable sight than they presented cannot well be imagined. They were all on foot, each man weak and emaciated, leading a horse or mule as weak and emaciated as themselves. They had experienced great difficulty in descending the mountains, made slippery by rains and melting snows, and many horses fell over precipices and were killed, and with some were lost the packs they carried. Among these was a mule with the plants which we had collected since leaving Fort Hall, along a line of 2000 miles of travel. Out of 67 horses and mules, with which we commenced crossing the Sierra, only 33 reached the valley of the Sacramento, and they only in a condition to be led along.

In concluding this chapter it should not be overlooked that on his maps of the expedition of 1843-44 Fremont called the mountain lake he had discovered "Lake Bonpland." He says in a private letter: "I gave to the basin river its name of Humboldt and to the mountain lake the name of his companion traveler, Bonpland, and so put it in the map of that expedition."

Amade Bonpland was born at Rochelle, France, in 1773. He was educated as a physician but became a noted botanist. He accompanied Humboldt to America, and subsequently became a joint author with the great traveler and scientist of several valuable works on the botany, natural-history, etc., of the New World. He was detained as a prisoner for nearly ten years by Dictator Francia of Paraguay to prevent him from, or to punish him for, attempting to cultivate the mate, or Paraguay tea, in that country. He died in 1858 at Montevideo, the Capital of Uruguay, in South America.

His name as applied to Lake Tahoe is practically unknown, save to the curious investigator or historian. Other names given by Fremont have "stuck" to this day, amongst them being Humboldt, Walker, Owen, Kern and Carson rivers, Pyramid and Walker lakes, etc.

The vicissitudes of the naming of Lake Tahoe is of sufficient interest to occupy a whole chapter, to which the reader is referred.