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Lake Tahoe - Queen of the Sierra Nevadas

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Lake Tahoe, Debbie Warner, September, 2007.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!




Located along the border of California and Nevada, Lake Tahoe has a rich and diverse cultural heritage spanning thousands of years. The Lake Tahoe Basin was formed by vertical motion faulting creating the Carson Range on the east and the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west some 2-3 million years ago. Snow, rain, and streams filled the southern and lowest part of the basin, forming the ancestral Lake Tahoe. Modern Lake Tahoe was shaped and landscaped by the scouring glaciers during the Ice Age a million or more years ago.


Much remains to be learned about the first peoples who utilized the Lake Tahoe Basin as many as 8,000 to 10,000 years ago. However, in later years, the archaeological record becomes clearer. At the time of first European contact, the Washoe Tribe and their ancestors had been calling the resource-rich Lake Tahoe and approximately 10,000 square miles of surrounding land their home for at least 2,000 years. Washoe existence at the lake centered around fishing camps and milling sites located in lush meadows within view of the lake and along permanent streams.


Linguists think Washoe origins are earlier than any other Sierran or Great basin Indian cultures. The Washoe language is unique and unrelated to those spoken by any neighboring tribes. Washoe tradition indicates their homeland has always included Lake Tahoe, without reference to migrations from other worlds, as is common in other cultures. The Washoe were first to name Lake Tahoe simply "the Lake". Da ow ga, the Washoe word for "lake" is thought to be the source for "Tahoe."


Scores of prehistoric and ethnographic Washoe sites have been identified around the shores of the lake as well as in higher-elevation use areas. Today, there some 1500 enrolled members of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California who live on "Colonies," tribal lands scattered in the Reno, Carson Valley, and Gardnerville areas of Nevada and in Woodfords, California. An active tribal government continues to lobby for a land base in the Lake Tahoe basin and works with federal and state agencies and private land owners to protect locations important to Washoe Heritage.

There are several sites in the Lake Tahoe vicinity where visitors can learn more about the Washoe tribe.

  • Lam Watah Washoe Heritage Site - This small archaeological site managed by the U.S. Forest Service includes many boulders with depressions where women prepared food for their families during the summer and processed dried food for the winter. It is set in a meadow along a one mile hike to Nevada Beach. The trail head is located on the corner of US Highway 50 and Kahle Drive, just north of the casino area in Stateline, Nevada. There is another Washoe Indian Pounding Rock located in the middle of South Shore near Trout Creek.

  • Baldwin Museum - The Washoe exhibit, created by the tribe is housed in the Baldwin Estate portion of the Tallac Historic Site, a National Register District managed by the U.S. Forest Service. It is located approximately four miles west of the junction of California State Highway 89 and U.S. Highway 50, along the south shore of Lake Tahoe.

  • GateKeepers Museum - This museum features a magnificent collection of baskets from many California Indian groups, including Washoe basketry. It is located at: 130 West Lake Boulevard in Tahoe City, on the north shore, south of the bridge at the Truckee River.

  • Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center - This museum includes a permanent Washoe exhibit, designed and installed by the tribe. This exhibit features dramatic murals depicting four aspects of Washoe heritage by different artists. The museum is located in the old Douglas County high school, 1477 Highway 395 in Gardnerville.




The first major disruption to the Washoe way of life at the lake came when a large silver lode was discovered in Virginia City, Nevada in 1859.




Before long, the Lake Tahoe Basin rapidly became the victim of resource extraction on a massive scale. The forests of the entire basin were virtually clear-cut between the years of 1860 and 1890 to fuel mining operations, shore up the mine tunnels, and build the rapidly growing Virginia City.


Discoveries of gold and silver attracted overwhelming numbers of immigrants from around the world. At Lake Tahoe, it was the Comstock silver strike of 1859 in Virginia City that transformed the landscape into a frontier for massive resource extraction. After contact with non-Indian cultures (or the encroachment as the Washoe describe it) in the mid 1800s, the Washoe endured as a people, many maintaining ties to Lake Tahoe even after being forced from family camps and upland resource areas. Families continued to trek to the lake each spring, gathering seeds and medicinal roots, making baskets, speaking their language and raising their children, working as domestics, laborers and game guides for the resorts. They maintained remnants of their past way of life and cultural traditions even as their leaders struggled for political and social reforms and requested land and protection for their resources.

"Encroachment" is the legal term the federal government used to describe the process by which the Washoe gradually lost their territory: "The evidence shows that from 1848 to 1863 the area was overrun by miners, settlers and others with the approval, encouragement and support of the United States government. Encroachment continued with increasing intensity until by December 31,1862 the tribe had lost all of its lands."




Many different people have left their mark on the land during and since that time. Basque sheepherders left their carvings on aspen trees inphoto: old photo of a Washoe family.groves around the lake. Chinese laborers left evidence of their campsites on the wooded slopes surrounding the lake. European operated lumber mill sites have been recorded as having extensive historic road systems, railroad alignments, trails, and flumes.

The early twentieth century brought continued growth and development to the Lake Tahoe Basin as it became a favorite recreational retreat for the wealthy. A number of unique historic buildings remain from early this century. Lake Tahoe is now a destination for visitors world wide, and it is also still home to the Washoe Tribe.
Fostering an appreciation and respect for what came before us is one of the central aims of the Heritage Resource Program. Please honor this rich heritage and help protect these sites. If you find artifacts, please leave them and report your findings to the Heritage Resource Manager of the US Forest Service, Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. Here is how to Contact Us.

Gold Mountain
The Chinese name for California was "Gold Mountain" after the gold strike of 1849, a name by which San Francisco is still known. In the 1800s, intense political and economic turmoil in China, drove many men from their homeland. Many came to the American West, including the Comstock, as sojourners, hoping to return home with their wealth. Once they arrived, however, they found opportunities limited by anti-Chinese sentiment and legislation. Some continued to mine, reworking small abandoned mines, but many turned to a wide variety of service related jobs. Chinese laborers on the transcontinental railroad became famous for their skill and endurance. Chinese merchants, serving a growing Chinese labor force with ethnic food, medicines and other items, eventually prospered by selling their wares to the community at large.
Fueling the Comstock
In the Tahoe Basin, from 1870-1890, Chinese laborers, organized by Chinese middlemen from Carson City, dominated the cord wood cutting and flume tending industries. Lake Tahoe's timber, the "green gold" of the Sierras, was critical to supplying Comstock mines with bracing for shafts, fuel and building material. Ninety percent of the forest you see today is less than 100 years old. The forests were stripped of old growth in order to fuel the Comstock.
The largest known concentration of Chinese in the Lake Tahoe basin was in Glenbrook, on the east shore of the Lake. Now totally obscured by urban growth, the Chinese gardens of Glenbrook were once famous for fresh vegetables. In addition, archaeologists have discovered over 50 isolated sites where flume tenders and cordwood cutters worked and lived together in small enclaves, preserving as much of their traditions and culture as possible.
Living as Chinese in the Woods
Many Chinese men left their wives and families in China. In the 1880s and 1890s U.S. Immigration laws prevented Chinese families from immigrating and forbade marriages between Chinese and non-Chinese. Few Chinese enjoyed normal familyPhoto: Brown-glazed stoneware jug used by the Chinese to store food. lives and a typical Chinese American household consisted of several men living together for protection and companionship. These bachelor household were especially common in logging and construction camps.
The artifacts from these campsites demonstrate how much these Chinese laborers continued to rely on their own traditions and culture, particularly in food and medicine. They used traditional Chinese ceramic rice bowls and heavy brownware storage jars. They frequently reworked metal cans and dishpans into lamps, woks, and steamers. Medicine bottles from Chinese pharmacies and opium paraphernalia are also common finds.
Photo: container of Ching Nig pills.Although opium use is usually associated with Chinese, it was widely used throughout Europe and the U.S. in the 1800s. Europeans and Americans, especially upper class women preferred their opium in liquid patent medicines, while the Chinese preferred to smoke it.
Where Did They Go?
We can only guess about what happened to the many Chinese people who lived and worked in Tahoe's forests. Many hoped to return home. Many moved to the safety and security of urban China Towns or moved on to other boom towns needing their labor. Most of what is known is pieced from newspaper accounts, census records, logging industry records and archaeological investigation. Careful analysis of archaeological sites is just beginning to reveal a rich and fascinating story.

The First Family of Europe
photo: Black and white image of Basque immigrants. The Basques are known as Europe's "Indians" or Europe's "First Family", since their language and culture is more ancient than any other in Europe. It is likely that the Basque are descendants of the artists who created the astonishing Stone Age paintings of the Pyrenees Mountains 30,000 years ago. Basques were Europe's first whalers and accomplished sailors and navigators. The Basque were the first to sail around the world and Basque sailors accompanied Columbus to the New World, where they had pivotal roles in the Spanish colonial government and the expansion of the church for the next 300 years.
In 1849 Basques joined throngs of other young men from around the world seeking their fortune in the American West. Before long most were employed in the sheep business and by the turn of the century, "Basque" and "sheepherder" were synonymous. To pass the long lonely days of summer in the "high country" Basque sheepherders created a unique western cultural phenomenon. They carved on aspen trees, tens of thousands of them in ten western states.
Photo of an arboglyph with the dates 1949 and 1945 carved into an Aspen tree. Called arborglyphs, these carvings give us information we could not find elsewhere. If you want to know when and where sheep grazed or who the sheepherders were, chances are only arborglyphs could provide answers. Though carving was a widespread activity, the sites were remote and often the trees died before their messages from the past could be recorded. Today, there are very few left dating before 1900, since aspens only live about 100 years.
Most carvings are names and dates, the dry stuff of history. Most of the messages are hard to understand as most are in the Basque language, Euskara.Photo of more arboglyphs. Here a name and the number 74 are carved into the aspen tree. The pictures, however are easily read (if not necessarily suited for children). Carving topics include: news on sheep herding, erotic messages and graphics, Old Country memories, loneliness, references to America, interpersonal matters among herders, humor, swear words, the "good bye ritual", self portraits, and Basque symbols. These personal details regarding the lives and thoughts of young Basque men shed light on roughly one hundred years of American Western history.

Enjoying the Carvings
While exploring the Nevada and California mountains, you may find carved some well-known names, like Laxalt or Borda. Mostly you will encounter the musing of lonely and unknown herders like Arnot Urruty, whose spirit still clings to the trees he carved. In the summer of 1926 while watching his flock, Arnot had a terrific view of Lake Tahoe but he was not enjoying it:
"Here I am bored to death. Some day the time will come to leave this place."
A few years later, on the 4th of July, another herder complained that the rich were enjoying the holiday, but he could only hope for God's pity.
Many inscriptions refer to loneliness and especially to the pervasive longing for female companionship. Matxin Lanathoua was an exception, carving images from ancient Basque legends, inspiring bizarre carvings of huge snakes suckling from a donkey.
At first glance these carvings seem simple until you realize how candidly human they really are. Best of all, they have preserved a slice of the Old West that is gone. Please respect these aspen trees, canvases of Basque artists. Their carvings are skillfully done without injury to the living tree but carving can cause injury and reduce the life span of these trees. If you are lucky enough to see them, enjoy them, respect these historic finds, but leave no new carvings of your own.
Finding Out More



General John C. Fremont encountered it in 1844 during his exploration of the Far West. Since then, public appreciation of Lake Tahoe has grown. Efforts were made during the 1912, 1913, and 1918 congressional sessions to designate the basin as a national park but were unsuccessful.








In 1844, pioneers began to settle throughout Tahoe Basin and establish claims on the land. In 1849, during the California Gold Rush, more settlers came along, opened roadhouses, and staked out ranches and farms. Toward the end of the 1800s, many Tahoe forests were leveled to supply lumber and fuel to the Comstock Mines in Virginia City, Nevada. Once the land had been stripped of its natural forestation, entrepreneurs snapped up the land (literally dirt-cheap) and began building hotels and mansions for the wealthy.


In the early 1900s, serious attempts were made to have Lake Tahoe declared a National Park. These efforts failed, due to the fact that the area had been ravaged and lacked the "untouched" qualities necessary for National Park status.


With the coming of the automobile and improved roadways, Tahoe lost its exclusivity with the influx of the general population. After World War II campgrounds and inexpensive hotels sprouted up, and were very popular during the post-war growth period.




Lake Tahoe, California

Lake Tahoe, California, 1908, George R. Lawrence.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!



About one-third of the basin is in Nevada and two-thirds is in California.

Most of the terrain is mountainous, limiting development mainly to relatively flat lying areas along tributary streams. During the last half-century, increased human activity in the lake basin has caused the lake's clarity to decrease at a rate of about 1 foot per year (30 cm/yr). Major recreational activities within the basin include casino gaming in Nevada, alpine and cross-country skiing, golfing, water sports, hiking, fishing, camping, and bicycling.


Lake Tahoe is the second deepest lake in the United States and the tenth deepest in the world, with a maximum depth measured at 1,645 ft (501 m), average depth of 1,000 ft (305 m). footer image. Crater Lake in Oregon is the deepest lake (1,949 ft or 594 m) in the United States. Please Note that the depth of Lake Tahoe changes every day as the lake level changes. The deepest measurement from the 1998 bathymetric survey was 1,637 ft (499 m) deep. The depth of Lake Tahoe depends on the height it is measured from; some measurements use sea level as a base reference, others use different points of reference. The appropriate reference, or datum, for Lake Tahoe's depth is still being debated. Therefore the measured depth of a lake is only preliminary data and may change.



Today, Lake Tahoe is a major tourist attraction in both Nevada and California. It is home to a number of ski resorts, summer outdoor recreation, beautiful mountain and lake scenery, tourist attractions, and casinos on the Nevada side of the lake.


Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of Americaupdated June, 2012.










Washoe Indians at Lake Tahoe

Washoe Indians at Lake Tahoe, 1866,  Lawrence & Houseworth.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!


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