Because of its location in the remote and relatively inaccessible portion of the Sierra Nevada range, Lake Tahoe apparently escaped “discovery” by all but the local native population up until 1844.
It was on Valentine’s Day of that year that Captain John Charles Fremont and his party were near Carson Pass, atop Steven’s Peak or Red Mountain, on their exploration of the west. Looking north, Captain Fremont spotted a large lake which he named “Lake Bonpland,” after a fellow-explorer. However, the topographer of the party, Charles Preuss, only noted it on his maps as “Mountain Lake.”
The lake would be known as Mountain Lake for several years and then Lake Bigler, after a California governor who, in 1852, led a rescue party to aid some stranded emigrants near the lake.
Naming it after a politician did not set well with some, so about 1861, when there was a strong movement to establish place name all through California, there was a movement to name the lake Tula Tulia, which some believed to be its real Indian name. Finally, in 1862, when all the dust settled, the name Tahoe (a Washoe Indian word meaning “big water”, “high water”, or “water in a high place”) prevailed (Mark Twain, in his book “Innocents Abroad,” disagrees with the meaning of the word Tahoe and contends it means “grasshopper soup”). It should have ended there, except in 1945 someone noticed that the proper procedure had not been followed in 1862 and the lake was still officially Lake Bigler. A quick act of the California legislature corrected that.
Direct exploration of the Lake may have taken place in the winter of 1844 by the Stevens-Townsend-Murphy emigrant party, a group that followed an old Indian trail over the mountains near the lake. This route would be substantially improved by John C. “Cockeye” Johnson, a rancher, Indian fighter and later a California State Assemblyman.
Johnson’s Cut-Off, as the road would be known, followed the general route of today’s highways 50 and 89, but took a more precipitous route, climbing directly from the valley to Echo Summit on a twenty-five percent grade road. In spite of the fact that there were places where the oxen had to be unhitched and the wagons hauled up the mountain by block and tackle, many parties of emigrants used this route, rather than follow the Carson Immigrant Trail to the south.