July 8, 2020 Moonshine Minutes

Who were the Native Americans of the Tahoe/Truckee region?



Hey everyone, I’m Alex Hoeft, and for today’s Moonshine Minutes, we wanted to bring you back in time to the rich history that preceded the White Euro-American people in the Truckee and North Tahoe region. The research and information comes courtesy the Truckee-Donner Historical Society.

For thousands of years, Native Americans journeying from the east came to the region during the summer months, seeking to escape the heat of present-day Nevada and to trade with tribes residing in now-California.

The ancient tribal connection to this area began around 2000 B.C. with the Martis culture, who stayed in the Summit Valley area of Donner Summit.


The Martis people lived in Northern California on both the eastern and western sides of the Sierra Nevada. They left behind evidence of their culture in many places. There are dozens of mortar sites to be found throughout the valley. They also left behind copious petroglyphs as well as basalt flakes from the process of crafting projectile points for spears. 

The Martis remained in Summit Valley until about 500 A.D. No one knows exactly why evidence of their occupation just stops around that time period, although it is believed that climate change may have been one of the reasons they “disappeared” as the area had become significantly drier over time.

The Maidu people were a peaceful, semi-nomadic tribe that inhabited the Sierra Nevada and adjacent valleys in Northern California who were primarily hunter-gatherers and fishermen.

Prior to the Gold Rush, in 1848, it was estimated that there were 4,000 Northern Maidus. The Maidu’s lands were right in the middle of where gold was found, however, and they were eventually overrun by white settlers seeking gold. Their native food supplies vanished in the wake of colonization.

The Washo tribe inhabited the Lake Tahoe region more than 1,300 years ago. They would generally spend the summer in the Sierra Nevada, then in the fall move to mountain ranges to the east, utilizing the valleys found in between for the winter and spring.

Washo people were semi-sedentary hunters and gatherers and very knowledgeable about their land and its resources. This included an understanding of the seasonal cycles of both plants and animals. Fishing was a huge part of the Washo way of life and each family had their own fishing grounds.

The Washo did not have sustained contact with white Euro-Americans until the 1848 California Gold Rush. Their resistance to incursions on their lands proved unsuccessful. The last armed conflict between the Washoe and the settlers was the Potato War of 1857, during which starving Washo were killed for gathering potatoes from a settler’s farm.

Their hunting grounds were lost to farms and the pine groves fell to feed Virginia City’s demand for lumber and charcoal. Commercial fishing at Lake Tahoe destroyed another important resource to the people. These events forced the  Washo to depend on jobs found on ranches, farms, and in cities.

And no story on the region’s Native American influence would be complete without a nod to Chief Truckee. There are many differing stories about who was first to call the famed chief “Truckee,” but all accounts are in agreement regarding his friendship with early explorers and settlers.

One such story talks about a Paiute chief who told members of the Stephens/Townsend/Murphy party in 1844 that 50 or 60 miles to the west there was a river that flowed easterly from the mountains. Along the river, the story goes, he gave them the tip that they would find large trees and good grass. A scouting party, which included the chief, rode out to investigate. While exploring, their native guide used the Paiute word for “all right.” The word sounded like “tro-kay” to the settlers and everyone thought the chief was telling them his name. The party found the route to be “all right” and began to refer to their guide as “Chief Truckee” (a liberal translation of “tro-kay”). The chief liked the name so much that he retained it for the rest of his life.

Check out the full story, titled Pre-Colonization Peoples, on our website at moonshineink.com, including photos of petroglyphs and Chief Truckee, as well as more information on why these tribes left the region.

Moonshine’s In the Past column seeks to provide a healthy dose of history about the region, so if you like gazing through the window to the past, be sure to keep an eye out for it in our monthly print editions.



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