It hasn’t always been called Tahoe. In fact, that big blue body of water we all love so much has gone through quite a few name changes and suggestions since John Frémont and Charles Preuss first laid eyes on it in February 1844 or, more accurately, since the Washoe tribe started spending their summers around the lake maintaining fishing camps and milling sites. The tribe soon fell victim to encroachment as the area was overrun by miners and settlers, losing all their land by 1863.

Below, we break down names Tahoe has had over the years, covering everything from the official names,
to the almosts, to the obscure.


Da ow a ga | pre-1844

• The Washoe word for lake, similar to how Lake Tahoe is today referred to as “The Lake” for short.

• All other lake names in the Washoe language include the word Da ow which translates to lake. Da ow a ga means “edge of the lake.”

Mountain Lake | 1845

• John Frémont coined this name on Feb. 14, 1844.

• It should be noted that Frémont apparently did not purposely choose the name. He simply used those words as a descriptive term, “… we had a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet … ” and it stuck.

Lake Bonpland | 1848

• The name given to Lake Tahoe by cartographer Charles Preuss according to an 1848 map. Preuss chose Bonpland in honor of the French botanist Amie Jacques Alexandre Bonpland, a German naturalist, explorer, and statesman who had accompanied Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt on his exploration of Mexico, Colombia, and the Amazon River.

Lake Bigler | 1870

• The name was officially changed to Bigler after the third governor of California (1852-1856) who led a rescue party from Placerville over Echo Summit to save a group of snowbound emigrants in 1852.

• By 1861, the start of the American Civil War, Bigler was recognized as a Southern sympathizer and the pro-Union newspapers began protesting the use of his name for the lake.

• Bigler stuck until 1945, when the designation was — at last legally — established as Lake Tahoe.

Lake Tahoe | 1945

• Tahoe is the Anglo-American pronunciation of the Washoe word Da ow, an origin that is accepted by both the Washoe tribe and the Anglo-Americans.

• In 1862 the Library of Congress released a map of the Pacific states, marking the first official record of the name Lake Tahoe.

• It wasn’t until 1945 that the California Legislature made Lake Tahoe the lake’s name of record.


Maheon Lake | 1845

• This descriptor came into use around the same time as Mountain Lake, but was less popularized.

Gleason Valley | 1851

• For a brief period, the lake and its basin were named Gleason Valley.

Truckee Lake | ~1853

• This name was suggested because of the lake’s Truckee River headwaters, but, because a lake to the north of Truckee Pass (now known as Donner Pass) was already known as Truckee Lake, it was deemed unadvisable.

Lake Valley | 1857

• When Col. Johnson laid out his road across the mountains, the lake passed unnoticed except under the general term of Lake Valley.

Tula Tulia | 1861

• Controversy over the lake being named after a politician began to stir in the newspapers, and renaming the lake to Tula Tulia was pondered.

• Some believe Tula Tulia to be the lake’s original Indian name.

Largo Bergler | 1863

• The Sacramento Union jokingly suggested the name “Largo Bergler” for Bigler’s widely perceived financial incompetency in his final term and contemporary Southern sympathies.

Sierra Lake | 1863

• Suggested, but vetoed, because there was already a Sierra Lake near the Downieville Buttes.

Lake Union | 1870

• A Nevada citizen suggested that the name should be Lake Union for the line that passes nearly through the center of the lake and divides it longitudinally between the states of California and Nevada.

Mark Twain Took Great Offense to the Name Lake Tahoe — Why?

There are three theories …

1. Originally from Missouri, he briefly served in the army, aligning himself with the confederates.

2. He was a hard-core racist toward Native Americans, so he objected to any language that would connect the English culture to the Native American culture.

3. He didn’t like foreign words being used in English.


  • Ally Gravina

    Ally Gravina is a freelance journalist and former Moonshine editor based in Graeagle. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in arts and culture reporting.

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