BY JUDY DEPUY | Moonshine Ink

For thousands of years, Native Americans journeying from the east occupied the Summit Valley area of Donner Summit during the summer months. They sought 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.


The mysterious disappearance of the Martis Culture

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. The hard Sierra granite mortars (grinding holes) and metates (grinding slicks) were used by the Martis to grind their foods. They also left behind copious petroglyphs as well as basalt flakes from the process of crafting projectile points for spears. The Martis people followed game to the high mountain meadows and made use of the great variety of available foods.

Gathering edible plant-based materials, including a wide variety of seeds, nuts, and berries, was the responsibility of the tribe’s women.

DEADLY BASALT: Martis culture men would knap basalt and fashion the rock pieces into projectile points for spears, which means they would shape a piece of stone, typically flint by striking it so as to make stone tools or weapons or to give a flat-faced stone for building walls. Photo courtesy Bill Oudegeest/Donner Summit Historical Society

Oak acorns were a staple of the Martis people’s diet. Since the summit was too high for acorns to grow, this food source was often brought from lower elevations. The acorns were then soaked or washed in water, which would remove the tannins that created a bitter flavor and ultimately made them taste better. At the mortar sites, women shared important lessons with young girls. Each generation passed on little bits of culture and knowledge along with each meal ground on the mortars.

The Martis men would be found nearby, fashioning basalt rock pieces into projectile points for spears. They, too, passed on important lessons to the boys of the tribe.

Donner Summit was a summer meeting place for other tribes in the area as well, including the Maidu (Nisenan), Miwok, and Washo (Washoe) tribes. At the summit, the California Native Americans traded shells, obsidian, and acorns for dried fish that had been caught at Pyramid Lake by the Martis.

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.

It is known, however, that around the same time the Martis ceased to exist in the valley, the bow and arrow weaponry system was developed by the area’s Native Americans. The new weapon had more power, greater accuracy, and a wider range than war tools used prior, so it is possible that advanced war technology contributed to their downfall.

The Martis historically used spears as well as atlatls (spear throwers) for their hunting. They worked almost exclusively with basalt to craft tools and projectile points. Basalt was readily available in the area but could not be crafted into the finer and lighter-weight points needed for arrows. Chert and obsidian had suddenly become highly valued, although they were not available on the Sierra Crest. The nearest source of obsidian is the Tuolomne area near Yosemite, which necessitated the Martis to either trade with California tribes or relocate to craft arrowheads.

The peaceful Maidu

The Maidu people were a peaceful, semi-nomadic tribe that inhabited the Sierra Nevada

SUMMER HOME: In summer, the Maidu people would build cedar bark tepees described as pointed conical cedar bark shelters built by tying several poles together and covered with bark and sticks. Photo courtesy Bill Oudegeest/Donner Summit Historical Society

and adjacent valleys in Northern California, including Plumas and southern Lassen counties who were primarily hunter-gatherers and fishermen. They hunted in the summer, building wigwams (wikiups) as temporary shelters and during winter lived in semi-subterranean pit houses or earth lodges. Their food staples included acorns, fish, and small game.

Prior to the Gold Rush, in 1848, it was estimated that there were 4,000 Northern Maidus (Nisenan). 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 (Washoe), Tahoe’s first summer vacationers

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. The western part of the Washo territory was in the mountains and subject to heavy snows, so few people wintered there.

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 piñon 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.

The Lake Tahoe area is a very spiritual place for members of the Washo Tribe. It also explains their concern for the protection of locations important to the Washo Heritage.

What’s in a name?: Chief Truckee, friend and scout to early settlers. Photo courtesy Truckee-Donner Historical Society

Chief Truckee’s influence

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 Stephens, Caleb Greenwood and 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.

Native American food sources in Tahoe/Truckee:

Antelope, rabbits, squirrels, deer, fox, mountain sheep, mountain lion, trout, suckers, wolves, bear, elk, coyotes, bobcat, rodents, small game, grasses, ferns, grass seeds, pollen, plant bulbs, tarweed seeds, mule ear seeds, roots, berries, wild onion, green shoots, miner’s lettuce, cress, juniper berries, termites, grasshoppers, larvae, caterpillar

Call for Volunteers

Become involved in the community and share its history with others. Volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad Societies and belong to a group that continues to share the stories of Truckee’s rich history with locals and visitors alike.

There are numerous volunteer opportunities that can match your strengths and interests:

  • Be a docent at the new Museum of Truckee History, the Truckee Train Museum or the Old Jail Museum (prior experience not required; we’ll provide training)
  • Help with the summer train rides at Truckee River Regional Park
  • Write articles for historical society websites and local publications

Please send an email to or call (530) 582-0893 for information.


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