The original inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe Basin, the Washoe, are a fascinating people. With a history in the Sierra Nevada stretching back 9000 years, they are the oldest tribe in California. They have a fascinating history both before and after the coming of the Americans. In American history the Washoe guided Kit Carson and Charles Fremont through the Sierra Nevada; later they were the first to bring food to the stranded Donner Party. The Washoe have tribal lore that speaks of the Si Te Cah tribe, long believed to be just an ignorant savage fantasy, but recent discoveries have proven they are true. The Si Te Cah, otherwise known as “Sasquach” or “Bigfoot,” truly did exist, and their mummified remains have been found in several locations. From a population numbering approximately 1,500 people whose homeland stretched from Mono Lake in the South to Honey Lake in the North, the Washoe were reduced to only 500 people in 1866, with no land to call their own. They persevered and are still living in their homeland as friendly, hardworking, creative American citizens.
The Washoe made a good business as traders. Much like the Old Cherokee Nation, the Washoe homeland is located in the mountains straddling the lowest passes that go through them. U.S. Highway 50 and 1-80 (as well as Highway 88 and several other passes) go right through the Washoe homeland. Straddling two very different regions, the Washoe profited by the trade in goods between these regions. Form the south near Mono Lake, the Washoe had access to one of the greatest sources of obsidian in the U.S., for making knives, arrowheads and other tools. The volcanic cinder cones located just south of Mono Lake are some of the best quality obsidian to be found in the world. The Washoe got top value for bringing these quality obsidian blanks to trade at “To Go No,” present day Sly Park, California. Their other big trade item was Jack rabbit skin blankets. These warm blankets were much sought after by the California tribes.
The Washoe also traded pinyon pine nuts. but these were more of a delicacy than a bulk food item. The Washoe had good relations with the Hill Nissenan People, who worked the only known quartz crystal quarry in the region (still being worked today). These crystals were traded as far east as present day Denver, Colorado, south to Baja California, and north to the Rogue River. The Washoe had their finger on this trade item as it went east and they were known for this. The trade in quartz crystals is believed to have been a major business for at least 800 years from this one quarry. To the south in the Sierra Nevada were salt springs that the Mountain Miwok worked. By grinding holes into the rock ledges they channeled the salt water into these holes where it dried, leaving the salt. This salt was highly prized as it was not the common sodium chloride such as sea salt, but was primarily alum chloride. You may realize this as a pickling salt, but you may not realize this is the reason for the unique taste of McDonald’s French fries. For proof, ask the establishment for a salt packet and read the ingredients; it is alum chloride, not the more common sodium chloride. Yes, that special nearly addicting taste is alum chloride, and it isn’t addicting just to humans. Natural deposits of alum chloride in the Sierra Nevada, such as the ones on Darling Ridge, draw deer in from miles to eat the very earth creating holes in the ground as they take in the alum chloride.
Today few people realize the value of salt to these people. It wasn’t used for seasoning food it was for preserving food. We today salt our food to taste; in the past salt was used to preserve that food. Salt was necessary in the preservation of skins and preserving fruit. From the coast peoples, the Washoe got seashells, the abalone being the most prized. Whale and seal oil, acorn meal, elk hides, sea salt, and other items were in great demand by the peoples living in the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains to the east. The Washoe greatly improved their standard of living through this extensive trade network. As a result, the Washoe developed extremely effective snow shoes. These snow shoes enabled the Washoe to extend the time available for trading as well as hunting in the deep snow. Fremont in his expedition across the Sierra Nevada had Washoe guides take him over today’s Carson Spur and Mormon Emigrant Trail to Sly Park. Fremont noted that he was greatly impressed by the Washoe’s snow shoes and their agility.
The history of the West from the Natives perspective, and the world wide forces affecting them, are rarely found in our history books. For the tribes in the West, the history, before the 1840s is poorly understood and when taken out of context seems to make no sense to the casual reader. In particular the history of the Natives in Northern California seems to be completely overlooked. These people had a turbulent history prior to the Gold Rush of 1849, and while run over in the flood of immigration, their history continued. This fascinating part of our Nation’s history and the context in which it occurred is the heart of Guy Nixon’s work. Mr. Nixon (Red Corn) is a decendant of the Middle Rivers Band of the Great Osage Tribe.