John Bigler


John Bigler : biography

1805-1-8 – 29 November 1871

An 1860s map of "Lake Bigler" during the name controversy Lake Bigler’s usage never became universal. In just a year, different maps referred to the lake not only as Bigler, but also as "Mountain Lake" to "Maheon Lake." By 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, former Governor Bigler, once a Free Soil Democrat, had become an ardent Confederate sympathizer. Unionists and Republicans alike derided the former governor’s name on the lake on official state maps. Pro-Union papers called for a "change from this Secesh appellation" and "no Copperhead names on our landmarks for us." Several Unionist members in the Legislature suggested changing the name to the fanciful sounding "Tula Tulia." The Sacramento Union jokingly suggested the name "Largo Bergler" for Bigler’s widely perceived financial incompetency in his final term and contemporary Southern sympathies.

The debate took a new direction when William Henry Knight, mapmaker for the federal U.S. Department of the Interior, and colleague Dr. Henry DeGroot of the Sacramento Union joined the political argument in 1862. As Knight completed a new map of the lake, the mapmaker asked DeGroot for a new name of the lake. DeGroot suggested "Tahoe," a local tribal name he believed meant "water in a high place." Knight agreed, and telegraphed to the Land Office in Washington, D.C. to officially change all federal maps to now read "Lake Tahoe." Knight later explained his desire for a name change, writing, "I remarked (to many) that people had expressed dissatisfaction with the name "Bigler", bestowed in honor of a man who had not distinguished himself by any single achievement, and I thought now would be a good time to select an appropriate name and fix it forever on that beautiful sheet of water."

"Lake Tahoe," also like "Lake Bigler," did not gain universal acceptance. Mark Twain, a critic of the new name, called it an "unmusical cognomen." In an 1864 editorial regarding the name in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Twain cited Bigler as being "the legitimate name of the Lake, and it will be retained until some name less flat, insipid and spooney than "Tahoe" is invented for it." – From the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, February 12, 1864 In Twain’s 1869 novel Innocents Abroad, Twain continued to deride the name in his foreign travels. "People say that Tahoe means ‘Silver Lake’ – ‘Limpid Water’ – ‘Falling Leaf.’ Bosh! It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe – and of the Piutes as well." The Placerville Mountain Democrat began a notorious rumor that "Tahoe" was actually an Indian renegade who plundered upon White settlers. To counter the federal government, the California State Legislature reaffirmed in 1870 that the lake was indeed called "Lake Bigler."

By the end of the 19th century, usage of "Lake Bigler" had nearly completely fallen out of popular vocabulary in favor of "Tahoe." The California State Legislature officially reversed its previous decision in 1945, officially changing the name to Lake Tahoe.


Bigler was born in early 1805 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to parents of German ancestry. Beginning work in the printing trade at an early age, Bigler, as well as his younger brother, William, never received a formal education, yet Bigler took it upon himself to educate his younger brother. In 1831, both brothers moved to Bellefonte in Centre County to buy the local Andrew Jackson-affiliated Centre Democrat newspaper, where older John assumed editorial duties. Bigler worked as editor until 1835 when he sold the publication to study law.

When news of the California gold rush reached the East Coast in mid-1848, Bigler, now a middle-aged lawyer, decided to leave for the West Coast to join a law practice. Travelling overland with an ox train, Bigler reached Sacramento in 1849, only to quickly discover no open positions in law. Bigler began to work a series of odd jobs, including becoming an auctioneer, a wood chopper, and a freight unloader at the town’s docks along the Sacramento River. Upon hearing of the territory’s first general election in the same year, Bigler decided to turn to politics, and entered the California State Assembly as a Democrat, one of nine members representing the Sacramento district.