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Another Perspective

A Little Early California History

California today is an open, welcoming community. It hasn't always been this way. The State has had its share of white supremacists in leadership positions and has honored some of them by naming precious resources after them. We should never forget our history. Here is one example.

John Bigler, a Democrat, in 1851 was running to become the third Governor of California. It's reported on a campaign stop in Hangtown, he visited a floriculturist. While in her shop, he admired a plant with a profusion of white blossoms. The woman smiled and told him the admired flower came from a bulb. She promised to send him some for his inauguration. On the day Bigler was sworn in, the woman sent him a peck of potatoes.

Bigler was popular during his early years in office. His stern policies and harsh verbal attacks on the Chinese were well received. When he first came to power, the capital was in Vallejo, but it lacked the facilities, supplies, and furniture to fulfill the function. Bigler argued the capital should be moved to his adopted home of Sacramento. It was granted, but flooding problems prevented Sacramento from retaining the seat of government. It moved again, this time to Benicia. To encourage the move, Benicia's leaders built a building for the legislature's exclusive use. Nevertheless, Benicia didn't work out either. Government returned to Sacramento and in February 1854 Governor Bigler signed a bill making Sacramento the official Capital of California.

The Governor's popularity peaked in 1854 at the start of his second term. Democrats were the majority in the legislature and pushed through a bill to rename Lake Bonpland, "Lake Bigler". It was John C. Fremont who'd named the high Sierra lake, "Bonpland". Fremont's name never caught on. People preferred to call it "Mountain Lake" or "Fremont's Lake." Maps began identifying it as Lake Bigler in 1853 and the legislature made it official the following year.

Bigler's popularity faded when it became evident he didn't handle State funds wisely and that he supported the South in the Civil War. When he lost favor, so did naming the lake after him. Maps returned to identifying it as "Mountain Lake".  In 1862 it was suggested by Union supporters that the lake be given the name "Tahoe," the name used by a local tribe.

"Tahoe" didn't receive universal acceptance either. Mark Twain mocked the name, urging a return to Bigler. The Placerville Mountain Democrat started an unfounded rumor that "Tahoe" was the name of an Indian who preyed on whites. In response to the criticisms, in 1870 the legislature changed the official name back to "Lake Bigler." It remained this way for approximately thirty years, when the Bigler name again fell out of favor. By the turn of the twentieth century most people were referring to the lake as "Tahoe", though the Legislature didn't officially change the lake's name until 1945.

John Bigler was a man of his times. It's good he is no longer honored for it.

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