Monday, March 1, 2021

Old maps of California, depicting remnants of Tulare Lake, Kern Lake, Buena Vista Lake

Tulare Lake, once the largest lake west of the Mississippi, was destroyed by the prodigious thirst of farmers, in particular, a voracious cotton king—which led to the destruction of an entire ecosystem. 

Facebook’s California Geology Forum moderator reposted an “imagined map” from another site, Simon shows you maps. Aussie map collector Simon, who was riffing off a 2012 “Big Think” article, said, “The map imagines a satellite view of California is (sic) 1851.” Simon, who seriously needs an editor, had the poor map imagining itself as being viewed by a “satellite” which had me doubting both its sentience and its veracity, as well as wondering about Simon’s grasp on the English language. Research was required.

I was on a roll. After consulting several old California maps from the 1840s to the 1890s, I can safely say that the Google satellite flyby didn’t happen in 1851, but sometime after 1874—perhaps as late as 1890. No, seriously, folks, all that silly steampunking aside, geographer Mark Clark’s imaginary map, though very cool, seems to represent a much later version of the Tule/Tulare Lake(s) certainly later than 1851—more like something out of the 1880s or ‘90s. All of which led me on a merry snow goosechase hunting down some of the backstory of Tulare Lake, and co., by way of old maps. The maps and storyline posted below are presented more or less in chronological order. 

For starters, I learned that the depiction that Clark used to represent an imaginary 1851 Google map of Tulare Lake was far too small, as Tulare Lake(s) was something like 8 times larger than Tahoe, at 687 mi². it was shallow, with an average depth of about 40 feet, but deeper in winter. It was massive. After the demise of archaic Lake Cahuilla in the 1700s, Tulare Lake was the largest baddass lake and wetlands West of the Mississippi. It was king.

I discovered that prehistoric Tulare Lake—remnant of Pleistocene Lake Corcoran—dried up within living memory, after all its tributary rivers were diverted for agriculture in the 1920s and 1930s. The 81-mile-long lake, named for the vast sea of tule rushes (Schoenoplectus acutus) lining its marshes and sloughs, with three other lakes, Buena Vista, Kern, and Goose lakes, was part of one of the largest wetlands in North America. 

Tulare Lake also had an archipelago of sand islands, home to the densest popularion of Natives in California. The Tulare basin, at 16,400 to 20,000 square miles, depending on who’s counting, was so vast, that its fisheries fed all the major cities of California. It was a major pathway for migrating birds, and also home to the southernmost range of the Chinook salmon on the West Coast. 

There was so much seasonal snowmelt water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains that farmers built levees and canals in the 1880s and 1890s to tame it, and to farm its rich bottomlands. The lake also served as a major water road for paddlewheel ferries. No one imagined that the lake would disappear forever. 

Apparently, during the 1920s, a southern farmer, JG Boswell, in an act of extreme hubris, drained one of the largest lakes in America to build the biggest little ole cotton empire in the world. It was the coup de la mort, the final blow—even the canals and levees constructed during the 1890s did nowhere near the damage Boswell did in the name of cotton. Look away, Dixieland. California cotton was king. 

That headline is so problematic, it made my eyeteeth hurt. Hysterical juxtaposition. The map itself can’t imagine what happened, no matter how hard it tries. No matter how sentient it thinks it is. The cartographer, Clark, whom we hope is sentient, could, and did imagine it, however, Simon still needs an editor. Let's move on, shall we? But what about the maps?

I just so happened to have a motly collection of old maps on my iPad from the 1840s to the 1860s—they show significantly larger bodies of water than in Clark’s “imagined” 1851 map. Maybe it was a drought year. Note that the 1873 map is similar to the imagined map.

 Inland from Santa Barbara, first representation of Tulare Lakes ca. 1844
Leventhal Map & Education Center

Mapa de Estados Unidos y Méjico 1846

An 1846 map from Mexico. Sorry no higher resolution. “lo organizado y definido por las varias actas del Congreso de dicha República: y construido por las mejores autoridades; lo publican J. Disturnell, 1846. Leventhal Map & Education Center

Frémont’s 1848 map commissioned by the Senate. Manifest Destiny.

An 1848 map I’ve never seen before. Too bad it’s blurry, even in full resolution, but Tulare Lake is significantly different that the “imagined” map of 1851. much, much longer, a lot of wetlands, and certainly not a puddle at the foot of the Tehachapis. It’s even got Soda Lake on the Carrizo Plain. Check out the lake or wetlands near Davis. Napa Valley was a lake? Well, its barely above sea level. Unless there was a lake where Berryessa is now.  Can’t be  Clear lake? Back to the imagined map: I guess 1851 must’ve been a drought year.

This map was part of a secret expedition, the Senate was considering the possibility of trying to annex California so Fremont was sent to thoroughly map the area. Manifest Destiny, the beginning of the end of Californio rule.

Map of Oregon and upper California, from the surveys of John Charles Frémont and other authorities: Frémont, John Charles, 1813-1890. Cartographer: Preuss, Charles, 1803-1854, drawn by Charles Preuss under the order of the Senate of the United States, 1848. Leventhal Map & Education Center

Sherman & Smith, 1849

1849 map, gold rush. Huge Lake Tulare, and a second lake—Kern Lake. Another map I found listed two Tulare Lakes. Probably the same Kern Lake. Creator: Sherman & Smith. by J. Calvin Smith, 1849. Leventhal Map & Education Center.

Gold Rush map, California spans the Rockies, Oregon Territory, ca. 1846-49 G.H. Swanson

1850 map by Lt. George Horario Derby, from The Good Life

A modern map of the hydrology and wetlands of the Tulare Basin 1850s

No date on this map. Shows the Butterfield Stage routes ca. 1860-69?

No date on this map either, it’s from my collection. Very ornate, with florid scrollwork, etc. Shows the Butterfield Stage routes. 1860-69? Tulare, Buena Vista Lake, Goose Lake, AND Kern Lakes. Fort Tejón was established in 1854-1864 when natives were relocated to Tule Lake reserve. Check out how Fresno is spelled. And the phonetic Tehachapi Tah ee chay pah—which informs two things, it’s an Uto-Aztecan language derivation, as -pah always signifies a place of water. Another train of thought, Tehachapi, derived from tihachipia, from either a Yokutsan name, or the southern Numic Kawaiisu language,which translated as "hard climb." I prefer my translation, as the Tehachapi Valley was once a large marshy lakebed. Besides, Paiute is still part of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

If this map is accurate, then it suggests that the mid-1860s were significantly drier, and/or people were already draining wetlands. That area would’ve been pretty busy with all those stagecoaches and wagon trains. Probably represents the the Butterfield Overland Stage route. No railroad over Tehachapi until 1874.

Probably the map used for the “imagined” map. It’s such a great map for details, here it is in full. No idea where I found it. It looks a bit like a tourist souvenir map.

I found an Etsy reproduction of this map listed as an 1860 map, Mitchell

1863 map

In the unidentified hand-drawn 1863 map, Tulare Lake (Laguna de Tache, from the Tache Yokuts: Pah-áh-su—pah is water in Uto-Aztecan) was massive, it was still the largest body of fresh water west of the Great Lakes. Apparently Yokuts means people, and  Tache means mudhen—Mudhen was an important can-do founder of Turtle Island. She outfoxed that trickster, Coyote. The former reigning heavyweight lake to hold the largest lake west of the Mississippi title, Lake Cahuilla, which mysteriously disappeared during the 17th century—probably from a massive earthquake rearranging outflow elevation. After all, it was right on the San Andreas Fault
Late Pleistocene vs 1873. Lake Cahuilla/Salton Sea was the largest freshwater lake.

Tulare Lake was so vast, as late as 1876, it had an archipelago, the Pelican Islands—now Sand Ridge in King’s County. In times of low water, They divided the lake into two lakes, called the Tache and Ton Tache lakes. They were once home to mammoth, bison, and horses during the Pleistocene, and tule elk and pronghorn sheep as late as the 1850s. The islands, rich in endemic fauna and flora, supported one of the densest populations of natives in California—the Tache Yokuts—in  the San Joaquin basin. They fished its abundant waters in reed boats. But they were decimated by smallpox in 1833—a mass grave was the final punctuation point of an unbroken perfect cultural arc that spanned 10,000 years.

F. v. Leicht & A. Craven, 1874 Leventhal Map & Education Center

Tulare Lake was fed by the Kern, Tule, and Kaweah, and the Kings River tributaries, where it overflowed into San Joaquin River, that is, until 1878 when the water was diverted for agricultural use; by 1899, the lake was beginning to disappear. The venerable lake, once home to the southernmost Chinook salmon run on the West Coast, was reduced to an ephemeral, or seasonal pond. Then alon ancient g came Boswell, the cotton king, who siphoned off the rest of the water, and and turned the lakebed into cotton fields, finishing off the lake for good.
Tulare Lake and its extensive marshes supported an important fishery: In 1888, in one three-month period, 73,500 pounds of fish were shipped to San Francisco. It was also the source of a regional favorite, western pond turtles, which were relished as terrapin soup in San Francisco and elsewhere. The lake and surrounding wetlands were a significant stop for hundreds of thousands of birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. Tulare Lake was written about by Mark Twain.  —Wiki
Tulare Lake 1875 Wiki
Tulare Lake 1899 —Wiki

At the tail end of the19th century, canals diverted the water from the Buena Vista and Kern lakes for agricultural use, destroying them, which lead to a lawsuit by downstream property owners in Lux v. Haggin. Today, all that remains of the former Buena Vista Lake, are two small recreational manmade puddle lakes, Lake Webb and Lake Evans nestled along its northern shore.

Some references and literary bits 
(still looking for Mark Twain account)
In the Tules” by Bret Harte
Lt. Derby Explores Tulare Valley
Tulare Lake was once considered largest body of water west of Mississippi


Scott Phillips said...

Another map(s) I've found helpful is Wm. Hall's irrigation maps from the 1860's. This set (mosaic of 3 sheets) shows the lake then but also shows the lake margins in other years/surveys:,-Irrigat?qvq=w4s:/what%2FIrrigation%2F;lc:RUMSEY~8~1&mi=32&trs=37. That is the basis for the "modern map" I made some years back.

For the "satellite" one - I saw that at a conference map gallery years ago - seemed more like a fun map using photoshop. From what I recall it's based on the "1873" map in the article. - also available here: But that map seems to take it's lake boundary from earlier maps based on surveys in the 1850's. These earlier maps seem to be the first ones that somewhat accurately depict the lake:,0.011,1.634,0.813,0.

One reason "1850" or something close to that is often used on "pre-development" maps is to try to pin a time before irrigation canal development in the Valley, which started up a bit after the gold rush.

Maureen Hurley said...

Dear Scott,

Thank you for sending me your links. I will add them to this ever-growing blogpost. Yes, the magical 1850-51 period— of course the lake would change radically, men were hydraulically rearranging the Sierra Nevada foothills in their search for gold.