and the Owens Valley
By Mike Cheuvront
The City of Bishop in Inyo County, California was named for one of the first
white settlers in the area, Samuel A. Bishop. Owens Lake was named for Richard
Owens a member of John C. Fremont's 1845 exploration party which included Kit
Carson and Ed Kern. Later the entire valley became known as The Owens Valley
(see First Settlers below). The Paiute Indians called Owens Lake by the name of
"Pacheta" and the Owens River" Wakopee."
In size, Inyo County is today the second largest county in California with a
population of slightly over 17,000 residents. The county is so big that several
eastern states put together would fit neatly within its' boundaries. Inyo County
contains the both the highest and lowest points in the contiguous United States;
Mt. Whitney, 14,496 feet above sea level, and Badwater in Death Valley, 282 feet
below sea level. A difference of nearly 15,000 feet.
The "Inyo" in Inyo County is commonly believed to be a Paiute word meaning
"dwelling place of the great spirit," although some scholars are now convinced
that it is a mistranslation of the word, " Indio," Spanish for Indian. It is
possible that the Paiute were trying to explain to the earliest English speaking
settlers in the Owens Valley that this was their land by using a form of "Indio"
they had learned from other Indian tribes, who in turn, had learned it from the
Spanish or Mexicans, not realizing that not all white men spoke the same
language. Thus Inyo may actually mean "Indian Land."
The first white American explorers in the Owens Valley of Eastern California
included the famous mountain men Jedediah Smith in 1826 and Joseph Walker in
1834. This remote area of California had never been explored by the Spanish and
even though it was shown as Mexican territory on early maps, the Eastern Sierra
region remained unvisited by them. Present day Walker Lake in western Nevada,
the Walker River on the California/Nevada border and Walker Pass in the southern
Sierra were named for their discoverer, Joseph Walker.
The most renowned early explorer to visit the area was John C. Fremont. He
was the first Republican candidate to run for President of the United States in
1856 and later a famous Union Civil War general. Officially sanctioned by the
federal government, his 1845 mapping party to the Eastern Sierra included the
celebrated Indian scout Kit Carson, for whom the capitol of Nevada, Carson City,
was named. Also in the party were Ed Kern for whom Kern County, California was
named, and Richard Owens, who gave his name to the Owens Lake near Lone Pine and
later the Owens Valley itself. Fremont lost a cannon that he had brought along
in case of Indian attacks somewhere near present day Bridgeport, California
(about 80 miles north of Bishop). Perhaps someone will stumble across the rusty
old cannon someday.
The City of Bishop came into being due to the need for beef in a booming
mining camp some eighty miles to the north, Aurora , Nevada, (Aurora was
believed to be on the California side of the border at that time and was the
county seat of Mono County, California). In 1861 cattlemen drove herds of cattle
some three hundred miles from the great San Joaquin Valley of California,
through the southern Sierra at Walker Pass, up the Owens Valley, and then
through Adobe Meadows to Aurora. Along the way, some cattlemen noticed that the
unsettled northern Owens Valley was perfect for raising livestock. To avoid the
long journey from the other side of the mountains, a few of them decided to
settle in the valley.
Driving some 600 head of cattle and 50 horses, Samuel Addison Bishop, his
wife, and several hired hands arrived in the Owens Valley on August 22, 1861
from Fort Tejón in the Tehacchapi Mountains. Along with Henry Vansickle, Charles
Putnam, Allen Van Fleet, and the McGee brothers, Bishop was one of the very
first white settlers in the valley. The cattlemen were soon followed by sheepmen
who initially struggled with a lack of forage for their stock in the area.
Remnants of these early settler's stone corrals and fences can still be seen
north of Bishop along Highway 395 in Round Valley (barb wire fencing was not
invented until 1873).
Establishing a homestead, the San Francis Ranch, along the creek which still
bears his name, Samuel Bishop set up a market to sell beef to the miners and
business owners in Aurora . One of the residents of Aurora at that time was a
young Samuel Clemens who later gained fame as author Mark Twain (see Twain's
Roughing It for his comments on our area). By1862, a frontier settlement
(and later town), known as Bishop Creek, was established a couple of miles east
of the San Francis Ranch. Though the town continues to prosper, the only
reminder of Samuel Bishop's ranch today is a monument placed near the original
site at the corner of Highway 168 West and Red Hill Road, two miles west of
downtown Bishop. In 1866, the County of Inyo was established from part of Tulare
The Eastern High Sierra and the Owens Valley was the western most frontier in
America at that time. In 1871, Daniel Bruhn was one of 41 wranglers herding some
3000 wild Spanish mustangs from Stockton, California to Texas. Their travels
took them over the High Sierra and into the remote Owens Valley where they lost
over 500 head of horses. The descendants of those mustangs still roam wild on
the California/Nevada border just north of Bishop (read
more by clicking here).
Los Angeles and the Department of Water and Power
(from the private
Between 1905 and 1907 most of the land in the Owens Valley was purchased from
farmers and ranchers at bargain prices by William Mulholland , superintendent of
the Water Department for the City of Los Angeles under the guise of a local
irrigation project. Their real goal was to send Owens Valley water south to Los
Angeles . By the time the now famous Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed in 1913,
it was to late for valley residents to take any action. The aqueduct, 223 miles
long, used no pumping stations just gravity siphons sending water from the Owens
Valley to Southern California . The City of Los Angeles receives 70% of it's
water from the Owens Valley and the Eastern High Sierra.
With the diversion of water to Los Angeles , the Owens Lake and lower Owens
River dried up and many valley residents were forced to pack up and leave the
area forever. For a number of years, Owens Valley residents expressed much
animosity toward the City of Los Angeles as can be seen in Dry Ditches , a
little book of poems published in 1934 by the Parcher family of Bishop. The
Owens Valley-City of Los Angeles conflict was the subject of the 1974 film
Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson.
Today the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is a good steward
of the land and offers visitors and locals alike many recreational opportunities
including fishing, hunting and recreating on city owned property. The LADWP
allows unrestricted access to most of its lands (no camping except in designated
campgrounds) and the stretch of the Owens River in the valley is open to fishing
Native American Cultural Heritage
Chidago Canyon Ancient Indian
Petroglyphs north of Bishop
-photo by Mike Cheuvront
Years ago in this broad and beautiful valley, now called the Owens Valley ,
bordered by the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west and the White and Inyo
ranges on the east, lived a people who were observant, resourceful and
practical. They lived from what the land could provide. All of their needs -
food, clothing, housing, medicine, arts and entertainment - were satisfied by
their efforts at hunting and gathering. In all seasons the land gave up to them
what they needed.
Today these people are known by the names given by scholars to their
languages - Paiute and Shoshone. They now reside on four Reservations in the
Owens Valley . The southernmost is the Lone Pine Indian Reservation, northward
is Fort Independence Reservation and Big Pine Indian Reservation. The largest
and northernmost is the Bishop Indian Reservation.