When the Yokuts Indian Nation Inhabited the great San Joaquin Valley, Tulare Lake was purported to be the largest fresh water lake west of the Mississippi River. The lake lay within the borders of what used to be a much larger Tulare County, and it's waters once lapped at the edge of Buzzard's Roost now known as the town of Waukena. In 1868, the lake covered almost 1,000 square miles. From prehistoric times, the rush-choked lake provided an abundance of waterfowl, fish, clams, mussels, oysters and terrapin for the Yokuts living around the lake. Adept with bow and arrow, the Yokuts also hunted deer, elk and antelope along the lakes rambling shoreline.
In 1773, Commandant Tagus, an Emissary for the Spanish Governor and the first white man to view the lake, named it "Los Tules". In 1825, the lake became public knowledge when the legendary Jedediah Smith led the first band of white settlers into the San Joaquin Valley. The group found the lake more than 40 miles long and 20 miles wide. In flood season, it has measured as much as 75 miles in length.
In addition to hunting, the first white man's industry in the lake as started by Visalia Attorney, A.J. Atwell. Atwell raised hogs on Atwell's Island, now Alpaugh, in the far southern portion of the lake. Atwell built the first boar of any consequence on the lake in 1875 and called the schooner "Mose Andross". It carried cattle and hogs between Atwell's Landing on the northeast shore, Gordon's Point on the west side and Root Island or Atwell's Island at the southern end of the lake. In 1876 the Andross was re-equipped as a side-wheel steamboat.
The "Water Witch" was perhaps the best known boat on the lake. She was thirty-two feet long and originally called "The Alcatraz" because she served as a dispatch boat between Alcatraz Island and the City of San Francisco. She began as a spilt sail rigged, 14-oar, boat but was later converted to a fore-and-aft schooner. The Water Witch proved to be highly successful in extracting Terrapin from the lake and as many as 300 dozen of the prized turtle were sent to San Francisco for soups and stews within a single season. The Water Witch was first brought to the lake by a man known as "Eating" Smith. Smith had initially planned to gather the eggs from Gulls, Ducks and other Wild Fowl for sale in San Francisco restaurants. Unfortunately, he are everything he caught and thus devoured all possible profit.
Corporate farming launched an all out effort to tame the lake by clearing its fertile bed of water and fortunes have been made and lost in a never ending gamble with flood and drought. In 1938 and 1955, the lake flooded, and with the construction of Terminus and Success Dams on the Kaweah and Tule Rivers in Tulare County and Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River in Fresno County, the farmers finally gained the upper hand. However, in 1969 and 1983, the Great Tulare Lake was, once again, in its prime, and Mother Nature reminded us that she is not to be trifled with.
For additional information, visit the Tulare Historical Museum, 444 West Tulare Avenue, Tulare California 93274 or call (559) 686-2074.