The Early Pioneers and the Naming of Surprise Valley

As early as 1846, emigrants’ wagons rolled through Surprise Valley enroute to Oregon and the lower valleys of California.

Lindsay Applegate and Levi Scott branched off with their party from the California Trail at what later became known as Lassen’s Meadow (now named Rye Patch Reservoir and located near Imlay, Nevada). They followed a northwestern direction across the Black Rock Desert and through High Rock and Forty Nine canyons to enter California near its extreme northeastern corner, 29 miles southwest of today’s California-Oregon border.

Their trail traversed Surprise Valley and went on to cross the Warner Mountains at Fandango Pass on their journey to the Willamette Valley, the principle settlement in the Oregon Territory. 

The trail this party laid out became known by various names, including the “South Oregon Emigrant Road”, the “Old South Road”, or the “Lassen Applegate Trail”.

The importance of the tall, waving grass of this valley was intensified as most of the wagon trains arrived in late summer and early fall when bunch grass along the route had lost much of its nutrient value. Trains would stop long enough in the valley to harvest some wild hay to carry over the dry parts of the trail ahead.

Few early pioneers stayed on, though Mrs. I. Grove wrote, “They often spoke of this unnamed, unknown valley, little thinking that in a few years some would return…to make their homes here.”

From 1848 through the mid-1860s, the route was much traveled, including by an influx of fortune-seekers drawn by the 1849 California Gold Rush. Others came after severe drought hit the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys in 1864, causing livestock owners to seek higher pastures. Others had left their border states rather than join in the Civil War, while former residents of Nevada’s once-booming town of Virginia City migrated to surrounding areas and began to build new towns.

Local legend has attributed the name of the valley to early emigrants, though careful research has shown the name wasn’t actually applied until the early 1860s.  The August 22, 1863 edition of the Humboldt Register out of Unionville, Nevada Territory says,
“Surveyor General Houghton and his party appear to have discovered one of the most inviting valleys to be found in the state. The party named it “Surprise Valley”, which is appropriate as the men must have been greatly astonished to find such a valley in that region. It is 50 miles long and from 8 to 15 miles broad and contains three lakes. Grass, clover and wild rye were found growing luxuriantly. Fine timber in abundance covered the mountains which bounded on the west.”

The naming of the valley in the 1860s, rather than earlier, is substantiated by the fact that no records of travel or Army reports concerned with the area have been found using the name “Surprise”.

In one early account, Surprise Valley is said to have been known by the local Indians as “Kibeningnaredols” which means “Valley of the Long Mountains”.

The essay above was excerpted by permission from “Surprise Valley: A Collective History of Its Early Years of Settlement” by Tami Grove


Page modified: 05 Nov 2022 18:11:29 -0700