The Washoe people and their country were unknown to Americans until the early nineteenth century when explorers such as Joseph Walker, Jedediah Smith, and John Fremont traversed the central Great Basin seeking direct routes to California. Although they had some earlier contact with the Spanish to the west, actual intrusion of their territory did not occur until the hordes of immigrants began to appear from the east during the gold rush of the 1840s and 1850s. Many Whites were attracted to the verdant valleys occupied by the Washoe, fencing the lands for cattle, restricting access to water sources, and establishing numerous trading posts and settlements. By the 1870s the lowland forests, grasslands, and the large game so essential to Washoe subsistence had become depleted. The completion of the transcontinental railroad signaled the end of the old life-way and its conquest by a new, alien society. For the next one hundred years, the Washoe were forced into the status of servile, unfranchised dependents in an aggressive frontier world. Appeals by Washoe spokesmen or by the occasional sympathetic Indian agent for aid and lands went unheeded. A reservation was never assigned to them, and the land allotments provided under the Dawes Act of 1887 were largely unfit for habitation or development. Many families leased their allotments at extremely low rates to sheep ranchers, which, in turn, led to the rapid deterioration of the piñon groves whose harvesting had provided one of the major staples in aboriginal times. The people lived in squalid camps on the outskirts of White towns or on the ranches where many were employed.
In 1917, a few small parcels of land with inadequate facilities were set aside at Reno, Carson City, and Dresslerville primarily for Washoe use. Schools for Indian children were segregated, their language and traditional customs were discouraged, and discriminatory policies restricted social interaction. Citizenship was not granted until 1924. Some improvement in conditions began to take place after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 when the Washoe became a legally constituted tribe with a written constitution and official tribal council.
Major change, however, did not occur until after 1970 when the Washoe won a compensation of $5 million (of a $43 million claim filed in 1948) before the Indian Claims Commission. Through effective investment of 70 percent of the funds and issuing per capita payments only to older Members, considerable advancement has been made in tribal organization and services. With the emergence of new Leadership and planning, state and federal funds were procured for housing, employment opportunities, educational programs, tribal businesses, and additional lands. Young people began to remain in the area or to return from relocation with a sense of hope and renewed identity. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California has become an active participant in intertribal affairs, and many of its members are pursuing successful careers in the larger local and national communities.
The aboriginal Washoe were a peaceable people who nevertheless staunchly defended their core habitation and subsistence areas from hostile intrusion yet tolerated access by others except in times of extreme scarcity. Likewise, Neighboring peoples such as the Northern Paiute, Miwok, and Maidu allowed some use of resources in their own domains. The few brief skirmishes were between small groups over matters of unnegotiated trespass, perceived insult, or revenge. Networks of intermarriage reinforced long-standing friendly relations with families of surrounding peoples, and this practice has continued into historic times. The Washoe at first accommodated incoming Whites during the early nineteenth century and resorted to sporadic resistance only when the intruders threatened their resources and autonomy. But they were quickly overwhelmed and forced into passive acquiescence during a century of frontier conquest.