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Why Mt. Shasta Remains Mysterious – Dissecting 4 ‘Facts’ About the Mountain

Photo by Stephen Leonardi

One day I was up in Oregon and pulled into the “Peter Skene Ogden State Scenic Viewpoint” on Hwy. 97 above Terrabonne. I noticed an “Oregon History” signpost in the parking lot which claimed Ogden had “discovered” Mt. Shasta in 1826. 

“Oh, really,” I thought. “What about all the non-Europeans living in the volcano’s shadow for thousands of years before Ogden got here? Did they never look up?”

Thus started the first of many inaccurate or outright false so-called “facts” I’ve discovered about Mt. Shasta. The actual history of the old volcano seems as shrouded in mystery as the colony of “Lemurians” who some people believe live miles beneath its surface. 

Who “Discovered” Mt. Shasta?

The short answer is, no one knows for sure. But it would be nearly impossible for humans not to have seen Mt. Shasta before 1826. Mt. Shasta is visible from hundreds of miles in all directions. Evidence of human occupation in California ranges from as late as 19,000 years ago (Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian, Barry T. Klein) to 130,000 years ago (National Geographic). The “Mt. Shasta Fact Sheet” (College of the Siskiyous Library) suggests “Artifacts in the greater region suggest 9,000 years of Native American habitation.”

“The earliest Californians were adventurous Asians who made their way across the Bering Straits to Alaska thousands of years ago when a warmer climate and a now-vanished land bridge made such travel easier.” -Library of Congress

Odgen noted in his journal, “I have named this river Sastise River. There is a mountain equal in height to Mount Hood or Vancouver; I have named Mt. Sastise. I have given these names, from the tribes of the Indians.” Only problem is, (according to the U. S. Geological Survey) he most likely was really looking at the Rogue River and Mount McLoughlin in southern Oregon, not Mt. Shasta.

To claim Ogden was the first human to lay eyes on Mt. Shasta is at the very least hubris, and at worst, borderline racist.

Who was the First to Climb Mt. Shasta?

According to the “Mt. Shasta Fact Sheet,” the first recorded attempt to summit Mt. Shasta was the W.S. Lowden party in 1850. The attempt failed. The Elias Davidson Pierce party achieved the summit in 1854 as recorded by The San Francisco Daily Herald on August 28, 1854. 

But, like the allegation that Peter Skene Ogden “discovered” Mt. Shasta, the notion that Native peoples had lived in the area for thousands of years and no one climbed the mountain in all that time, is ridiculous.

When did Mt. Shasta last Erupt?

A lot of people think Shasta erupted in 1786, but this has been soundly debunked. French explorer Francois Galaup de LaPerouse claimed he saw Mt. Shasta erupt from his ship sailing off Cape Mendocino. According to the previously cited “Mt. Shasta Fact Sheet,” LaPerouse was unaware that Natives often set fire to grasses in the area this time of year, plus he claimed the volcano was on the Mendocino coast, which Mt. Shasta is not.

According to the Redding Record Searchlight article “Could Mt. Shasta be the next St. Helens?” By Barry Kaye, Jan. 17, 2020: “The youngest eruption that we can confirm happened was about 3,000 years ago,” said Dr. Jessica Ball with the California Volcano Observatory based in Menlo Park.

What’s in a Name?

Even though Ogden “named” Mt. Shasta in good faith (when he was looking at a completely different mountain), after what Oregon Natives called their southern neighbors, the name “Shasta” has a surprising origin. 

Early nineteenth century spellings for what we know as Shasta included “Sasty, Saste, Shasty, Shaste, Shasti, Tshasti, Chasta Chaste, Chasti and Chastl” (“Mt. Shasta Fact Sheet”).

“… the modern spelling (“Shasta”) did not appear until 1850 when the name was first chosen for ‘Shasta’ County by the California State Legislature. The county included, I believe, what is now Siskiyou, Shasta, and Modoc Counties. The ‘a’ was placed at the end of the word to make it similar to many Spanish endings of other counties.” -U.S. Geological Survey

In other words, “Shasta” is a word and spelling made up by the California State Legislature, based on the how non-Natives thought the word sounded.

How many places on earth are shrouded in so much mystery and confusion than Mt. Shasta? Personally, I blame the Lemurians.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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