Native Americans occupied the Bishop area for thousands of years before the first visit from people of European descent. Some record of Native American life in the Bishop area is etched in rock as petroglyphs and scattered on the ground as obsidian arrow heads or chips. Descendants of Native American habitants of Bishop live today on the Bishop Paiute Reservation that is adjacent to the city.
The first non-native to travel through the Eastern Sierra could have been Jedidiah Smith in about 1826. Joseph Walker was probably the first non-native to travel through the Eastern Sierra and the Owens Valley in 1832 and 1843. He would have passed through the Bishop area on his way between what are now named Walker Lake and Walker Pass. Continuing his travels in 1845, Walker met up with the party of John Fremont and, in early 1846, members of the Fremont party traveled south through the Owens Valley in route to Walker Pass. In 1855 Alexey Von Schmidt and John Hays surveyed in the Eastern Sierra and Owens Valley, part of the new state of California.
Over the following years more and more visitors began to visit the Owens Valley including Bishop. Many of these visitors were prospectors and miners drawn to ore deposits in the Eastern Sierra and western Nevada. As mines were established and grew, so did their need for stock and produce. Due to transportation difficulties, farms close to the mines were most desirable and, with its water, Bishop’s value as an agricultural center close to the mines became recognized.
Samuel A Bishop was one that recognized this and, 3 July 1861, left Fort Tejon with about 500 head of cattle bound for the Owens Valley. On 22 August, he arrived on Bishop Creek about 3 miles west of downtown Bishop and established the Saint Francis Ranch. Samuel Bishop did not remain in the area long, but by 1862, a town was established near the ranch. That town was called Bishop Creek. The town grew, and in April 1903 was incorporated to be the City of Bishop.
As more and more outsiders and their stock traveled through the Bishop area and more and more chose to stay, conflict with the Native Americans in the area were inevitable. Conflict in the Owens Valley increased to the point of war and an army post was established near Independence to help fight this war. By 1870, essentially the war was over and the Native Americans had been displaced from the Bishop area.
By 1905, the City of Los Angeles and all of Southern California was growing so rapidly it was running out of water. Agents of the City of Los Angeles came to the Owens Valley and recognized it as source of water that could fuel that city’s rapid growth. With the cooperation of the federal government, Los Angeles had acquired enough water rights and property and constructed an aqueduct so that it began exporting water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles in 1913. The acquisition of these rights and the export of the water led many to believe the valley had been betrayed. The battle between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles for control of the valley and its water is famous in the west and the subject of written works and movies. Today, the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power – known as DWP – own the vast majority of the floor of the Owens Valley including around and in the City of Bishop. DWP’s management of its properties and water in the Bishop area has a large impact on the City of Bishop and the surrounding community.
Some ranchers in the Bishop area were able to resist DWP’s efforts to acquire their property and these ranches, outside the city limits, were later subdivided and developed to be the residential and minor commercial areas that surround the city and house most of the people that live in the Bishop area.