(Part 3 of 3 – the story of the first emigrant party to bring their wagons over the Sierra Nevada, which became my first historical novel – To Truckee’s Trail, which should be out in a second edition next month.)
Dawn, morning, day – still moving through the desert, from their last camp at the Humboldt Sink. Riders led their horses to spare them; the march only paused to water the oxen, and pass around some cold biscuits and dried meat by way of food for the people. At the hot spring in the middle of the desert, the animals drink, but not with any relish. They are fed with the green rushes brought from the last camping place. The emigrants rest in the shade of their wagons for a few hours in the hottest part of the day, resuming as the heat of the day fades. Sometime early the next morning, the weary, thirsty oxen begin perking up, stepping a little faster. The wind coming down from the mountains is bringing the scent of fresh water. There is a very real danger to the wagons, if the teamsters cannot control them. Hastily, the men draw the wagons together and unhitch the teams: better for them to run loose to the water they can smell, than risk damaging the wagons in a maddened stampede. In a few hours, the men return with the teams, sated and sodden with all the water they can drink from the old Indian’s river.
It is the most beautiful river anyone has ever seen, spilling down from the mountains, cold with the chill of snow-melt even in fall, even more beautiful after the desert. All the way on that first scout, the old Indian kept saying a word which sounded like ‘tro-kay’ to Greenwood and Stephens; it actually means ‘all right’ or ‘very well,’ but they assumed it was his name, and baptized the river accordingly as the Truckee River. They follow it towards the looming mountains, hurrying on a little, because it is now October. At mid-month they are camped in meadowlands, just below where the canyon cuts deep through the mountains, the last but most difficult part of the journey. There is already snow on the ground, and they have come to where a creek joins Truckee’s River. The creek-bed looks to be easier for the wagons to follow farther up into the mountain pass, but the river might be more direct. The decision is made to send a small, fast-moving party along the river; six of the fittest and strongest, on horseback with enough supplies, to move quickly and bring help and additional supplies from Sutter’s Fort. Four men and two women, including Elizabeth Townsend ride out on the 14th of November, 1844.
The fast-moving horseback party followed the river south, as snow continued falling. In two days they were on the shores of Lake Tahoe, working their way around the western shore to another small creek, which led them over the summit, and down along the Rubicon River, out of the snow, although not entirely out of danger in the rough country. The eastern slope is a steep palisade, the western slope more gradual, but rough, cut with steep-banked creeks. They reached the safety of Sutter’s Fort early in December, while the main party still struggled along the promising creek route. They came at last to an alpine valley with a small ice-water lake at the foot of a canyon leading up to the last and highest mountain pass.
At times, the only open passage along the creek was actually in the water, which was hard on the oxen’s feet. By the time they reached the lake, there was two feet of snow on the ground, and time for another hard choice; a decision to leave six of the wagons at the lake, slaughter the worst-off of the oxen for food, and cache everything but food and essentials. Three of the young men; Moses Schallenberger, Allan Montgomery and Joseph Foster would build a rough cabin and winter over, guarding the wagons and property at the lake, and living from what they could hunt. The rest of the party pooled the remaining ox teams and five wagons and moved on, up into the canyon towards the crest of the Sierra Nevada, up a slope so steep they had to empty out the contents and carry everything by hand, doubling the ox teams and pulling up the wagons one by one. A sheer vertical ledge halfway up the rocky slope blocked their way. A desperate search revealed a small defile, just wide enough to lead the oxen and horses up it, single file. The teams were re-yoked at the top, and hoisted up the empty wagons by ropes and chains, while men pushed from below, and the women and children labored up the narrow footpath, carrying armfuls of precious supplies. By dint of much exhausting labor, they reached the summit on November 25th, and struggled on through the snow, while the three volunteers returned to the lake. They hastily finished their small cabin, twelve by fourteen feet square, roofed with ox-hides, and settled in for the winter, not knowing that the winter would be very much harsher than back east.
The main party struggled on; although they were over the pass, and gradually heading downhill, they were still in the high mountains. With snow falling, cutting a trail and keeping the wagons moving was a brutally laborious job. A week, ten days of it was all that exhausted men and ox teams could handle. They set up a cold camp on the South Fork of the Yuba River, and made a last, calculated gamble on survival for all. They would build another cabin, make arbors of branches and the canvas wagon tops, and butcher the remaining oxen. The women and children would stay, with two men to protect them, while the remaining husbands and fathers would take the few horses, and as little food as possible, and continue on to Sutter’s Fort, returning as soon as they could with supplies and fresh team animals. So they made the bitter decision before changing weather, and diminishing food supplies forced worse circumstances upon them. Before the men rode away, the wife of Martin Murphy’s oldest son gave birth to a daughter, who was named Elizabeth Yuba Murphy. It was nearly two months before a rescue party was able to return to the survival camp on the Yuba River, just in the nick of time, for the women and children were down to eating boiled hides.
Meanwhile, twenty miles east, the snow had piled up level to the roof of the little cabin by the ice-water lake. The three young men realized that the game they had counted on being able to hunt had all retreated below the snow, far down the mountains. What they had left would not be able to feed them all through the winter. From hickory wagon bows and rawhide, Montgomery and Foster contrived three sets of snowshoes, and packed up what they could carry. In one day, they had climbed to the top of the pass, but the snowshoes were clumsy things and the snow was soft, and young Schallenberger — barely 18 at the time — was not as strong as the other two. Agonizing leg cramps left him unable to take more than a few steps. Continuing on was impossible for him, survival at the cabin impossible for three. Young Schallenberger volunteered to return alone to the cabin while the other two went on. He lived for the next three months on the food supplies they had not been able to carry, and trapping coyotes and foxes. Fox was almost edible, coyote meat quite vile, but he kept the frozen coyotes anyway, lest the supply of foxes ever run out. When the rescue party came to the winter camp on the Yuba River in late February, one of them, Dennis Martin continued on snowshoes over the pass, hoping to find young Schallenberger still alive. With a hard crust to the snow, the two of them had an easier time of it, and caught up to the main party on the Lower Bear River.
Two years later, the little cabin in which he spent most of the winter would shelter families from the Donner party who were caught by winter at about the same time of year, in the same place. A fractious, bitterly split party would meet a ghastly and protracted disaster. The irony is that everyone has heard of them, and the pass through the Sierra Nevada, which the Stephens party discovered and labored successfully to bring wagons over – while increasing their strength by two born on the journey – is named for the group who lost half their number to starvation in its’ very shadow.
(Crossposted at my book blog, here.)