The Stephens-Townsend-Greenwood-Murphy wagons struck off the main trail in the middle of August, following the wheel tracks of a group led the previous year by another mountain man and explorer, the legendary Joseph Walker. Walker’s party had followed the Humboldt River, a sluggish trickle which petered out in reed-grown marsh well short of the mountains. They had been unable to find a pass leading up into the Sierra Nevada, had gone south, abandoning their wagons near Owens Lake, and reached California by going around the mountains entirely. It would not be possible to carry sufficient supplies in packs on the backs of humans and animals for a party which contained so many women, children and babies.
Now, the Stephens-Townsend wagons set up camp at the marsh – the last substantial body of water for miles – and considered their next move. The two old mountain-men, Greenwood and Hitchcock were convinced there must be a way up into the Sierra, more or less directly west of where they were camped. They consulted in sign-language or pantomime with a curious, but seemingly friendly old Indian man who wandered into camp. Likely unknown to them, this was the chief of the Piute tribe, who had traveled with the explorer John C. Fremont the year before, and who had made it tribal policy to be courteous and friendly to those settlers and explorers passing through Piute lands. Someone modeled a range of mountains in the sand at their feet and pointed at the real mountains. The old Indian carefully remodeled the sand range to show a small river running down between two. The next day he rode ahead towards the distant mountains with Greenwood and Stephens, while the rest of the party rested. When they returned it was with good and bad news. There was a river, coming down into the desert, but it was a hard road to get to it with no water except for a small, bad-tasting hot-spring halfway there.
Having scouted the way, the small party made careful preparations: everything that could be made water-tight was filled to the brim. They cut armfuls of green rushes and brush as fodder for the cattle and their few horses. Accounts have them starting the journey at sundown, to take advantage of cooler temperatures, minimize the strain on their draft animals, and get out of the desert as soon as possible. This was the desert crossing which two years later, would break the Donner-Reed party; here, they lost much of their supplies and stock, and broke into constituent family groups. But the Stephens-Townsends held together, through the following day and night. They paused at the hot springs to feed and water the animals, and to rest a while themselves before moving on. Sometime before dawn the next morning, their weary oxen begin perking up, stepping a little faster, as the breeze coming down from the mountains brought the scent of fresh water. This presented another danger, if the teamsters could not control their thirst-maddened animals. Hastily, the men drew the wagons together and unhitched their oxen. Better they should run loose to the water they can smell, than damage the wagons in a maddened stampede. A few hours later, the men returned with the teams, sated and sodden with all the water they could drink from the old Indian’s river, forever after known as the Truckee River. 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 meant ‘all right’ or ‘very well,’ but they assumed it was his name, and named the river accordingly.
The Truckee led up into the looming Sierra Nevada range; the highway and railroad line follow its course to this very day. The Stephens-Townsend party moved up the canyon with all speed, for it was now October. At mid-month they camped in meadowlands, just below where the canyon cuts deep through the mountains, the last but most difficult part of the journey. There was already snow on the ground, and they had come to where a creek joined Truckee’s River. The creek-bed looked to be easier for the wagons to follow farther up into the mountain pass, but the river might be more direct. Again, the party conferred and made a decision. They sent a small, fast-moving party on horseback along the river; six of the fittest and strongest with enough supplies to reach Sutter’s Ford, and bring back additional supplies and help. Four men and two women, including Elizabeth Townsend rode out on the 14th of November, 1844. They followed the river south, as snow continued falling. In two days they reached the shores of Lake Tahoe. They worked 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 of the Sierras is a steep palisade, the western slope more gradual, but rough, cut through with steep-banked creeks, which within five years would be the focus of the great California Gold Rush. But in this year, it was wilderness.
Early in December, the horseback party reached the safety of Sutter’s Fort, as the main body 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, two feet of snow had fallen and more promising. It was time for another hard choice; 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 young men; Elizabeth Townsend’s brother Moses Schallenberger, with Allan Montgomery and Joseph Foster volunteered to build a rough cabin and winter over, guarding the wagons and property at the lake, 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 anything that any of them had experienced in the mid-West.
The main party struggled on through the gradual descent. 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 calculated gamble on survival, before changing weather and diminishing food supplies forced worse conditions upon them. They would build another cabin, and arbors of brush and 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 took the last horses, and as little food as possible, and continued on to Sutter’s Fort, returning as soon as they could with supplies and fresh team animals. 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 – and just in the nick of time, for the women and children were down to eating boiled hides. 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 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. Bravely, Moses 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. 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. 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 – 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.
(This story became my first novel – To Truckee’s Trail. I thought then and still believe that it could be an absolutely riveting movie — until then, the novel will have to do.)