(An early version of this essay began as a sorrowful rant about the lack of good adventure movies a number of summers ago. It turned into a multi-part blog post, and then into a novel about the first wagon-train party to get their wagons over the Sierra Nevada – in winter yet. They got lost, had to break up into separate groups, were caught by winter while still in the mountains, nearly ran out of food … but unlike the Donner Party of two years later, this party managed to hang together and negotiate the mountain obstacle without any loss of life. This is part one of two.)
In comparison to the notorious and hard-luck Donner-Reed Party, hardly anyone has ever heard of a similar wagon-train company who crossed over almost the exact same trail two years previously. The party led by Elisha Stephens and John Townsend, and advised by the old mountain-man, Caleb Greenwood, walked much of the way between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento Rivers, across plain and desert, blazed a trail up the wilderness of a steep canyon, and finally hauled wagons up a sheer mountain cliff. Generally they remain a footnote in the history books, mostly noted for being the first to bring some of their wagons up the Truckee River canyon and over the Sierra Nevada into California. There was no tireless letter-writer or professional memoirist among them, no extensive first-hand accounts, although John Townsend, a medical doctor and Mason may have kept a diary.
In the year 1844, only a bare handful of explorers, missionaries and fur trappers had ever seen for sure what lay beyond the jumping-off points at Council Bluffs, Independence, St. Joseph. There was southern trail to Santa Fe, and beyond that to the thinly-populated enclave of Spanish and then Mexican territories in California, and a northern track which followed along the Platte River and terminated in Oregon Territory. Lewis and Clarke, and William Ashley’s fur-trapping brigades – all had gone that way, by boat, horseback or on foot. Hearing of the rich lands in the Pacific Northwest, farmers and small tradesmen also began following the siren call. This was not a journey for the impoverished. Besides a wagon, and stock to pull it, the journey required a six-month food supply, tools, clothes, bedding and cooking gear. There might be space in the wagon for books, and other small treasures, for the wagons were small, and food took up most of the space. The draft animal of choice was not the horse, as many would think. Horses were expensive, and the road was too rough in the early days for even the toughest horse in dray harness. Mules made a good showing on the southern trail, but they were also expensive. Most emigrants could better afford ox teams; four to six pair to a wagon, guided by a driver who walked by the lead team and controlled them by verbal commands.