Sierra history: Chief Truckee and the missing link to the California Trail | SierraSun.com

Sierra history: Chief Truckee and the missing link to the California Trail

Mark McLaughlin
Special to the Sun
The 1844 Stephens Party was the first to get wagons to California.
Courtesy California State Parks |

TAHOE-TRUCKEE, Calif. — In his 1843-44 circumnavigation of the Great Basin, explorer John C. Frémont failed to establish the California Trail because he never connected the westward flowing Humboldt River to the eastbound Truckee River.

Only 40 miles of desert separated the two waterways. In fact, Frémont was completely unaware of how close the Humboldt River was from his camp at Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee.

First explored by Peter Skene Ogden in 1828, the Humboldt was the crucial river that crossed present-day arid Nevada for more than 300 miles, providing vital water and grass in desolate country. Establishing this final portion of the trail required a crucial link between the western end of the Humboldt and the Truckee.

That missing piece of knowledge was provided by a Paiute Indian chief whose given name was most likely Winnemucca. The medicine man adopted the name “Truckee” after meeting Frémont and his men at Pyramid Lake.

In his dealings with Frémont, the friendly chief frequently used a word that sounded like “tro-kay,” a term that meant “it’s OK” or “everything will be alright.” He said it so frequently that Frémont assumed it must be the man’s name.

THE STEPHENS PARTY

Winnemucca was so enamored with his “long lost white brothers” that he embraced the word as his proper name. In the American West it was not uncommon for an Indian leader to change their name after important personal events or battle victories.

Chief Truckee told Frémont that if he wanted to cross the mountains and safely reach California, he should follow the Truckee River upstream to the west. But the topographical engineer had other plans and instead led his men south along the Eastern Sierra Front.

Ultimately it was a California-bound wagon company led by Elisha Stephens and Caleb Greenwood who would take Chief Truckee’s expert advice. In late summer 1844, the party of 50 emigrants was stuck at the end of the Humboldt River.

There the helpful chief met them and showed the way to the river that flowed from Lake Tahoe. Like Frémont, this group also believed that the Indian’s name was Truckee and after crossing the desert they named the life-saving river they found for him. The Stephens Party became the first to successfully haul wagons over the mountains and into California, thus opening the trail.

JEDEDIAH SMITH’S TRAVELS

History plays out in capricious ways, often based on luck or circumstance. There were two other Americans who could have made the vital connection between the two streams and opened the California Trail years before.

In 1826, famed mountain man Jedediah Smith and 14 trappers crossed into California by way of the Colorado River and Mojave Desert. The group eventually traveled to the southern Sacramento Valley and in May 1827 attempted to cross the Sierra eastbound following the American River Canyon.

They were blocked by deep snow so Smith and his men retraced their steps. Leaving the bulk of the party in camp, Smith and two others headed south where they managed to cross near Ebbetts Pass.

If Smith had succeeded in his Sierra passage via the American River, he would have discovered Lake Tahoe, the Truckee River, and most likely the Humboldt River, thus opening the California Trail 17 years before the Stephens Party.

MASSACRE OF INDIANS

In 1833, mountain man and trail guide Joseph Walker led 58 beaver trappers down the Humboldt River to its terminus, but instead of meeting friendly Chief Truckee, they encountered a large group of Paiutes.

Unsure of the Indians’ intentions and believing an attack imminent, Walker and his men preemptively shot and killed nearly 50 of them in two separate encounters. Escaping with their lives, Walker headed south and his group became the first Anglos to explore Yosemite.

Paiute hostility toward whites from this massacre made emigrant passage dangerous for decades to come.

About two years after his initial encounter with John Frémont, Chief Truckee joined him fighting for the Americans in the war with Mexico (1846-48).

He was brevetted a captain in the U.S. Army and for the rest of his life he preferred to be called Captain Truckee.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You can reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog: tahoenuggets.com.