The Donner Party wasn’t the first to attempt the Sierra | SierraSun.com

The Donner Party wasn’t the first to attempt the Sierra

Gordon Richards

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two-part look at the early voyages into the Sierra Nevada. See next Friday’s Echoes From the Past for more on the first party to come to cross the range.]Next Saturday the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring the annual Donner Party Hikes, with historical outings in the Donner Pass area. While history remembers well the Donner Party, known for its failure and bad luck, too few remember the success of the the first pioneer wagon train that made it over the Sierra Nevada in this area. This group left behind a story that encompasses many aspects of Truckee area history. The upcoming months mark the 160th anniversary of this historical event. Truckee’s historical timeline really begins with this group of emigrants.The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party was a well-organized group consisting of 10 families who were seeking a better future for themselves in California. The 50-member group left Council Bluffs, Iowa, on May 22, 1844. They left with a larger party of Oregon bound settlers in a group of 40 wagons. Elisha Stephens was elected captain of the wagon train because he had spent several years as a mountain man and beaver hunter in the Pacific Northwest. He also had skills as a blacksmith. Dr. John Townsend, his wife, Elizabeth, and her younger brother, Moses Schallenberger, were going west because he was a man of vision and wanted a chance at grand adventure and opportunity in California. He would become the first licensed physician in California.The largest family group in the party was headed by Martin Murphy, Sr. The family was comprised of 23 members. Murphy was seeking religious, economic, and political freedoms in the West. Another member of the party who played a role in the western emigration as a guide was “Old” Caleb Greenwood.On the trailThe wagon train traveled across the plains with no major problems. It reached Independence Rock, Wyo., just before July 4, 1844. At that resting area, the party was increased by one as Mrs. James Miller gave birth to Ellen Independence Miller.In southwest Wyoming, the group decided to try a shortcut. Unlike the shortcut that the later Donner Party tried, the Greenwood- and Stephens-guided party saved five days on the shortcut that would later become known as Sublette’s Cutoff. At the time it was called Greenwood’s Cutoff. Eighty-year-old Greenwood knew the route very well up to Fort Hall, Idaho, but beyond that, he knew little of the route. The trail to California had been traveled by only two wagon trains, and they had not sent back any information on the route. Neither had been able to get their wagons into California. The Stephens party left Fort Hall on Aug. 15, after sadly parting with the Oregon bound pioneers. They were able to follow the faint tracks of the previous wagons through Nevada.Chief TruckeeAt the Humboldt Sink, they were unsure which route to take. Caleb Greenwood talked by sign language to an old Paiute, who purported to know the way west. Capt. Stephens, Dr. Townsend, and Joseph Foster went with the Indian as a guide, and returned in three days to report that they had found an eastward flowing river out of the Sierra Nevada.The old Paiute was none other than the chief of the Paiute nation. He had already been befriended by pathfinder John C. Fremont on his earlier exploration of Nevada, and had been to California with Fremont. Since the language barrier complicated communication, the chief was bestowed the name Truckee by the emigrant party. As a result, the river that he guided them to was named the Truckee River. Our town of Truckee also comes from that interpretation of the Paiute word “tro-kay” that meant all right or very well.By the time they reached the present Truckee Meadows, where Reno is now, it was mid-October and they were concerned about the weather and the river canyon ahead of them. What now takes us a half-hour by freeway took the Stephens Party most of a week to reach the junction of Truckee (Donner) Creek and the Truckee River. Snow had been increasing as they progressed up the mountain and now reached about a foot deep. More snow was falling and a quick decision was made.Splitting the party On Nov. 14, they decided to split up the group. A small party on horseback would follow the Truckee River south, while the main group with the wagons would follow the creek, which seemed more promising for wagons. The plan was for the faster horseback party to reach Sutter’s Fort first and send back fresh animals and supplies for the wagon train.The six members of the horseback party headed south up the Truckee River into the unknown, as Chief Truckee had not told them much about the river route. This party consisted of four men and two women – all young, strong and well supplied. One of the women was Elizabeth Townsend, who went a separate route than her husband and brother. On the morning of the 16th they came to the shore of Lake Tahoe, the first Americans to actually set foot on the lake’s edge. John Fremont had already spotted the lake in February of 1844 while crossing the Sierra south of Lake Tahoe.As snow continued to fall, the six moved as quickly as possible along the west shore and up McKinney Creek and over the crest. They descended to the Rubicon River and out of the snow.The lower canyon was so rough that they were forced to ride and walk down the riverbed. After many dangers and hardships, including almost losing one man to the raging river, they worked their way down the canyon to Sutter’s Fort, arriving on Dec. 10, 1844. The wagon train group was not as fortunate. Arriving at Truckee Lake, now called Donner Lake, they explored the canyon west of the lake below Sierra Nevada (now Donner) Pass.They decided to leave six of the wagons at Truckee Lake, taking five with them. Fighting through two feet of snow, they found a way up the pass that forced them to unload the wagons, carry the contents up the hill, and then doubled the oxen teams for each wagon.Over the crest At the mid point of the granite rock section, they came to a vertical ledge that seemed to stop all wheeled traffic.After a desperate search, they found a slot in the rocks that allowed the oxen to climb through the rocks single file.Once all of the oxen were around the cliff, the party hooked up chains and ropes to them and the wagons and pulled them up over the rocks. The men pushed from below, using all their strength and willpower to get wagons up to the pass.The pioneer wagons of the party crossed Sierra Nevada Pass, the first to prove that the Truckee Branch of the California Trail could be traveled by wagons. The date was Nov. 25, 1844. But their journey was far from done. Three of the men would return to Truckee Lake to watch the remaining wagons.One, Moses Schallenberger, would come away with a story almost unequaled in history.But you’ll have to wait until next week to learn just what happened. Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Comments, story ideas, guest articles, and history information are always welcome.Visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com.You may leave a message at 582-0893.