The first party to survive the Sierra Nevada | SierraSun.com

The first party to survive the Sierra Nevada

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two parts on the first settlers to cross the Sierra Nevada. The first part was featured in the Sept. 24 Sierra Sun.]By Gordon RichardsOn Saturday, the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring the annual Donner Party Hikes. History remembers well the Donner Party, but an equally important emigrant party preceded the Donner Party by two years. Last week I started the story of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party, which traveled in 1844 from the Midwest, searching for a better life in California. They met Paiute Chief Truckee, who guided the party through deepening snow to become the first wagons over the Sierra Nevada. The party had split into two groups, with one horseback party making it through barely safe. The upcoming months mark the 160th anniversary of this historical event. We pick up the story as the main party starts down the west slope of the Sierra.Elisha Stephens led the party that crossed the summit on Nov. 25, 1844. The snow continued to fall and on the South Fork of the Yuba River near the present Big Bend. The six wagons were forced to stop because of exhausted oxen and men. The remaining 42 members of the 51 who reached the Sierra created a survival camp, built a small crude cabin and butchered most of their cattle for food.Snowbound campSoon after stopping, Mrs. Martin Murphy gave birth to a daughter, the second baby born on the trip, named Elizabeth Yuba Murphy. A very difficult and frightening decision was made to leave all of the women and children in the camp with two men to watch over them. Seventeen men took as few supplies as possible and started down the mountain. Their plan was to go down to Sutter’s Fort and bring enough supplies back for their families to survive.The rescue party left the survival camp on Dec. 6. Some rode horses, while others walked, driving the few remaining cattle ahead of them. They followed the Yuba River out of the snow into present Bear Valley. They then followed the Bear River to the foothills and found their way to Sutter’s Fort.John Sutter was involved in a revolution in Mexican-ruled California, later referred to as the “Micheltorena War,” named for the then-Gov. Manuel Micheltorena. He was being challenged by incoming Gov. Juan Bautista Alvarado. Sutter had sided with Micheltorena and was overjoyed to find 21 well armed men who were coerced to join him on an expedition to Santa Barbara.Party Captain Elisha Stephens led the group as far as Monterey, then convinced Sutter that they were not needed, and returned to Sutter’s Fort. They gathered supplies and headed back to rescue their families, leaving on Feb. 20, 1845 for the Sierra.Moses SchallenbergerBack in late November, after helping to get the main group over the summit, three men went back to the remaining six wagons at Truckee (Donner) Lake. Party co-leader Henry Townsend had left his brother-in-law Moses Schallenberger, Joseph Foster, and Allan Montgomery to guard the wagons until the snow melted and they could return to take them over the mountains. No one in the party knew the Sierra, and they thought the snow would quickly melt as it did in the east.Schallenberger and the two others threw up a 12-foot-by-14-foot cabin, roofed with hides and pine branches. A single opening served as the window and door. This shelter would be the same one that the Breen family would struggle survive in during the winter of 1846-47 as part of the Donner Party.The three men were extremely concerned that snow continued to fall. When the snowpack reached the roofline, they realized that the game they planned to live off of would have moved below the snowline. The few starving cows that had been butchered would not feed them for long.Facing starvation, Foster and Montgomery made snowshoes from wagon parts and rawhide. Unlike later snowshoes they had both the toe and heel strapped down, which tired the men out quickly as they moved through the deep snow up the Sierra Pass. Younger than the other two, Moses Schallenberger suffered greatly from leg cramps, and could not continue. They camped on the summit for the night, but slept little. Schallenberger’s legs were so stiff he could not walk more than a few steps without stopping. He decided to return to the cabin and live as long as possible on the leftover beef and then try to cross when the snow hardened or melted.All aloneAfter a sad parting, Moses limped and crawled back to the cabin at Truckee Lake. His trip was made easier by a hardening crust on the snow. He made it back to the cabin, and faced his situation. Eighteen years old, alone and facing the unknown, he took an inventory of his supplies. He found books and newspapers to read, a quarter of beef, saws and axes to cut firewood, and traps to catch any game that might be around.Moses Schallenberger found the will to survive. He trapped both coyotes and foxes, but found that he could barely eat the tough coyote meat due to its poor taste. He caught foxes and was able to almost enjoy the meat. He would slowly gain his strength, all the while staring at the pass, hoping for rescue.RescueSome 20 miles west, the women and children of the survival camp were running out of food. The butchered beef had run out and they were down to eating boiled hides. On about Feb. 24, the men from Sutter’s Fort arrived at the camp. The near disaster of starvation and death was averted just in time. Immediately they moved the women and children down the mountain to the snowline. They pushed fast as possible not knowing how long the good weather would hold. The snow had hardened and they quickly reached Sutter’s Fort.One member of the rescue party, Dennis Martin, continued on snowshoes over the pass to Truckee Lake, hoping to find Schallenberger. Martin found Schallenberger alive and overjoyed with his rescue. Making new snowshoes, the two men went back over the mountain. They caught up with the main party on the Lower Bear River. Moses Schallenberger had spent three months all alone on an isolated mountain, not sure if he would ever see his family and friends. Schallenberger Ridge on the south side of Donner Lake is named after him. He settled on a farm in San Jose and lived to be eighty-three years, dying in 1909. By June of 1845, the snow had melted and a party was formed to bring the wagons left at Truckee Lake. When the returning party arrived, they found that all of their possessions except the guns and ammunition had been taken by the indians who summered there. The completion of the journey was uneventful.Settling California The party of emigrants spread out through California. Elisha Stephens would settle in the San Jose area for awhile before moving to the Bakersfield area. Though misspelled, the Stevens Creek area is named for Elisha Stephens. Mount Stephens, located just north of Donner Pass, was dedicated 10 years ago on September 24, 1994 in his honor. Dr. John Townsend would become the first licensed physician in California. He would serve as Alcalde of San Francisco, as well as councilman and school board member in San Francisco. Townsend street was also named for him.The Murphy family would spread out as well. The foothill town of Murphys is named after two of Martin Murphy’s sons. Other party members would play a part in California’s settling and the Gold Rush era.Old Caleb Greenwood and his sons would work for John Sutter for awhile, then return to Fort Hall, Idaho, to guide more wagon trains to California. He would discover shorter, easier routes than the one taken by the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party. The Old Greenwood resort community is named for him.Ultimately this same mountain pass would be successfully crossed by thousands of emigrants on their way to California. One party, the Donner’s, would overshadow the success of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party.Some historians consider this pioneer group, not the Donner Party, to be the single most important chapter in local Truckee history.Gordon Richards is the research historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. You may leave a message at 582-0893