ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Remembering the Sierra’s earliest settlers |

ECHOES FROM THE PAST: Remembering the Sierra’s earliest settlers

The earliest known Europeans to explore today’s western United States were Spanish conquistadors.

Their ranks included Francisco Vasquez de Coronado between 1540 and 1542, in a futile search for the seven legendary cities of gold.

Resolute bands of priests and friars accompanied the conquistadors and later established missions in hope of spreading Christianity among native people. By 1790, roughly 30,000 indigenous people who lived in the coastal areas of California were controlled by the Spanish.

By 1824 the new nation of Mexico became independent of Spanish rule and Northern California fell under the rule of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, whose campaign to move the Indians away from the settlements may have led his soldiers through the Sierra and into Nevada.

Lewis and Clark skirted the edges of what later became the Oregon Trail on their epic journey through the Pacific Northwest in 1804.

In 1827 fur trapper and explorer Jedediah Smith pioneered a route westward through Southern Nevada’s Paiute territory, eventually reaching San Gabriel Mission near present-day Los Angeles.

Following Smith other famous adventurers, such as mountain man Jim Beckwourth and trailblazers Kit Carson, James Bridger, Tom Fitzgerald, William Ashley, Pierre Choteau and Manuel Lisa roamed the West discovering new passages to California and the Northwest.

By 1833, members of an expedition under the command of Joseph R. Walker traversed the Humboldt Sink to the lake which bears his name while charting a route to California which was passable by wagons.

In 1840, Americans had settled only as far west as the Missouri River, but they felt that the country had become too crowded and people wanted to move west again. As stories about good land were spread by Americans who went west to Mexican-governed California, the great migration began.

The California Trail began in 1841 as a single, tenuous strand along the Humboldt River. The Bidwell-Bartleson party was the first organized group of emigrants who attempted to reach California that year by way of the Humboldt on what later would become known as the Hastings Cutoff. They followed the river to its sink, then sought to cross the Sierra Nevada by turning southwest where they struggled over the mountains near the Sonora Pass into San Joaquin Valley.

Lieutenant John C. Fremont explored the region from 1843-45, discovering Lake Tahoe while conducting one of four government surveying expeditions. He and his party of 25 men had been charting the northwest for nine months and made their way south from what is now the southern border of Oregon into what was then Mexican territory.

While Fremont was returning eastward along the Old Spanish Trail, a party of more than 50 wagons was headed westward out of Council Bluffs. The detachment became known as the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party. They were guided by an old trapper named Caleb Greenwood whom they had met at Fort Hall in eastern Idaho.

By October 24, 1844, the large contingent of wagons finally reached the Humboldt River, arriving at a Paiute encampment near today’s Lovelock, Nev. They were greeted by their chief, who communicated with Greenwood by means of diagrams drawn in the sand. It didn’t take long for him to learn that this friendly Indian meant them no harm.

This Paiute chief would later become known to thousands of emigrants as “Chief Truckee.”

(To be continued.)

Notice to the Citizens

of Truckee!

The Railroad Regulators/601, Truckee’s locally based old west living history reenactment group, will be on the loose in downtown Truckee on Saturday, Feb. 24.

The day kicks off with the Snowfest Parade in Tahoe City at 11:30 a.m. Saturday morning where the Regulators will be representing Truckee’s wild and free spirit.

Following the parade, the Regulators will return to Truckee, making their presence known along Commercial Row. Then, at 7 p.m., they will present an authentic western “barn dance” at the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park building.

Entertainment will be provided by the Saddle Rash band and the Regulators will perform their own unique version of “Western Drama.” Beer, wine and soft drinks will be served and food will be available. Tickets are only $5 and will be sold both in advance and at the door.

This will be a Wild West event in the spirit of Truckee’s historic “Festival of the Snows,” and fun for all ages. The public is encouraged to show up in 19th century attire and expect to be thoroughly entertained.

“Echoes From The Past” appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. Guy Coates is vice president and research historian for the Truckee-Donner Historical Society. He can be reached through the Society at 582-0893 or by e-mail at

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