ECHOES OF THE PAST: Triumph and tragedy in pioneer winters |

ECHOES OF THE PAST: Triumph and tragedy in pioneer winters

(Part two of a series on early exploration of the Truckee area, continued from the Feb. 15 Sierra Sun)

Chief Truckee had won the trust of the immigrants and personally led the group west 40 miles to a river which the grateful pioneers named the “Truckee,” in his honor. The wagons followed the river upstream for a month, fording it on numerous occasions to negotiate the narrow canyon.

By mid-November, 1844, with winter weather threatening and food becoming scarce, the party finally arrived at the confluence of a creek (Donner Creek). From there, they decided to split up.

A party of six left the wagon train and rode on horseback headed south, following the Truckee River along the route of today’s Highway 89 to Lake Tahoe. From there they turned west, over the mountains, following a stream that flowed into the lake from the west shore and reached Sutter’s Fort in about 21 days.

The remainder of the party, including the 11 wagons, followed the creek which flowed from a beautiful alpine lake (now known as Donner Lake). Rising above the west end of the lake, they studied the 1,200-foot high granite escarpment which would have to be crossed to reach the fertile valleys of California.

By this time, snow had begun to fall, reaching a depth of two feet.

For two days, the party camped while members searched for a pass. Finally, on Nov. 20, five of the wagons began the ascent to the summit, leaving some men behind to guard the remaining wagons, including 17-year-old Moses Schallenberger.

Using double teams, the wagons were emptied and hauled over the vertical rocks, while provisions were carried up by hand. About halfway up, they reached a 10-foot high rock blocking the path of the wagons. After a tedious search, they found a gap just wide enough to allow the oxen to pass, one at a time.

Removing yokes from the oxen, they struggled to get the cattle to the top of the rock, where the yokes were once again hitched.

They fastened chains to the tongues of the wagons and while the men lifted the wagons, the oxen pulled the chains at the other end. One by one, all the vehicles were pulled to the top of the Sierra crest.

Meanwhile, Schallenberger, too weak to travel, volunteered to stay behind and guard the provisions while two of his friends built a make-shift cabin. Promising to return as soon as possible, the other two men then followed the remainder of the group over the summit.

As weeks passed, the snow fell and there was too little to sustain Schallenberger during this isolated winter.

The lone youth found himself facing the same plight that would doom the Donner Party at the same spot two winters later. He had guns and lots of powder, but the wild game had long since fled for lower regions. As he gazed from the door of the cabin, all he could see was a bleak whiteness surrounding him.

Determined to survive, Schallenberger hunted in daylight and saw plenty of tracks but no game. He found some metal animal traps which he baited with his last few scraps of dried beef and set them in the snow.

That night, while reading a book by the fire, he heard an animal yelp as one of the traps snapped shut. To his surprise, he had caught himself a half-starved coyote and managed to cook and eat the tough, gamey meat. He lived for three days on coyote meat.

Soon, however, he was catching foxes and other animals and in so doing was able to get himself through the worst of winter. He saved the last of his coffee to celebrate Christmas.

As February ended, geese began appearing and Shallenberger shot them and covered his cabin floor with the down feathers.

He occupied his days setting his traps. At night, he read books aloud, as a series of winter storms overwhelmed the small cabin.

Finally, on the last day of February, he emerged from his snow-covered home and spotted his friend, Dennis Martin, who had come back from the California settlements to guide him out. Martin quickly made a pair of snowshoes for Schallenberger and the next morning the two of them set out, barely escaping another storm. They crossed the pass without serious problems, reaching the Yuba camp and safety.

The following July, some of the party returned for the abandoned wagons and found their possessions looted by Indians. The wagons were retrieved and hauled over the pass to Sutter’s Fort.

Moses Schallenberger became a successful rancher and politician in San Jose, but never forgot that winter of his youth in the High Sierra. His remembrances were published in 1886 by historian Hubert H. Bancroft as a narrative entitled “Overland in 1844.”

Two years later, members of the ill-fated Donner Party would find Shallenberger’s cabin, but not his luck.

The lake would be named in their memory; leaving only a small place in history to the successful Stephens party who pioneered the first successful crossing of Donner Summit.

“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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