OPENING OF THE CALIFORNIA TRAIL
by Lee Schegg
150 years ago this month [May 1994] an immigrant party set out from Council Bluffs destined for California. They would do something no one had accomplished before, that is, bring wagons into California over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The party consisted of several families, workers and guides, totaling 49 people and 11 wagons. Three members of the party had mountaineering experience: John Hitchcock, Caleb Greenwood and Elisha Stephens. Stephens was named Captain of the company. The party became known as the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party, or some combination of one or more of these names, after the Captain and two of the families.
Their party followed the established Oregon Trail to a point a short distance west of Fort Hall, near present day Pocatello, Idaho. They left the Oregon Trail where the Raft River joins the Snake River and headed south to join and follow the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada. Following the Humboldt all the way to the sink where the river evaporated or "sunk" into the desert was boring and uneventful. They had the tracks of the 1841 Bidwell Bartleson Party and the 1843 Chiles-Walker Party to follow. Bidwell's party abandoned their wagons in northeastern Nevada. Walker's wagons were abandoned in the Owens Valley. Both of these parties had continued south from the Humboldt Sink to find their entrances to California.
The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party met a group of Paiute Indians at the sink. By signs and heiroglyphics in the sand they were told of a river to the west that would take them to a pass in the mountains. The Indians' Chief used a term which the party took to be his name. When they came to the river as directed, they named it for the Chief; they called it the Truckee.
They followed the river upstream for about a month. The wagons had to cross and recross the streambed or travel in the streambed in order to negotiate the narrow canyon. Food for the stock animals became scarce as early snows blanketed the late season grasses. Two oxen died when they ate some exposed reeds too greedily. Despite the hardship the party arrived intact at the confluence of a creek (Donner Creek) and the Truckee River in mid November 1844.
The party split up. Six members on horseback with additional pack animals went south, following the Truckee upstream to Lake Tahoe. They became the first white people to walk on the shore of Lake Tahoe. They struck west at one of the streams that entered the Lake about midway down the west shore. In 21 days they reached the Sacramento Valley.
The remainder of the party, including the 11 wagons, followed the creek to the lake that fed it (Donner Lake). For three days they camped while members of the group searched for a pass. Finally on November 20, five wagons with the supplies they needed to exist began the ascent to the summit. Moses Schallenberger recounted many years later, "The snow on the mountains was now about two feet deep. Keeping their course on the north side of the lake until they reached its head, they started up the mountain. All the wagons were unloaded and the contents carried up the hill. Then the teams were doubled and the empty wagons were hauled up. When about half way up the montain they came to a vertical rock about ten feet high. It seemed now that everything would have to be abandoned except what the men could carry on their backs. After a tedious search they found a rift in the rock, just about wide enough to allow one ox to pass at a time. Removing the yokes from the cattle, they managed to get them one by one through this chasm to the top of the rock. There the yokes were replaced, chains were fastened to the tongues of the wagons, and carried to the top of the rock, where the cattle were hitched to them. Then the men lifted at the wagons, while the cattle pulled at the chains, and by this ingenious device the vehicles were all, one by one, got across the barrier." The date wagons crossed the Sierra crest is given as November 25, 1844.
Schallenberger and two other members volunteered to stay behind and watch the goods remaining in the six wagons. After building a cabin they decided to follow the remainder of the group over the summit. Moses attempted the journey but returned to the cabin exhausted and cramped. For almost three months he lived alone at the cabin. Meanwhile the main group made it to the Big Bend area and made a temporary camp while one of the Murphy women gave birth to Elizabeth Yuba Murphy and a group of the men went to Sutter's Fort (present Sacramento) for supplies. Schallenberger was retrieved in late February, rejoined the immigrant group at Big Bend, and continued on to Sutter's with the whole group in early March of 1845.
The entire party arrived successfully in California, and in bringing wagons over the Sierra, they had opened the California Trail, 150 years ago.