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"Snowshoe" Thompson: Fact and Legend
    by Kenneth Bjork (Volume 19: Page 62)

Tourists who visit the museum at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, California, are shown a crude pair of skis identified as those once used by “Snowshoe” Thompson to cross the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Thompson, a mail carrier, was a kind of human link between East and West in the days before the coming of the railroad and the building of adequate roads and snow-removal equipment. It is soon apparent to the interested person that Thompson is now one of the popular heroes of the Pacific Southwest-a fact that is re-emphasized by numerous articles, chiefly in the magazines and newspapers of California and Nevada, that have retold his exploits to a generation that is spared the struggle with the forces of nature.

Certainly no study of the Norwegian argonauts or of Scandinavian life in California after the gold rush is complete without an account of this remarkable individual. The historian, however, is bedeviled by the questions involved in writing a biography of an almost legendary figure. For even if by legends one means only the unverifiable anecdotes that have grown up around a historical personality, whose major contributions otherwise can be determined with relative ease, the problem is still a sizable one. Thompson was in every sense a flesh-and-blood character whose role in the migration story is clearly definable; nevertheless, it has already become impossible, in studying his career, to separate fact from fancy, history from legend. The historian, when confronted with this dilemma, bases his account, in so far as possible, on sources contemporary or nearly contemporary with the events described, and makes use of such legends as clearly spring from the major and verifiable aspects of the life of his leading character. No other procedure [63] would seem either possible or advisable in the case of Snowshoe Thompson.

I

Mr. John A. Thompson, who resides on Putah Creek, in Yolo county, left Carson Valley on Tuesday morning last, and reached this city at noon yesterday. Mr. Thompson is engaged in conveying an express to and from “the Valley.” . . . [He] was three days and a half in coming through . . . and used on the snow the Norwegian skates, which are manufactured of wood, and some seven feet in length. He furthermore states that he found the snow about five feet deep between Slippery Ford and the summit, a distance of eight miles, and on the average elsewhere in the mountains, three feet deep.

Mr. Bishop, who carried over the Salt Lake mail in December, consumed eight days in crossing, and before getting through, was badly frozen. Mr. Thompson left Placerville [or Hangtown] for Carson Valley on January 3d, and leaves again on his transmontane trip this day. {1}

Thus reads an item on page two of the January 19, 1856, issue of the Sacramento (California) Union. The following month the same paper noted that the “adventurous and hardy mountain expressman” had again arrived in Sacramento from Carson Valley, “bringing us a fortnight’s later intelligence.” He was expected to leave for Carson Valley on Wednesday (the paper appeared on Monday) and “any letters or papers to be forwarded by him should be left at the St. Charles Hotel, on I street, and in Placerville at the Placer Hotel.” In the late autumn of 1856, readers of the Union were informed that “communications with Carson Valley will be kept open by Mr. Thompson, who will run an express all winter.” {2}

Behind these almost casual announcements lay a story so unusual that one is surprised to discover that a year passed before the full significance of Thompson’s work was apparent. In February, 1857, Hutching’s California Magazine [64] informed its readers that the “recent rapid settlement of that great belt of fertile valleys lying along the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada range” had made necessary “the extension of mail facilities to that inland world in advance of any provision for that purpose by the agents of the general government.” Until the winter of 1854-55, persons living in the area mentioned had been isolated for three or four months of each year, or “closed in by almost inaccessible snow-clad mountains on the west, and on the east by a vast extent of desert country stretching towards Salt Lake, that during the winter months seems peculiarly the great battle ground of the winds and the storm.”

The great depth of the snows upon the Sierras, renders their passage by pack animals not only difficult but dangerous, and often for months together wholly impracticable. To remedy this great inconvenience and secure to the people of the valleys a regular correspondence with California west of the mountains, a proposition was made by Mr. John A. Thompson, a Norwegian by birth, to convey the mails semimonthly without regard to the depth of the snow. The proposition was accepted and we here present him mounted upon the true Norwegian snow skates, of which, a knowledge of their construction and use he had retained from the memory of boyhood, having left his native land at the age of ten years.

Entirely unlike the snow shoes of the North American Indian or the people of the Canadas, well adapted as they are to a loose light snow and a level country, the snow skates are peculiarly adapted to the rugged features of our mountains and the damp compact snows that annually accumulate upon them.

The skate consists of a single piece of strong stiff wood, from six to seven and a half feet in length, that turning up in front six or eight inches terminates in a point, six inches in width on the bottom at the bend and gradually tapering backwards to four inches in width. It is flat on the bottom, the top oval or rounded except about a foot in length where the foot rests, a little back of the center; here it is an inch and a half in thickness, from thence tapering to a half an inch or less at either end.

The only fastening is a single strap over the toe of the boot admitting of the freest possible motion to the feet and ancles [sic]. In making progress the skate is only raised from the snow when it is desired to make a shorter turn than would otherwise be possible. On uphill or level surfaces the skates are placed parallel to each other and pushed forward alternately with ease about the [65] length of an ordinary step, but the impetus given causes them to slide further than this, while upon descending surfaces they run with great ease and rapidity, and when the declivity is very great, making it necessary to check the motion by throwing weight of the skater upon a double handed staff, six feet in length forced into the snow upon one side as showed [sic] in the cut. With these skates Mr. Thompson, heavily laden, travels over the otherwise almost inaccessible snow clad cliffs, and gorges of the Sierras, a distance of from thirty to forty miles a day, thus bearing the sealed tidings, doubtless of hope or disappointment, happiness or grief to many.

It is a feature of our inland transit unique in itself, and as far as it relates to the American Continent we believe peculiarly Californian. {3}

The magazine also reprinted a story from the Sacramento Union of January 10, 1857, which told of a spectacular act of rescue by Thompson on his second trip that winter. According to the account Thompson, at about midnight of December 23, arrived at what was seemingly a deserted cabin in Lake Valley. In it, however, he “found a man lying alone upon the floor . . . without other covering than the clothes he wore, and the boots frozen to his feet.”

In this deplorable condition, he had been lying for twelve days, with nothing to sustain life but raw flour. His feet were completely frozen, and will both have to be amputated below the knee. His suffering must, according to the statement of Mr. Thompson, have been indescribable, and yet he bore them with the fortitude of a martyr, and scarcely permitted a murmur to escape him. Although death would soon have terminated his agony, he still had a lingering hope that Providence might direct Mr. Thompson by his cabin, and thus save him. Had not Mr. Thompson gone on that night [instead of spending the night at a previous stop], he would probably have passed the cabin in the morning without stopping.

The sufferer proved to be James Sisson . . . [who lived] about six miles above Placerville. He had been engaged in the packing business, and left for Carson Valley on snow shoes some two weeks previous. The storm overtook him on his way, and his feet becoming frozen, it was with great difficulty he reached his cabin or trading post. On arriving there he found his matches so wet that he could not strike a light, and thus he remained for four [66] days, when he discovered a box of matches in his cabin which furnished him a fire. He then attempted to cut his boots off his feet, but could not succeed; and nothing remained for him but to await either succor or death.

On the 24th, Mr. Thompson started for Carson Valley, and on Christmas day got five men to agree to accompany him back to Lake Valley. He rigged them out with snow shoes, made after the pattern of his own, and taking with them a sled upon which to haul the sufferer, they started back on the 26th. They reached the trading post that night, and laid over during the 27th, in con sequence of the severe weather-another snow being falling [sic]. On the 28th, they packed Mr. Sisson on the sled, and thus, with great labor, succeeded in conveying him safely to Carson Valley . . . Mr. Thompson, on his return will take with him some chloroform which will be administered to the patient and his feet amputated. {4}

Thompson not only carried mail packs on his back, but also contracted to keep the road open to Carson. During the winter of 1858-59 differences of opinion developed about the latter. The Sacramento Union announced that, despite heavy snows, “the mail came through from Carson Valley, and was followed immediately by the coach.” The Union also stated that “there has been some misunderstanding between the mail contractor and Thompson.” Because the contractor had failed to “comply with his portion of the agreement,” Thompson had abandoned the road and gone home to his ranch. A correspondent at Placerville, however, wrote that “the failure, in this instance, was unavoidable. Thompson has just arrived from Carson Valley, and informs me that matters have been so arranged that he can immediately commence operations.” Three days later the news appeared: “We are glad to learn that Thompson . . . has determined to go ahead with the contract. The difficulty about terms has been adjusted. . . . We do not doubt his ability to keep the road so far clear of snow as to permit stages to pass throughout the Winter. For some weeks, though, the mail and passengers may have to be carried on runners. {5} According to the Union of January 12, 1859: [67]

Thompson has two sleighs and two teams of mules with which he travels the road daily. His headquarters are in Lake Valley, and his plan is to start one team west and the other east. That traveling west comes over the summit and as far as Silver creek, where it strikes the new road down the American river. To that point wagons manage to haul goods, and there Thompson takes them on his sleigh and runs them over to Lake Valley. The next morning the team for the mouth of Carson Canon is harnessed to the sleigh upon which the goods are loaded; the other starts back to Silver creek for another load. The sleigh for the mouth of Carson Canon delivers its freight at Woodford’s, which is twelve miles from Lake Valley, and from there it is hauled to Genoa, eleven miles further, in a wagon. It is about thirteen miles from Lake Valley to Silver creek, which makes the distance traveled on snow twenty-five miles.

II

In the interest of truth, it should be made clear that Thompson was not the first to carry mail across the Sierras. Fred Bishop and a man named Dritt “alternated with each other in making the trips” in the spring of 1853. They used “what was called the basket form, or Canadian pattern of snowshoe,” and their journey took them from Placerville to Carson Valley. George Pierce was said to have succeeded Bishop and Dritt. Jack C. Johnson, who likewise preceded Thompson, opened the route called “Johnson’s Cut-off,” a trail later followed by the Norwegian. It was Thompson, however, on “snowshoes” of a quite different kind, who successfully established a regular express service over the mountains. {6}

Nor was the mountain region over which Thompson traveled quite the uncharted wilderness some writers made it appear. On August 23, 1856, the Calaveras Chronicle announced that the Big Tree Road, the first to be built over the Sierras, had been completed and was ready for use between Carson Valley and Murphy’s Camp; a toll branch road had also been constructed from Mokelumne Hill to [68] Jackson. It was only after the Big Tree Road had been opened that Thompson established his semimonthly “express and mail service between Sacramento and Carson Valleys.” {7} From 1856, however, until such time as the road could be “kept free from snow for the stagecoaches, Thompson provided the only means of communication” with the East during the winter months. {8}

According to the San Francisco Chronicle of November 14, 1926, the pony express was making its last run of the year in 1856, and the first rider was pressing his mount to the limit in an effort to make the passes in the Sierras before snow fell. But when he arrived at Hangtown, the mountains were already blanketed with snow, and he could go no farther. When Thompson volunteered to close the gap to Carson City, the “population of Hangtown thought him demented.”

“Major” W. G. Chorpenning, for whom Thompson worked, secured the contract to carry mail west of Salt Lake City in 1858, and he accordingly established an overland postal service. The first eastbound coach left Placerville on June 5, 1858; in the next month the first from the East arrived at Placerville. During the winter of 1858 Thompson and J. S. Child began a new stage line between Placerville and Genoa, “using sleighs between Strawberry Station and Carson Valley. By these means the road was open all winter for the first time. {9}

East of the Sierras there were ranchers in Carson Valley and placer miners in Gold Canyon. Before silver was discovered in what was then western Utah (later Nevada), Thompson brought letters, newspapers, and light packages to the miners who worked the placer diggings in Gold Canyon, at [69] Dayton (Chinatown), and at Johnstown. He also made the trip to Six Mile Canyon, at the head of which Virginia City later grew up. {10} Apparently he too engaged in gold prospecting. An interesting story in the Sacramento Union, October 13, 18692, called attention to the discovery of gold at Silver Mountain, some thirty or forty miles south of Gold Hill and Virginia; miles of mountainside, the paper said, had been staked off and were being prospected. The find had been made “about a year ago, by Norwegians, and the various districts of the mountain are now to a great extent occupied by that class of citizens, among whom is Thompson the ex pressman. . . . He seems to have come to the conclusion that supplying the Territory by that process is ‘played out’ and has gone to work in earnest, digging for gold.” The Union contained a long “Letter from Silver Mountain” on the front page of the issue of August 28, 1863. It repeated, among other things, that there were “a great many Norwegians in this portion of the State, among whom there is not a solitary rebel.”

Who was this “Expressman of the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” or Snowshoe Thompson, as he came to be known in the West? Shortly before, or at the time of his death on May 15, 1876, various writers recounted his unusual career, praising his courage, and marveling at his strength, which had finally collapsed under the impossible demands made of it. {11}

According to the San Francisco Bulletin, John A. Thompson was born in 1827, in Telemark, the district in Norway most famous for skiing. Thus he was forty-nine years old at his death. He was described as nearly six feet in height, weighing a hundred and eighty pounds, with piercing blue [70] eyes. He came to the United States as a child of ten, lived in Illinois, and set out for California in 1851. For a short time he worked at Coon Hollow and at Kelsey’s diggings near Hangtown, but in 1854 he turned to cattle raising on a ranch at Putah Creek, in the Sacramento Valley. It was during the winter of 1855-56 that, hearing of the difficulties involved in carrying the mail over the mountains, he recalled the use of skis in Norway. Then he made a pair of “snow shoes.” {12}

On Thompson’s trips over the Sierras, the reports stated in 1876, he traveled from Placerville to Carson Valley, a distance of ninety miles, with mailbags on his back weighing sixty to eighty, and at times a hundred pounds. The trip east ward regularly required three days, and the return trip two days. Often he crossed the mountains without seeing a human face or a family dwelling along the entire route. He carried no blanket and wore nothing heavier or longer than a Mackinaw jacket. His food was limited to what he could eat while on the move-jerked meat, crackers, or biscuits. For water he turned to mountain streams or scooped up snow and melted it in his mouth. He slept where night overtook him and used mail sacks for a pillow. Whenever possible, he camped under a projecting rock, which offered protection against the wind. At Cottage Rock, six miles below Straw berry Valley, he had a tiny cave in which he often slept with a fire burning at its entrance; there a “bed” was always ready and he had no fear of prowling bears or falling trees. During storms he had to forego the luxury of a fire; even so, he seemed never to suffer from frostbite. {13}

After five years of carrying the mail over the mountains, Thompson made his home on a ranch in Diamond Valley, thirty miles south of Carson City. He is credited by the Pony [71] Express Courier with playing a major part in the development of Alpine County during the 1860’s; among other things he served as one of its commissioners. He was buried at Genoa, Nevada; beside him lies an only son, who died in 1878 at the age of eleven. {14}

William M. Thayer maintains that Thompson made a bar gain with T. J. Matteson of Murphy’s Camp, Calaveras County, to continue postal services through the winter for $200, regardless of the depth of snow, and that he kept his part of the bargain. Thayer may be correct in all but the date, which he gives as 1854. Another writer mistakenly re ports that Congress, in its session of 1872-73, voted Thompson a pension for life. The Carson Index implied that the mail carrier had been well rewarded for his services to the government. “It is said,” the Index remarked in 1885, that “he received as high as $5 per letter as compensation for bringing the mail over the mountains when the winter storms were raging.” Another Carson paper, however, the Appeal, put the matter of compensation fairly before its readers shortly after Thompson’s death. Thompson had called at the Appeal’s office on February 8, 1876, and had remarked to the editor that he “had determined to ask Congress to grant him some compensation for carrying the mails.” He never received any, “and now he has passed over to the other shore where he will need none.” {15}

The stories that appeared in print shortly before Thompson’s death declared that he had not been paid for his services, that the person who had the mail contract - Chorpenning - was a bankrupt, and that Thompson had submitted a request to Congress for $6,000 as final compensation [72] for his work. The present writer has nowhere found any re liable evidence that either Thompson or his widow received this or any other reward from the government, though it is probably true that on occasion he collected substantial fees for his services to individuals. It is not clear what, if anything, was the wage for carrying mail during the two years when apparently there was no contract at all for this work. {16}

In 1925 the San Francisco Examiner reflected a feeling that had been gaining ground steadily in the Pacific South west - that Thompson, the “hardiest and mightiest man that ever shook a leg over the California uplands,” had been shabbily treated by a country he had served so generously. The Sacramento Bee remarked in 1939 that, in any case, there was no questioning Thompson’s amateur standing in the world of sports. {17}

It was suggested by Miss Endora Garoutte of the California State Library that in recognition of long and unselfish service, a monument should be dedicated to the intrepid mail carrier. A tablet commemorating Thompson’s exploits was unveiled at Carthay Center, a suburb of Los Angeles, on November 14, 1926, by the Native Sons of the Golden West. {18} [73]

III

Though disappointed financially, Snowshoe Thompson had the satisfaction, especially in his last years, of knowing that he had already become an almost legendary figure. During the decade that followed his death, tributes appeared in books, newspapers, and magazines. “Compared with other men in snows and snowstorms,” said the Carson Appeal, “he was as much superior as the San Bernard is to the ordinary dog. . . . He was never lost. Though the snow was pitiless and blinding, he never strayed from his straight path. . . . He never went armed, because he never wanted to be encumbered by weight. He was proof against cold. . . . He has stated that he was never frightened but once, and that was when he was confronted by a pack of hungry wolves. But he kept up his steady march, paying no apparent heed to them, and they did not molest him.” {19}

A history of Nevada published in 1881 recorded, “The most wonderful stories are related of this man [Thompson] and his exploits on snowshoes.” Among other things, he could tell direction by the appearance of trees and rocks. He had also helped to carry over the Sierras the machinery on which the Territorial Enterprise, earliest Nevada newspaper, was printed-first at Genoa, in 1858, and after 1859 at Carson City. “He was a man of great physical strength and endurance, and of such fortitude of mind and spirit,” the account concluded, “that he courted, rather than feared, the perils of the mountains when visited by their fiercest storms; and the wild rage of a midnight tempest could not disconcert or drive him from his path. But under the strain of the exhausting labors he forced upon himself, his great strength gave out. {20} [74]

The “most successful and fearless of the winter mail carriers was John A. Thompson,” wrote Hubert Howe Bancroft, historian of the west coast. “When night came he looked for a dead tree, and making a large fire, spread spruce boughs upon the snow and stretched himself upon this fragrant couch, and with his feet to the blaze and his face to the stars slept soundly and safely. An excellent woodsman, he never lost his way, needing no compass. . . . He discovered the lower route to Carson Valley which was known as Johnson’s road.” {21}

Thompson has himself discussed the subject of finding one’s way in the mountains. “I have never lost my way,” he was quoted as saying. “I can go anywhere in the mountains, day or night, in storm or sunshine, without becoming lost. But I have met many persons who have wandered here and there without knowing where they were going.” His advice to persons in this predicament was simple and clear: “As soon as one discovers that he is lost, he should at once start down hill; he will shortly come to a ravine, which leads to a canyon, and this in turn to a stream; and if one follows its course, he will soon be below the snow line and will find a path to the valley. Thus it is unnecessary ever to remain so long in the mountains that one need be afraid of starving to death.” {22}

It remained for Dan De Quille (the pen name of William H. Wright) to put the Snowshoe Thompson story into its ultimate form. De Quille, a contemporary of Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Joaquin Miller, had interviewed Thompson, and in 1886 he recorded his impressions. “His name was the synonym for endurance and daring everywhere in the mountains,” De Quille said; he also called Thompson the “most remarkable and most fearless of all our Pacific Coast mountaineers.” Prior to the completion of the Central Pacific Rail road, when Thompson was “regularly crossing the Sierra [75] Nevadas during the winter months, with the mails strapped upon his back,” much was heard of him; but Thompson was “seldom seen in the valleys, or any of the large towns except Sacramento, where he only went when business called him.” Nevertheless, he was famous in “all the camps and settlements” and “every winter up to the last he lived, he was constantly performing feats that excited the wonder and admiration even of his neighbors and friends, though for years they had been familiar with his powers of endurance, and his undaunted courage.” De Quille maintained that these feats would have been “heralded far and wide had they been performed in a more accessible or populous region”; Thompson himself “thought lightly of the daring and difficult things he did. . . . It was very seldom that he went out of his way to do a thing merely to excite astonishment, or elicit applause.”

Of Thompson’s skis, De Quille wrote:

When he was a boy, in Norway, snow-shoes were objects as familiar to him as ordinary shoes are to the children of other lands. . . . Although he was but ten years of age at the time he left his native land, his recollections of the shoes he had seen there were in the main correct. Nevertheless, the shoes he then made were such as would at the present day be considered much too heavy, and somewhat clumsy. . . .

Having completed his snow-shoes to the best of his knowledge, Thompson at once set out for Placerville, in order to make experiments with them. Placerville was not only his old mining camp, but was also the principal mountain town on the “Old Emigrant Road”-the road over which the mails were then carried. Being made out of green oak, Thompson’s first shoes were very heavy. When he reached Placerville, he put them upon a pair of scales, and found that they weighed twenty-five pounds. But their owner was a man of giant strength, and he was too eager to be up and doing to lose time in making another pair out of lighter wood.

Stealing away to retired places near the town, Thompson spent several days in practising on his snow-shoes, and he soon became so expert that he did not fear letting himself be seen in public on his snow-shoes.

When he made his first public appearance, he was already able to perform such feats as astonished all who beheld him. His were the first Norwegian snow-shoes known in California. At that time, the only snow-shoes known were those of the Canadian [76] pattern. Mounted upon his shoes-which were not unlike thin sled runners in appearance-and with his long balance-pole in his hands, he dashed down the sides of mountains at such a fearful rate of speed as to cause many to characterize the performance as foolhardy. Not a few of his old friends among the miners begged him to desist, swearing roundly that he would dash his brains out against a tree, or plunge over some precipice and break his neck. But Thompson only laughed at their fears. With his feet firmly braced, and his balance-pole in his hands, he flew down the mountain slopes, as much at home as an eagle soaring and circling above the neighboring peaks.

He did not ride astride his guide-pole, nor trail it by his side in the snow, as is the practice of other snow-shoers when descending a steep mountain, but held it horizontally before him, after the manner of a tight-rope walker.

De Quille repeated all the familiar stories of how the ex pressman dressed, ate, slept, and followed a course on his journeys; and he added a few touches of his own. “By day,” he wrote, Thompson “was guided by the trees and rocks, and by night looked to the stars, as does a mariner to his compass.” He followed no set course, for “in a trackless waste of snow there was no path to follow.” In those days “nothing was known of the mysteries of ‘dope’ . . . which being applied to the bottom of the shoes, enables the wearer to lightly glide over snow softened by the rays of the sun.” Thompson used no wax, and as a result, “soft snow stuck to, and so clogged his shoes, that it was sometimes impossible for him to travel over it. Thus, it frequently happened that he was obliged to halt for several hours during the day, and resume his journey at night, when a crust was frozen on the snow.”

Thompson, as we have seen, was in the habit of making camp beside a dead pine stump, which served as firewood. “When unable to find a dry stump, he looked for a dead pine tree,” according to De Quille. “If he could avoid it, he never made his camp beside a tree that was perfectly straight. . . . It very often happened that the tree set on fire in the evening was burned through, and fell to the ground before morning. When he had a leaning tree, at the feet of which to encamp, he was able to make his bed on the safe side; but [77] when the tree stood perfectly erect, he knew not on which side of it to build his couch.”

We read again in De Quille’s account the story of Thompson’s inability to collect pay for his services. “For twenty years he carried the mails . . . at times when they could have been transported in no other way than on snow-shoes.” For “five winters in succession he was constantly engaged in carrying the mails across the snowy range. Two years he carried the United States mails when there was no contract for that service, and he got nothing. On both sides of the mountains he was told that an appropriation would be made and all would come out right for him; but he got nothing but promises.”

When Chorpenning had the contract for carrying the mails, Thompson turned out with the oxen from his ranch and kept the roads open for a long time; and when there at last came such a depth of snow that the road could no longer be broken, he mounted his snow-shoes and carried the mails on his back. Chorpenning failed, and Thompson never received a dime for his work.

First and last, he did a vast deal of work for nothing. . . . He took pride in the work. It challenged the spirit of adventure within him. It was like going forth to battle, and each successive trip was a victory. This being his feeling, he was all the more readily made to believe that in case he turned in and did the work, he would eventually be paid. As Mr. Thompson approached his fiftieth year, he began to think that in his old age he ought to receive something from the government in reward for the services he had performed. He asked but six thousand dollars for all he had done and endured during the twenty years. His petition to Congress was signed by all the State and other officials at Carson City, and by everyone else that was asked to sign it. In the winter of 1874 he went to Washington to look after his claim, but all he got was promises.

De Quille also gives a picture of Thompson as “a man of splendid physique. . . . His features were large, but regular and handsome. He had the blond hair and beard, and fair skin and blue eyes of his Scandinavian ancestors, and looked a true descendant of the sea-roving Northmen of old.” He concluded with these words:

Although he spoke English as well as a native-born American, [78] one would not have been surprised to have heard him break forth in the Old Norse. Had he lived in the days when his ancestors were carrying terror to all the coasts of Europe, he would have been a leader, if not a king, among them. On the sea he would have been what he was in the mountains-a man most adventurous, fearless, and unconquerable. . . . He was the father of all the race of snow-shoers in the Sierra Nevadas; and in those mountains he was the pioneer of the pack train, the stage-coach and locomotive. On the Pacific Coast his equal in his particular line will probably never again be seen. {23}

IV

Following the appearance of De Quille’s article-a source of inspiration to many subsequent writers-little remained but to fill in the details of Thompson’s career, and to add a few touches to the legends that clung to his person. Norwegian Americans naturally revealed a special interest in a distinguished representative of their group.

Perhaps the Thompson story came to most Norwegian Americans through Hjalmar Rued Holand, who, while basing his account on English-language articles, supplemented his story by means of interviews. In his major work on Norwegian settlement in America, Holand stated that Thompson, whose Norwegian name was Jon Thoresen Rue, was born on the Rue farm at Tinn, in Telemark, April 30, 1827, and that, together with his mother, a brother, and some others, he migrated to America ten years later in what Holand calls the “first family exodus, not only from Telemark, but from the whole of eastern Norway.” The family went to the Fox River settlement in Illinois, and in 1838 formed a part of the group that founded the first Norwegian settlement in Shelby County, Missouri, under the inspiration of Cleng Peerson, pioneer trail blazer among the Norwegians in America. The Rues left Missouri in 1840 and settled at Sugar Creek, Iowa, where the mother died. The sons and others from Tinn helped organize the Blue Mounds settlement near Mount Horeb, in Dane County, Wisconsin. [79]

One who, despite his youth, had already pioneered in several states obviously found it natural to join the gold seekers who set out for California from Wisconsin in 1851. Holand records that Thompson was accompanied on this journey by Thore Thompson Røisland, a half brother considerably older than himself. Røisland conceived the idea of taking along a herd of milk cows, some of which survived the hardships of travel and arrived in California. The brothers were able to sell milk at fabulous prices-for a short time-but the cattle died of hunger during their first winter in the West.

Like other Norwegian-American writers, before and after, Holand retold the stories of Thompson’s heroic exploits and added another that he took from the Middle Western press. In 1874 Thompson, while en route to Washington to inter view the postal authorities about his unpaid wages, was delayed in the Wyoming mountains when the train in which he was riding became snowbound. Undaunted, he and a fellow passenger set out on foot in a storm and arrived at Laramie-thirty-five miles to the east-on the evening of the same day. As trains were held up by drifts in Laramie too, Thompson then walked the sixty-five miles to Cheyenne- this time alone-arriving there two days later and resuming his journey by train. He walked, in all, a distance of about one hundred miles in three days through deep snow-and without skis. The newspapers of the East naturally made much of this feat.

Holand said of Thompson that he could fairly “serve as a model for the god of the ski sport. It has been attested, for example, that on one occasion he sailed off a cliff 180 feet in height, and came down standing up.” In Holand’s eyes, Thompson was “a hero, a superman who was not subject to ordinary human frailty, but disported himself over bridges of ice and avalanches of snow and made light of Nature’s stern moods.”

For common people there is something frightful in the wild winter storms that often rage in the mountains; but the wilder the storm, the greater was Thompson’s courage. He was not [80] afraid to beard the storm king in his mountain fastness. In Thompson’s breast burned the spirit of the vikings of old. It was this spirit that drove him to defy the wildest raging of the elements. During the frightful crashing of the storm against the rocky mountain peaks, he stood unafraid. He danced on the rocks during a midnight hurricane, as if he himself was one of the storm trolls. {24}

The dancing scene was neither a figment of Holand’s fertile imagination nor solely the product of a boastful Norwegian-American romanticism. Myrtle Shaw Lord, in a feature story in a California newspaper, explained what many before her had mentioned only in passing-that when blizzards over took Thompson and he was blinded by snow, he would “search out the highest places that the wind had swept clean of snow and then would hop and dance until morning.” One spot in particular-a fat boulder-was a favorite with him, and on it, in sheer defense against the biting cold, he frequently danced the strenuous Hailing dance of his home land. {25}

References to Thompson’s life in the Sierras, based on English-language stories, appeared from time to time in the Norwegian-American press. But it was not until 1934 that anything like an adequate description of his work appeared in English form for a reading public that could be broadly defined as Norwegian-American. Erling Ylvisaker made levies on the resources of the California State Library as well as on Norwegian-language publications when he prepared a readable account of Thompson titled “The Mail Arrives-on Skis. {26}

Many stories about Thompson are a part of the literature-and folklore-of the mining towns too, and a few of them have been preserved in books that were written at a later date. Two are of more than casual interest. During the winter of 1856-57, miners in the vicinity of Virginia City found [81] themselves short of boots and unable to replenish their sup ply locally. Thompson was their only hope, and they accordingly appealed to him for help. “He offered $1.50 per pound to any man who would accompany him back from Placerville and carry freight to the Gold Canyon,” says Eliot Lord, “but could find no one willing to face the perils of the pas sage, and few indeed could have made the attempt with success except men like this stalwart Norwegian.” Eliot Lord adds, “In crossing from the valley he met four tired men 25 miles from Placerville who had advanced only 10 miles in three days and had not as yet fairly entered the snow belt. As the light-footed courier slid past they asked him despondingly whether they were almost through the snow. ‘There are 45 miles more of it,’ he cried back, without slackening pace.” Then, as later, Thompson was “a model of manly vigor” who could “run across the Sierras, scarcely pausing for breath. {27}

On another occasion the proprietor of Strawberry Station sent the mail carrier after three foolhardy persons who had ventured into the mountains during a storm. One of the party relates:

When Snowshoe Thompson showed up there was no more argument about whether we should go on. He told us we just couldn’t make it on that light crust without snowshoes, and we had sense enough to believe him. He had a reputation. And be sides, Howard was a wreck. He went back first. He put his feet on the back of Thompson’s snowshoes and his arms around Thompson’s neck, and away they slid, down the eight miles to Strawberry.

It was slow work for Thompson to come back, and our hopes were just about to zero when his “Hello” brought us back to life. Thompson made these three round trips without a kick. I’ve traveled all the ways there are to travel, from elephant-back in India jinrikishas in Japan and the fastest coach and eight in California, but that ride on the back of Thompson’s snowshoes was the fastest and most exciting in my life. {28} [82]

Success usually crowned Thompson’s performances, but at least one failure is checked against him in the chronicle of the West. He was asked on one occasion to find a “peep-stone” (crystal ball) for Eilley Orrum, “Queen of the Comstock.” Though he apparently made a thorough search for the cherished object, he was unable to obtain one. {29}

V

Some of the more recent accounts of the “Bird Man of the Sierra,” another of the titles given Thompson by enthusiastic journalists, have called attention to important but less dramatic aspects of his life. Thus, W. F. Skyhawk (Herbert Hamlin), in a series of articles that appeared in the Pony Ex press Courier, not only retold the story of Sisson’s rescue and called Thompson a “hero without parallel” who could fly downhill on his skis at a speed of eighty feet per second, but also explained that the expressman worked at odd jobs in the summertime, was clever in the use of tools, and had a pronounced mechanical bent.

Thompson helped Thomas Knott and his son Elzy build sawmills and a gristmill, and he learned from “Lucky Bill” Thorington how to dig irrigation ditches. Thorington, Skyhawk writes, built the first irrigation canal in what was to become the state of Nevada, and planted the first fruit trees along the eastern slope of the Sierras. Thompson apparently met Thorington in 1853, when the latter was attempting to run a large Carson Valley farm-purchased in part at least from the proceeds of an emigrant toll station and in equal part from the winnings made in gambling with greenhorns. According to the same account, Thompson carried mail over [83] the mountains to Sacramento for Thomas Knott as early as the winter of 1853; he received two dollars a letter for his services and brought back from Hangtown parts for a mill, supplies for a blacksmith, and similar articles. It is interesting, too, that Skyhawk found no evidence among the land records that Thompson ever owned a ranch during the 1850’s, as most of the earlier stories say he did, on Putah Creek. {30}

Whether Thompson owned land or was merely a squatter in the Sacramento Valley, he apparently was always looking for work, as the income from his farm was meager. In all likelihood his performances on skis were the natural consequence of economic pressure. At the time he contracted to carry the mail on a regular schedule he was already interested in Agnes Singleton, whom he had met at Mottsville in 1853 and whom he married about ten years later. His mail-carrying and odd-job activities thereafter were motivated by a natural desire to provide a house and living for his wife and son. The Singletons, who were apparently of Mormon origin, maintained a home that was distinctly English in flavor, and Mrs. Thompson was reputed to be refined, attractive in appearance, even-tempered, and-like her husband-religious in outlook. Thompson, doubtless hoping to add a bit to his small savings, and being of a trusting nature, also invested in mining stock-from which he derived no profit. It is interesting to note in this connection that he probably brought the first ore samples from the famous Comstock Lode to Sacramento and received the standard fee of two dollars for doing so; carrying ore samples was one of his regular services to the miners. {31} [84]

One day Thompson appeared in the newspaper office at Placerville and showed the editor, Frank Stewart, a sample of rock, “explaining that it clogged the sluices and bothered the placer miners in Gold canyon.” He had the ore assayed at Sacramento-”with astonishing results. The return was nearly $1,000 per ton in gold and over $1,200 in silver. It has never been clear which assay was made first, the one in Sacramento or the one in Nevada City. But they were nearly at the same time.” {32} The Stockton (California) Daily Independent of June 10, 1875, reported that in the winter of 1857-58 Thompson brought to Placerville a small package of “black looking rock” from Gold Canyon (Lower Gold Hill). After the discovery of the Comstock Lode, Thompson, according to Skyhawk, carried on a kind of “private mail service, just being a hired Mountain messenger for anyone who wished to hire him. And there were such in abundance.” We learn from Skyhawk, too, that carrying letters “was but a small part of his versatile job. He threw to his back on long journeys, anything and everything that was important- even to fragile lamp chimneys.”

From Skyhawk we learn that Thompson was the first per son in Genoa to enlist in the Piute Indian War of 1860, and that it is possible he served with Major William Ormsley in Nicaragua, as his name is on a list of volunteers for 1855. {33} We learn, too, that Thompson’s mail carrying was not restricted to the winter months; during the summer of 1860, for example, he maintained postal services in Carson Valley [85] and at Comstock, this time using a team or riding a horse. The precariousness of human life that characterized the time is demonstrated by the fact that his one-time employers, Elzy Knott and Lucky Bill Thorington, were killed in 1858 and 1859 respectively in a feud with Mormons.

But any attempt even to outline the day-by-day aspects of Thompson’s life would end in the mists of obscurity if not in frustration. The “Bird Man’s” real life, quite simply, was in the mountains, and almost anything associated with his movements over the Sierras-the times being what they were-is colorful. “Old Timers at Mormon Station,” as Skyhawk relates, “used to look toward the top of Genoa Peak when Snowshoe Thompson was due with the mail. Sometimes he came from Murphy’s by way of East or West Carson Can yon, and Woodford’s, but from Placerville he usually took the direct route by the southern shore of Lake Tahoe. As he descended into the pioneer settlement from the mountain above, long curved streaks of flying snow appeared in the wake of the dashing meteor.” {34}

Skyhawk was carried away by emotion when he described the rescue of Jim Sisson; in fact, he found it necessary to immortalize the story in verse:

DOWN GENOA’S PEAK DESCENDING
(Snow Shoe Thomson Brings Chloroform)

 

Flying Eagle of the Fifties;
Soaring Bird Man of the West
Sailing through the virgin forest,
Scaling, high, Sierra’s crest.

Down Genoa’s Peak descending;
‘Round the crags, and ‘tween the pine.
Clouds of snow, like smoking engines,
Trailing in the serpentine. [86]

Down! Down! Fast there comes a-falling
Like a streak of lightning’s ray-
Singing, bending, leaping, swirling,
See the comet wend its way!

Hail, ye Mormon Saints and Gentiles!
Elzy Knott shut down your mill!
Snow Shoe Thomson! Ho! He’s coming!
Sisson’s leg will soon be nil.

Daggett, Chamberlain and Waters,
Chloroform is on the way!
Get your cleavers, saws and cat-gut!
Go to work and save the day!

Sisson’s ends are mortifying,
Thirty days they’re frozen stiff!
Doctor Luce, with Pony whiskey,
Take your turn at every sniff? {35}

VI

After Thompson had descended to the edge of the snow line, when traveling west on his scheduled trips, he would shoulder his skis and walk to “Judah’s Railroad.” From this point he rode a coach to Sacramento. The railroad, begun in 1855, reached Folsom early in 1856; within a few years it had extended to the snow line at Placerville. {36}

The very method of transportation which thus afforded a welcome rest to the expressman was destined to end his colorful career on skis. Theodore D. Judah, a brilliant engineer who had come to California in 1854 and had planned the Sacramento Valley line, dreamed of connecting the west coast with the East and made careful surveys for a rail route over the Sierra Nevadas. Before his death in 1863, he interested four Sacramento merchants-Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker-in this [87] new railroad project, and also convinced Congress that the California project should be included in plans then under consideration in Washington for a transcontinental railroad.

The Central Pacific Railroad Company, which was organized by the Sacramento “Big Four,” was incorporated under California law in June, 1861. When Congress chartered the Union Pacific Railroad Company in July, 1862, it provided liberal public assistance to both companies and also authorized the Central Pacific to build the western end of the rail road line.

Because of the longfelt need in California for rail connections with the East, Stanford, Huntington, Hopkins, and Crocker were assured state and local support for their under taking. Thus, in the face of opposition from such cities as San Francisco, from stagecoach and steamboat companies, from pack-horse freighters, and others, construction soon got under way and the California legislature vied with Congress in its generosity to the railroad company. The discovery of the Comstock Lode also served as a stimulus to construction.

Despite the difficulties presented by the Sierra Nevadas, the rising costs of supplies during the Civil War years, and high shipping charges, work on the Central Pacific proceeded steadily-partly because of the driving force of Charles Crocker, superintendent of construction. In July, 1861, the railroad reached as far as Newcastle, a short distance east of Sacramento. With the help of Chinese labor, the most difficult stretch in the mountains was completed in 1866. By 1867 the major difficulties had been overcome, and during the summer of that year a locomotive heading eastward crossed the divide. Congress had already authorized construction of the Central Pacific beyond California, thereby signaling the start of a race-in opposite directions-between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads; they were joined at Promontory Point, in Utah, on May 10, 1869.

The dramatic, at times sordid, but always vital story of building the Central Pacific need not be retold here. It [88] cannot, however, be wholly overlooked; for after the railroad had crossed the mountains, the people on either side depended less than before on the courage and strength of Snowshoe Thompson. The ribbons of rail that everywhere symbolized material progress paralleled the ski tracks of the California mail carrier; human flesh was no equal of the engines of steel that soon roared over them, crossing the Sierras from east to west on regular schedule-relegating Thompson to the limbo of history and leaving him, if not a major figure in national folklore, at least one of the most colorful personalities in the legends of the Pacific Southwest.

Notes

<1> All citations of California and Nevada newspapers in this study are from microfilm copies in the California State Library, Sacramento. The town later commonly known as Placerville was called Hangtown by the forty-niners. Both names were used by early California newspapers.
<2> February 4, November 17, 1856.
<3> Crossing the Sierras, Norwegian Snow Skates,” in Hutching’s California Magazine (San Francisco), 1:349-352 (February, 1857).
<4> The issue of the Union for April 22, 1857, said that Thompson had crossed the Sierras thirty-one times during the previous winter, most of the time on skis.
<5> Sacramento Union, December 10, 13, 1858.
<6> Myron Angel, ed., History of Nevada, with Illustrations and Bio graphical Sketches of its Prominent Men and Pioneers, 103 (Oakland, 1881); William M. Thayer, Marvels of the New West, 260 (Norwich, Connecticut, 1888); Paolo Sioli, comp., Historical Souvenir of Eldorado County, California, 173 (Oakland, 1883); Le Roy R. Hafen, The Overland Mail, 1849-1869, Promoter of Settlement, Pre cursor of Railroads, 65 (Cleveland, 1926).
<7> Chester Lee White, “Surmounting the Sierras: The Campaign for a Wagon Road,” in California Historical Society, Quarterly, 7: 13 (March, 1928). The San Francisco Herald of June 1, 1857, quoting a story in the Calaveras (California) Chronicle of May 30, announced that during the summer months Thompson would carry mail and express regularly on horseback between Mokelumne Hill and Carson Valley, via the Big Tree route.
<8> Effie Mona Mack, Nevada: A History of the State from the Earliest Times through the Civil War, 337-340 (Glendale, California, 1936).
<9> Mack, Nevada, 340. On the names Placerville and Hangtown, see footnote 1.
<10> F. B. Davis, “A Memorial to ‘Snow-shoe’ Thompson, Hero of the Sierras,” a speech delivered at Carthay Center, a suburb of Los Angeles, on November 14, 1926. A typewritten copy of this valuable record is in the California State Library, Sacramento.
<11> Sacramento Union, May 20, 1876, quoted both Thompson and the Carson Appeal in saying that the “fatiguing trips” over the Sierras “had broken his constitution.” He died after a brief illness that originated with a liver ailment. Thompson’s early death came despite austere personal habits; he never drank, smoked, or chewed, because-as he liked to remark-”I never have time.”
<12> Quoted in Skandinaven (Chicago), March 14, 1876. Dan De Quille, who interviewed Thompson shortly before the latter’s death, said that the idea of using skis came to Thompson one day while he was splitting the trunk of an oak tree on his Putah ranch; Alta California (San Francisco), February 20, 1876.
<13> See Frances Fairchild, “Snowshoe Thompson,” in Grizzly Bear (Los Angeles) 35: 2-4 (August, 1924). Thompson’s story from the San Francisco Bulletin was reproduced in Skandinaven, March 14, 1876.
<14> Pony Express Courier (Placerville, California), vol. 8, no. 8, p. 7 (January, 1942). The San Francisco Herald of January 24, 1859, observed that Thompson had been appointed notary public. At the top of the tombstone over Thompson’s grave, in the Genoa cemetery, “a pair of snowshoes twelve inches in length, standing one across the other, are beautifully carved.” The stone was placed there by Thompson’s widow, Mrs. John Scossa; Carson (Nevada) Index, quoted in Sacramento Union, October 12, 1885.
<15> Thayer, Marvels of the New West, 261; Sioli, Eldorado County, 173. The Carson index was quoted in Sacramento Union, October 12, 1885. See also Carson Appeal, May 15, 1876, quoted in Sacramento Union, May 20, 1876.
<16> Skandinaven, March 14, 1876; Budstikken (Minneapolis), March 14, 1876. Erling Ylvisaker quotes a letter he received from the postmaster general: “I am sorry to state that our records disclose no historical facts concerning him [Thompson]. In fact there is nothing except the number of his route and the dates.” See Ylvisaker’s Eminent Pioneers: Norwegian American Pioneer Sketches, 76 (Minneapolis, 1934). In reply to questions from the present writer, Mr. R. K. Fried man, director of headquarter services in the office of the deputy postmaster general, submitted, in a letter of June 30, 1955, the following information about Thompson’s relations with the postal service: in 1857 “he was an unsuccessful bidder for services on Route No. 12573, Placerville, California, to Carson’s Valley, Utah.” His bid was “for service ‘on Norwegian Snowskates from December to April’ and on horseback the remainder of the year.” It is still not clear “whether or not Mr. Thompson received any compensation for service.” Later records indicate that Thompson, as a resident of Silver Mountain, “was regularly designated by the Post Office Department as a contractor on Route No. 14763, Genoa to Silver Mountain, California, from July 1, 1870, through June 30, 1874, at $1856 per annum.”
<17> San Francisco Examiner, April 14, 1925; Harry P. Bagley, in Sacramento Bee, January 21, 1939 (magazine section). See also Bagley’s “Snowshoe Thompson’s Race with Death,” in Sacramento Bee, December 21, 1940 (magazine section).
<18> Davis, “Memorial to ‘Snow-shoe’ Thompson.” J. Harvey McCarthy was the donor of the tablet. On this occasion the newspapers, recounting Thompson’s career, reminded their readers that gamblers at Hangtown “offered long odds that he [Thompson] would never return, but there were no takers.” See San Francisco Chronicle, November 14, 1926; Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1926; Grizzly Bear, 40:6 (November 26, 1926).
<19> The Sacramento Union of May 20, 1876, quoting the Carson Appeal of May 15, said, “Possessed of herculean strength, with nerves of steel and an iron will, and a heart susceptible of the kindest feelings, he was at once the beau ideal of strong manhood.” This merely summarized the implication of all the Union stories about Thompson. The passage quoted in the text is also from the Union of May 20, 1876.
<20> Angel, History of Nevada, 103.
<21> Chronicles of the Builders of the Commonwealth: Historical Character Study, 5:296 (San Francisco, 1891).
<22> Thompson, if not exactly lost, once got himself into a spot from which he had difficulty escaping; Fairchild, in Grizzly Bear, 35: 2-4 (August, 1934). See also Budstikken, March 14, 1876.
<23> De Quille’s account is taken from his “Snow-shoe Thompson,” in Overland Monthly (San Francisco), second series, vol. 8, p. 419-435 (October, 1886); re printed in George Wharton James, Heroes of California, 195-206 (Boston, 1910).
<24> Hjalmar Rued Holand, De norske settlementers historie, en oversigt over den norske indvandring til og bebyggelse af Amerikas nordvesten fra Amerikas opdagelse til indianerkrigen i nordvesten, 313-319 (Ephraim, Wisconsin, 1909).
<25> Sacramento Union, October 18, 1931.
<26> For a sketch of Thompson in the Norwegian-American press, see Skandinaven, December 7, 1921. Ylvisaker’s account is in his Eminent Pioneers, 67-78.
<27> Eliot Lord, The Drama of Virginia City, 10 (Reno, 1925). It is interesting to read that the “chief source of information concerning Gold Canon miners is in news items furnished by John A. ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson to the Sacramento Union, from January 1856, to March 1858; and from the excellent letters of ‘Tennessee’ to the San Francisco Herald from 1857 to 1860, inclusive”; Grant H. Smith, History of the Comstock Lode, 1850-1920, 12 (Reno, Nevada, 1943).
<28> C. B. Glasscock, Lucky Baldwin: The Story of an Unconventional Success, 105 (Indianapolis, 1933).
<29> Swift Paine, Eilley Osram, Queen of the Comstock, 78-8 1 (Palo Alto, California, 1929). Thompson lacked any knowledge of skiing as a sport. The Sacramento Union of March 10, 1869, quoted the following description of a “snow shoe match” from the Downieville Messenger: “Thompson had heard of snowshoe races, and to satisfy his curiosity . . . he attended those recently held at Laporte. He veni vidied but did not vici a bit. . . . There is no doubt but that Thompson is a good traveler on the snow, but he had the frankness to acknowledge when he saw the boys run, that he knew nothing about racing.” The article also said that Thompson had never known what “dope” (ski wax) was until he saw it at the races.
<30> There seems to be considerable foundation for the story told by persons now living in the vicinity of Thompson’s Nevada ranch. Thompson is credited with leading water “from a lake up in the mountains . . . The water is [still] coming from the lake down through the ditch, furnishing water for the settlers in the lowlands”; Telesoga, second series, no. 2, p. 20 (1950).
<31> Morton Thompson writes: “Sheepishly, he made a down payment on a ranch on Putah Creek, near Sacramento. But farming, somehow, wasn’t right”; Holiday, 11:14 (January, 1952). According to W. F. Skyhawk, “His Putah Creek ranching days was [sic] of short duration, if there were any, and according to old land records he never owned a ranch on Putah Creek. . . . Research into the records of three counties . . . reveals no such information”; Pony Express Courier, vol. 8, no. 7 (December, 1941). Thompson took a friendly attitude toward the Mormons in general, the inevitable result of his numerous associations with members and former members of that church (his wife is believed to have been a Mormon) and of his general tolerance of the beliefs of other people. W. F. Skyhawk makes the interesting observation that it was thought Thompson lived for a season at Spanish Fork, Utah, before he arrived in California. “It is not definitely known whether he joined the church or not, but he did take interest . . . in the Mormon functions”; Pony Express Courier, vol. 8, no. 2, p. 8 (July, 1941).
<32> C. C. Goodwin, As I Remember Them, 192 (Salt Lake City, 1918).
<33> He was in the thick of battle at Pyramid Lake on May 12, when an estimated total of seventy-six whites were slain and the remaining twenty-nine were routed by the Indians. Frances Fairchild states that Thompson saved his life by mounting the horse of one of his fallen comrades; Grizzly Bear, 35:2-4.
<34> To the very end of Thompson’s life, stories kept springing up about his activities. People living in Nevada related that when he became ill in the spring of 1876, “he was still so determined to finish the planting that when he no longer had the strength to carry the grain sack in front of his body, he mounted a horse and scattered the seed from horseback”; Ylvisaker, Eminent Pioneers, 78.
<35> W. F. Skyhawk, “The Saga of Snowshoe Thomson.” This interesting series of articles began in the June, 1941, issue of the Pony Express Courier and continued regularly thereafter, concluding in the February, 1942, issue (vol. 8, nos. 1-9). The poem appeared in the November, 1946, number of the Pony Express, vol. 13, no. 6, p. 7. The latter succeeded the Pony Express Courier, but the numbering of volumes was consecutive regardless of the change.
<36> Pony Express Courier, vol. 8, no. 5, p. 13 (October, 1941).

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