The Stephens Townsend Murphy Saga
The First Wagon Train to California Went Over Donner Summit -
Imagine leaving home, leaving all that is familiar, leaving friends and family. Imagine traveling six months at 10-12 miles a day following your wagon. Consider the hardship. What could possibly induce someone to do that, especially before the Gold Rush? How would that trip affect your life? How will it change you?
"The Forgotten Journey" video is about an almost forgotten episode in California history, the first wagon train to come to California with wagons. Unfortunately for them, and for the Donners too, the Stephens Party was overshadowed by the Donner tragedy that would happen two years later.
This is a good video, about an hour long, which tells the whole story using diary entries, paintings, historic pictures, interviews with authors and historians, and modern scenes.There is also an educational CD packaged with the DVD.
Before 1844 almost all the emigrant wagon trains leaving the United States headed for Oregon. In 1844 the first wagon train to reach California left Missouri, some years before the Gold Rush.
The video covers the backgrounds of the families and their reasons for going and you learn about wagon train travel.
In May of 1844 they crossed the Missouri River. People did not travel in wagons. They walked. Their wagons were pulled by oxen and not horses. They covered 10-12 miles a day. They brought along apples to ward off scurvy.
The party ran into all kinds of problems. There was the Sublette Cutoff that ended up saving many miles but also left the party for two days without water. The cattle ran off. The oxen stampeded endangering the wagons as they rushed for water when the party finally found it. Then there was the 40 mile desert which left them for three days without water or forage as they crossed today’s Nevada.
They met Chief Truckee who told them about the river they could follow to the Sierra – the Truckee. Now the party faced the Sierra barrier. As they approached, traveling in the river channel, they crossed the river 10 times in an day. Oxen hooves became so soft the oxen refused to move. Then the snows came. It was October and the Sierra still loomed above them.
The party split. Four men and two women headed on horseback up the Truckee River and saw Lake Tahoe. Imagine the glorious moment when they saw Lake Tahoe for the first time. The other group headed for Donner Lake and the Summit. Again the party split. Six wagons and three people were left at Donner Lake and five wagons and everyone else headed up.
It continued to snow. The snows were so heavy the trees bent with the weight.
Winter had come. The snow got deeper. The Sierra Summit still loomed. How far did they still have to go? What was on the other side? How would they get over?
The party struggled through the snow and then came to an impassable ledge which you can still see if you follow the old Lincoln Highway route. The wagons and oxen could go no further. Then, miraculously, a cleft in the rock was found. Wagons were hoisted up the rock face in pieces. The oxen went through the cleft.
On November 25, 1844 they reached Donner Summit. It snowed more – more snow than they’d ever seen. They traveled through the snow for two days until they got to today’s Big Bend where the party split again.
The women and children stayed at Big Bend in “cabins” roofed with oxen hides and Elizabeth Yuba Murphy was born – the first white baby born in California.
Seventeen men headed for Sutter’s Fort where, in mid-December, they found the six who had split back at the Truckee River. They arrived just in time for a revolt against Mexico and inexplicably joined Sutter in heading south for Santa Barbara rather than going back to rescue their families.
The revolt sputtered and by mid-January the men were back heading for the stranded families who were down to eating boiled hides.
If you don’t want to know what happened don’t read further.
The families were rescued in February and one rescuer headed back for Donner Lake to rescue 17 year old Moses Schallenburger.
Imagine Moses, left at Donner Lake, alone in a strange world where the snow never melted. What went through his mind day after day? What would he eat? Would the other reach California? Would someone come back for him? Would he live? Moses and his rescuer climbed to Donner Summit and hiked to California. Think about that next time you travel Highway 80 at high speed and in climate controlled comfort. The ridge on the south side of Donner Lake is named for Moses who spent the winter of his seventeenth year alone in the Sierra.
Moses and his rescuer met up with the Big Bend group and on March first they all came upon a magnificent view: spring was bursting in the Sacramento Valley – an “earthly paradise.”
Not only had they made it but the party that had left Missouri with fifty members, had reached California with 52 members. Their heroic journey, that showed that wagons could indeed reach California, was overshadowed by the Donner Party two years later which showed the dangers of emigrant travel.
The video ends with notes about what happened to the main characters.
The accompanying CD includes lots of interesting information: life on the plains, Indian encounters, diary quotes, profiles, and pictures.
If you are interested in having your own copy to watch and share:
Forgotten Journey Productions
Toluca Lake, CA 91610-0456
How Did They Get Over the Summit?
Exactly where the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party got five wagons over the top of the Sierra may never be known. Only a handful of wagons followed that route. By the middle of the 1846 emigration, a better way was found, to the south of Donner Pass, so not that much evidence of the difficult climb was left behind. But the fact that they got wagons over the top of the Sierra – in the snow – remains. to this day, an amazing feat. Farther south the horseback party worked their way from the shores of Lake Tahoe through the mountains to the headwater of the Rubicon River, and then the American River. They may have followed ancient Indian footpaths, but had no maps to guide them.
And for Some Fiction
If you’d like to read a fictionalized account of the Stephens Party’s journey to California, Truckee’s Trail, subtitled The Greatest Story Never Told, is available in paperback by Celia Hayes. This is a readable interesting introduction to the heroic journey. It was reviewed in our February '09 issue. Take a look too at our review of Emigrant Trails in the April, 11 edition of this newsletter for emigrant quotes and stories.