Moses Schallenberger at Truckey's [sic] Lake

We reviewed the Opening of the California Trail by George R. Stewart in the December, '15 Heirloom. Here we have kind of a companion piece. It is Moses Schallenburger's reminiscences of his stay at Donner Lake as a 17 year old boy.

To set the stage, The Stephens, Murphy, Townsend Party was the first wagon train to reach California with wagons. They arrived at the Sierra in the fall of 1844. They knew they were in a little trouble. Winter was coming. The party had already split with six people, including Moses Schallenburger's sister heading up the Truckee River canyon to Lake Tahoe where they crossed the Sierra on the west side. The rest of the party realized they could not get over Donner Pass with all their wagons so they left half behind guarded by Moses and two other men. The rest of the party headed up over Donner Pass and got as far as Big Bend where they split again. The men went to Califonia and Sutter's Fort. The women and children remained at Big Bend. A good summary of the Stephens Party is in Truckee's Trail, a fictionalized account, reviewed on our website. You can also go to last month's Heirloom (or on the website) for the review of The Opening of the California Trail which is about the Stephens Party.

Moses and two friends remained at what is now called Donner Lake, “I had no fears of starvation” “Game seemed abundant” said Moses. He had “no anxiety” about Indians either. They were left with two cows, “so worn out and poor that they could go no further.”

The three made a cabin after the rest left for California. 12' X 14’ with a chimney. There was no chinking or daubing between the logs and no windows. The logs were so well notched they almost touched. A hole was cut for a doorway that was never closed because there was no door.

On the evening of the day the house was finished it began to snow. It snowed three feet. The three thought the snow would melt but instead it snowed more.

There was no more hunting. The game had left.

The cows were killed.

“It kept snowing continually.” The cabin was almost covered with snow and the occupants could do nothing except gather firewood.

“We now began to feel very blue, for there seemed no possible hope for us.” The snow was “getting deeper and deeper.”

“Death, the fearful, agonizing death of starvation, literally stared us in the face.”

They decided to leave.

Each step was an ordeal on the homemade snowshoes. Each step lifted 10 lbs of snow that had caved in on top of the shoe with each step downward.

After more than 15 miles Schallenburger said, [according to the editor, George R. Stewart, about six miles in reality] “I was scarcely able to drag one foot after the other.” Walking in snowshoes was “the hardest kind of work.”

Then Moses was seized by cramps. He could not walk more than fifty yards without rest.

Their camp that night was a fire and pine boughs to sleep on. In the morning a circle 15 feet in diameter had melted 15 feet down so they could not get to the fire. They had nothing to cook anyway.

Moses realized he could not continue and would have to go back down to the lake - alone.

“We did not say much at parting. Our hearts were too full for that. There was simply a warm clasp of the hand accompanied by the familiar word, “good-by” which we all felt might be the last words we should ever speak to each other. The feeling of loneliness that came over me as the two men turned away I cannot express, though it will never be forgotten, while the ‘good-by Mose, so sadly and reluctantly spoken, rings in my ears. Today.”

"Mose" felt, “something might turn up” as he returned to the cabin by the lake.

“I was never so tired in my life as when…I came in sight of the cabin. The door sill was only nine inches high, but I could not step over it without taking my hands to raise my leg.”

Food was a necessity and hunting had not panned out once the snow fell but Moses remembered there were some traps in the wagons that had been left behind and he set to work to use them. Using some of the beef he baited the traps and caught a coyote.

It was horrible. So he tried other methods of cooking: a Dutch oven, boiling, every possible manner but “could not get him into a condition where he could be eaten without revolting my stomach."

For three days he only had coyote to eat.

Then he trapped two foxes. Roasted fox was delicious.

He also tried stewed crow but it was “difficult for me to decide which I like best, crow or coyote.”

He continued to trap catching foxes and coyotes but he never ate another coyote and when he left there were 11 coyotes hanging at the rear of the cabin.

During his stay at Donner Lake he had no desire for anything but meat and had no desire for salt. He had enough coffee for one cup and that hesaved for Christmas.

To keep himself occupied, besides trapping and keeping the fire going, there were lots of books. Even so, after a few months at the lake, it seemed like he’d been there for years.

At the end of February “I thought I could distinguish the form of a man moving towards me.” It was Dennis Martin upon whom Moses’ sister had prevailed to keep going from Big Bend to the lake to get her brother.

Dictated at the age of 59

Moses Schallenberger at Truckey’s Lake,
23 pages
From 19th Century Publications
Rte. 1 Box 9 Chilcoot Ca 96105