- Historic Sites
The Smart Ones Got Through
It was tough going, but the road over the Sierras could be used by men who understood how to travel
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
Beyond the pass, some days’ journey, they got snowed in, but by that time they were over the worst. On Yuba River they built a cabin to winter it out, and Elizabeth Yuba Murphy was born there. Eventually all of them, including E. Y. M., together with the wagons, got safely through to Sutter’s.
As for the light-cavalry unit that took the other fork, they went up the stream, were the first white people of record to stand on the shore of Lake Tahoe, then turned west across the mountains. They suffered hardship, but got through.
That brings everybody in except the three young men who were with the wagons at the lake. They had built themselves a cabin, and were just settling down to enjoy a pleasant winter of hunting in the woods when snow started falling. Before long, the cabin was up to the eaves, all game had disappeared, no man could walk. The three were left with two starving cows that they slaughtered, but they themselves were soon close to starving. They decided to get out of there fast, and so manufactured themselves crude snowshoes of the hickory strips that held up the canvases on the covered wagons.
One morning they set out—each with ten pounds of dried beef, rifle and ammunition, and two blankets. The snow was light and powdery, ten feet deep. The improvised snowshoes were heavy and clumsy, and exhausting to use. By evening the three had reached the summit of the pass, but young Moses Schallenberger, a mere gawky lad of seventeen, was sick and exhausted.
In the morning he realized that he could not make it through. Rather than impede his companions, he said good-by and turned back—with no expectation but death. The two others went on, and reached Sutter’s Fort.
All in now but Moses Schallenberger! He had barely managed to make it back, collapsing at the very cabin and having to drag himself over the doorsill. He felt a little better the next day, forced himself to go out hunting on his snowshoes, saw nothing except fox tracks. Back at the cabin, “discouraged and sick at heart,” he happened to notice some traps that Captain Stevens had left behind.
Next day he set traps, and during the night caught a coyote. He tried eating it, but found the flesh revolting, no matter how cooked. Still, he managed to live on that meat for three days, and then found two foxes in the traps. To his delight, the fox meat was delicious. This was about the middle of December. From then on, he managed to trap foxes and coyotes. He lived on the former, and hung the latter up to freeze, always fearing that he would have to eat another one, but keeping them as a reserve.
Alone in the snow-buried cabin, through the dim days and long nights of midwinter, week after week, assailed by fierce storms, often despairing of his life, he suffered from deep depression. As he put it later, “My life was more miserable than I can describe,” but he never lost the will to live. Fortunately he found some books that “Doc” Townsend had been taking to California, and reading became his solace. The two works that he later mentioned as having pored over were the poems of Byron, and (God save the Mark!) the letters of Lord Chesterfield.
Thus the boy lived on, despondent but resolute, eating his foxes and hanging up his coyotes until he had a line of eleven of them. The weeks dragged along until it was the end of February, and still the snow was deep and the mountain winter showed no sign of breaking. Then, one evening a little before sunset, he was standing near the cabin, and suddenly saw someone approaching. At first he imagined it to be an Indian, but then he recognized his old comrade Dennis Martin!
Martin had traveled a long road since he went over the pass with the main body, in the middle of November. He had been picked up in the swirl of a California revolution and marched south almost to Los Angeles. Returning, he had heard of Schallenberger’s being left behind, and had come across the pass on snowshoes to see if he were still alive to be rescued.
Martin had lived for some years in Canada, and was an expert on snowshoes. He made a good pair for Schallenberger, and taught him their use. Thus aided, the lad made it over the pass without great difficulty. The last one was through!
The men of the party even went back the next summer, and brought out the wagons that had been left east of the pass. The only loss was their contents, taken by wandering Indians, except for the firearms, which the Indians considered bad medicine . . .
If we return to the story that offers natural comparison with that of the Stevens Party, we must admit that the historical significance of the Donner Party is negligible. The road that the Donners cut through the Wasatch Mountains was useful to the Mormons when they settled by Great Salt Lake, but they would have got through without it. The Donners served as a kind of horrible example to later emigrants, and so may have helped to prevent other such covered wagon disasters. That is about all that can be totaled up.