Article

Despite his nickname, Snowshoe Thompson traversed this landscape on skis, not snowshoes.

Photograph by Patricia O'Connor, MyShot

Snowshoe the Soaring Eagle
He flew down the mountainside, journalist Dan De Quille said of Snowshoe Thompson. He did not ride astride his pole or drag it to one side as was the practice of other snowshoers, but held it horizontally before him after the manner of a tightrope walker. His appearance was graceful, swaying his balance pole to one side and the other in the manner that a soaring eagle dips its wings.

Folk Hero
Honky-tonk singer Johnny Horton recorded a song about Snowshoe Thompson in 1956. Listen to "Snow Shoe Thompson" here.

By Stuart Thornton

Monday, January 31, 2011

One January day in 1856, John Thompson set off to deliver the mail. But this was no ordinary delivery route.

With a face blackened by charcoal to protect against snow blindness, Thompson hoisted a mailbag weighing more than 50 pounds onto his back.

Then, with his feet resting on some homemade oak skis, Thompson pushed off into the deep winter snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains. He would attempt to traverse 145 kilometers (90 miles) of rugged terrain from Placerville, California, to Genoa, Nevada.

As he headed out, someone in a small crowd of onlookers shouted, “Good luck, ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson,” and a legend was born.

Jon Torsteinson-Rue was born in Telemark, Norway, on April, 30, 1827. He changed his name to “John Thompson” when he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1837. Before moving to Placerville, Thompson lived in Illinois and Wisconsin. He was inspired to undertake his first mail delivery after responding to an ad in the Sacramento Union newspaper that read: “People Lost To The World—Uncle Sam Needs Carrier.”

During the next 20 years, Thompson made the grueling journey over the jagged mountains twice a month during the region’s fierce winters. Thompson’s route connected Genoa, which was then part of the Utah Territory, to California.

According to Billie J. Rightmire, a Genoa-based historian who researched the life of “Snowshoe” Thompson for the Carson Valley Historical Society, Thompson brought minimal supplies for his multi-day crossings.

“In his pockets, he carried pemmican—that’s jerky—and crackers,” she says. “And these were probably Norwegian crackers. That’s all. To drink, he just scooped up a handful of snow and melted it in his mouth.”

During winter storms, Thompson had a unique way of keeping the bitter cold away. “If he did get into blizzard conditions, and it was late at night and he was tired and didn’t want to go any further, he would dance on a rock,” Rightmire says. “There’s big rocks in this area, and he would dance on a rock and keep warm that way.”

Thompson attempted to enlist some assistance for his Sierra Nevada crossings, with no success. “He tried to hire several different people over the years to help him, because he was getting more and more mail,” Rightmire says. “They couldn’t do it. He had one fellow that [was supposed to go] from Genoa back to Placerville with him to help him carry the mail, but as soon as he got here [Genoa], he disappeared.”

Even though Thompson traveled through miles and miles of wilderness, he somehow never lost his bearings.

“I can go anywhere in the mountains, day or night, storm or shine, I can’t be lost,” he once told a journalist for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, tapping his forehead. “I’ve got something in here that keeps me right. I have found many persons who were lost—dozens of men, first and last—but I have never been lost myself. There is no danger of getting lost in a narrow range of mountains like the Sierra, if a man has his wits about him. If a man is lost in the mountains, he should not wander uphill and downhill at random. By going steadily downhill, he will eventually come to a stream, which will then lead him to civilization.”

A ‘Most Remarkable Man’

One of those instances where Thompson found a lost man occurred in 1856 during one of his mail deliveries.

“He was going through this little valley, and there were some cabins built there,” Rightmire says. “All he could see was the roof and the chimneys, so he decided to dig down and get in the door or window to stay the night. That’s when he found [James] Sisson. Sisson was in the cabin, and his feet had frozen. He wasn’t able to stand or move.”

Thompson immediately departed for Genoa to retrieve a doctor. He came back to Sisson with a team of men, who put Sisson in a sled and transported him to Genoa. Upon arriving in the town, the doctor said Sisson’s feet would have to be amputated, but he admitted that he was out of chloroform, which was necessary for the operation.

Hearing this unfortunate news, Thompson set off for Placerville to retrieve the anesthetic. Eventually, he had to travel all the way to Sacramento for the chloroform.

The experience was one of many that caused Genoa postmaster S.A. Kinsey to comment on Thompson’s generous nature. “Most remarkable man I ever knew, that ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson,” Kinsey said. “He must be made of iron. Besides, he never thinks of himself, but he’d give his last breath for anyone else—even a total stranger.”

Rightmire says that as the years went on, Thompson began delivering more than just mail to the people of Placerville and Genoa. “He got to the point where he was carrying different things for different people. He would carry medicines. He would carry small items. He carried the type for the [newspaper] Territorial Enterprise.”

Despite his 20 years of loyal service, Thompson was never paid by the U.S. government. After his death in 1876, several communities paid respect to Thompson. Monuments and statues on Donner Summit, California; Carson Pass Summit, California; and Mormon Station State Park in Genoa commemorate the Western hero.

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

amputate

Verb

to surgically remove a limb.

bearing

Noun

horizontal direction of a point in relation to another point.

blizzard

Noun

storm with high winds, intense cold, heavy snow, and little rain.

charcoal

Noun

carbon material made by burning wood or other organic material with little air.

chimney

Noun

narrow structure that transports smoke or other airborne material from an indoor structure to the air outside.

chloroform

Noun

liquid chemical sometimes used as an anesthetic (to make patients unconscious). Also called trichloromethane.

civilization

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

Encyclopedic Entry: civilization

commemorate

Verb

to honor an event on a specific date.

emigrate

Verb

to move from one's native land to another.

enlist

Verb

to use or employ someone for a specific purpose.

generous

Adjective

having a giving or useful nature.

grueling

Adjective

physically difficult.

historian

Noun

person who studies events and ideas of the past.

historical record

Noun

document written at the time an event happened, and later studied.

hoist

Verb

to lift.

inspire

Verb

to influence to act.

instance

Noun

an occurrence or example of something.

medicine

Noun

substance used for treating illness or disease.

minimal

Adjective

the lowest or least.

pemmican

Noun

dried meat pressed into strips with peppers, berries, or other dried ingredients.

postmaster

Noun

official in charge of a post office.

remarkable

Adjective

unusual and dramatic.

retrieve

Verb

to bring back, restore, or recover.

Sierra Nevada

Noun

mountain range in California and Nevada. (Highest point: Mt. Whitney, California.)

ski

Noun

flat board strapped to a shoe to help people glide across snow, water, or ice.

snow blindness

Noun

condition of being temporarily unable to see due to the sun's reflection on snow.

terrain

Noun

topographic features of an area.

traverse

Verb

to cross or move through a landscape.

type

Noun

metal block with a letter or symbol engraved on one side, used in printing presses.

Uncle Sam

Noun

personification, or symbol, of the United States.

Utah Territory

Noun

(1850-1896) administrative area of the United States, including all or part of the modern states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and Utah.

valley

Noun

depression in the Earth between hills.

wilderness

Noun

environment that has remained essentially undisturbed by human activity.

Encyclopedic Entry: wilderness

wits

Plural Noun

intelligence and observational skills.


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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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