26. May 2005 · Comments Off on My Dream Movie Epic: Below the Sierra Pass · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not

(Part the last of my dream adventure movie epic, about the wagon-train party that no one has ever heard about.)

The fast-moving horseback party followed the river south, as snow continued falling. In two days they were on the shores of Lake Tahoe, working their way around the western shore to another small creek, which led them over the summit, and down along the Rubicon River, out of the snow, although not entirely out of danger in the rough country. The eastern slope is a steep palisade, the western slope more gradual, but rough, cut with steep-banked creeks. They reached the safety of Sutter’s Fort early in December, while the main party still struggled along the promising creek route. They came at last to an alpine valley with a small ice-water lake at the foot of a canyon leading up to the last and highest mountain pass.

At times, the only open passage along the creek was actually in the water, which was hard on the oxen’s feet. By the time they reached the lake, there was two feet of snow on the ground, and time for another hard choice; a decision to leave six of the wagons at the lake, slaughter the worst-off of the oxen for food, and cache everything but food and essentials. Three of the young men, Moses Schallenberger, Allan Montgomery and Joseph Foster would build a rough cabin and winter over, guarding the wagons and property at the lake, and living from what they could hunt. The rest of the party pooled the remaining ox teams and five wagons and moved on, up into the canyon towards the crest of the Sierra Nevada, up a slope so steep they had to empty out the contents and carry everything by hand, doubling the ox teams and pulling up the wagons one by one. A sheer vertical ledge halfway up the rocky slope blocked their way. A desperate search revealed a small defile, just wide enough to lead the oxen and horses up it, single file. The teams were re-yoked at the top, and hoisted up the empty wagons by ropes and chains, while men pushed from below, and the women and children labored up the narrow footpath, carrying armfuls of precious supplies. By dint of much exhausting labor, they reached the summit on November 25th, and struggled on through the snow, while the three volunteers returned to the lake. They hastily built a small cabin, twelve by fourteen feet square, roofed with ox-hides, and settled in for the winter, not knowing that the winter would be very much harsher than back east.

The main party struggled on; although they were over the pass, and gradually heading downhill, they were still in the high mountains. With snow falling, cutting a trail and keeping the wagons moving was a brutally laborious job. A week, ten days of it was all that exhausted men and ox teams could handle. They set up a cold camp on the South Fork of the Yuba River, and made a last, calculated gamble on survival for all. They would build another cabin, make arbors of branches and the canvas wagon tops, and butcher the remaining oxen. The women and children would stay, with two men to protect them, while the remaining husbands and fathers would take the few horses, and as little food as possible, and continue on to Sutter’s Fort, returning as soon as possible with supplies and team animals. So they made the bitter decision before changing weather, and diminishing food supplies forced worse circumstances upon them. Before the men rode away, the wife of Martin Murphy’s oldest son gave birth to a daughter, who was named Elizabeth Yuba Murphy. It was nearly two months before a rescue party was able to return to the survival camp on the Yuba River, just in the nick of time, for the women and children were down to eating boiled hides.

Meanwhile, twenty miles east, the snow had piled up level to the roof of the little cabin by the ice-water lake. The three young men realized that the game they had counted on being able to hunt had all retreated below the snow, far down the mountains. What they had left would not be able to feed them through the winter. From hickory wagon bows and rawhide, Montgomery and Foster contrived three sets of snowshoes, and packed up what they could carry. In one day, they had climbed to the top of the pass, but the snowshoes were clumsy things and the snow was soft, and young Schallenberger— only 18 at the time— was not as strong as the other two. Agonizing leg cramps left him unable to take more than a few steps. Continuing on was impossible for him, survival at the cabin impossible for three. He returned alone, living for the next three months on the food supplies they had not been able to carry, and trapping coyotes and foxes. Fox was almost edible, coyote meat quite vile, but he kept the frozen coyotes anyway, lest the supply of foxes ever run out. When the rescue party came to the winter camp in late February, one of them, Dennis Martin continued on snowshoes over the pass, hoping to find young Schallenberger still alive. With a hard crust to the snow, the two of them had an easier time of it, and caught up to the main party on the Lower Bear River.

Two years later, the little cabin in which he spent most of the winter would shelter families from the Donner party who were caught by winter at about the same time of year, in the same place. A fractious, bitterly split party would meet a ghastly and protracted disaster… and yet, everyone has heard of them, and the pass through the Sierra Nevada, that the Stephens party discovered and labored successfully to bring wagons over, while increasing their strength by two born on the journey… is named for the group who lost half their number to starvation in its’ shadow.

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