When I think of my dad telling me he had to walk to school up hill, both ways, in the snow,
it didn’t really mean that. It was a silly saying that meant the going was tough. But when I learned about Snowshoe Thompson trudging through deep snow over the Sierra Mountains of California, I had to stop and consider.
You see, this guy was really doing a service for the mountain communities that were cut off from mail, and supplies, and any other services during the winter months.
At first Snowshoe just did it when requested. Then he did the treks for the U.S. Postal Delivery service. The railroads hadn’t been built yet, and he was more capable being that he was Norwegian and used to deep snow all of his life.
The legendary “Mailman of the Sierra”, John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson, carried mail from Placerville, California, to Ge
noa, Nevada (Utah Territory) for 20 years, twice a month during the winter.
I don’t remember this man and his daring adventures trekking over the Sierras as part of my grade school learning. I loved History in school and I’m sure he was one of those unsung heroes. If you want to learn more about his life of service, there’s an historic group online that has a great resource dedicated to him.
Thompson was born Jon Torsteinson–Rue on April 20, 1827, on a farm called Luraas–Rue gård in Tinn, Telemark, Norway. Jon was the fourteenth and youngest child of Torstein Olson-Rue and the sixth and youngest child of Gro Jonsdatter Einungbrekke.
He was known for carving his own snowshoes in a design from his Norwegian heritage. They were ten feet long. He didn’t use ski poles like most skiers would, but crafted a balancing pole that he would lay across his lap as he cruised. His squatting stance and balance pole allowed him to maintain faster and longer distances with less energy.
Snowshoe traveled light, often with only a small backpack to carry the mail — depending on what he needed to deliver. Otherwise, he didn’t carry a rifle or much else to survive with. I’ve done some cross country skiing and it can be brutal if you wear too much clothing and get soaked in the rain or snowfall. I could have used some of his knowledge.
Thanx for reading my blog. Reprint permission was granted by the historic society that knows everything about the man and have books about his life available as well.
Folks love to hear about living legends. Even if they don’t live up to the pedestal folks place them on, well, it still is a place suitable for them.
Case in point is the odd story of a “whip” — the nickname for a stagecoach driver — with a lot of history, and plenty of guts and glory earned on the trail. One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst was one of the best stagecoach drivers out West and known to frequent Wolf Creek Tavern up on the Oregon Coast driving for the Butterfield Stage. Once having driven San Jose and Santa Cruz routes in California, and others up in the Gold Country back in the 1849-50s.
Folks said for every mile he drove his team hard, spat his tobacco juice harder, and cussed like Sam Clemens; the only time he missed work was the day after payday, when he’d be too hung over to drive. So the drinking and swearing would have been those other attributes he would have been known for. A good whip could earn the highest pay for the most coveted routes. Over time, more than 20 years, that’s what Charley did. For every cantankerous word that flew out of his mouth, he earned the best paying route and others looked up to him for it.
Others added that he was curt and ornery, hell on wheels in a game of cards or dice, and possibly the best handler of horse teams in the West. One source passes on a rumor that he shot and killed at least one bandit who’d hoped to rob the stage. If you rode with Charley you were in good hands.
In 1868 after the Civil War, at the age of 57 or so, he went and got himself registered to vote so he could help Ulysses S. Grant clinch the election. Even though Charley never got into the war, the feelings of those out West were strong. No one wanted to tangle with Charley just to prove a point.
So it was in 1879 that One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst earned his legendary status and died at the age of 67 — his hard life ended in a small cabin near Watsonville, California. But there was another legend to add to Charley’s after his death. Seems that the mortician at the funeral home discovered something that nobody knew — Charley was a woman. Some say her name was Charlotte, some say Mary, either way they found she had been orphaned at an early age. Dressing as a boy helped her to escape the orphanage, and she found the masquerade opened a lot of doors that were closed to girls and women in early 19th-century America. She had a way with horses and her slight build and structure helped her fit in with the males she worked with. It became a way of life for her, from that day forward.
Legends need to be hardened over time. With Charley it took some doing because most of the male population who worked with her and gambled and drank regularly couldn’t believe she was an actual woman. It was hard to swallow. Not only that, she’d up and voted in a Presidential election in 1868, possibly the first woman in America to do so. That alone could help place her a bit higher on the pedestal.
Over time the stories ran out and all that was left was a true legend of a famous stagecoach driver who truly outlived her scandalous death.