Unlocking History

Snowshoe Thompson risked life to deliver prison correspondence

Sketch of man on skis.
An illustration of John "Snowshoe" Thompson carrying mail over the mountain passes between Carson City, Nevada, and Placerville in California. Illustration from 1889 "Marvels of the New West."

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor
Office of Public and Employee Communications

During the winter months in the mid-1850s, when California prison officials and inmates received correspondence from east of the Sierra, they probably had a Norwegian immigrant to thank.

John Thompson came to the Golden State like many others at the time, drawn by the glitter of gold, but he found his calling when he saw a newspaper advertisement seeking help to deliver packages over the snowbound mountain passes.

In the early years of statehood, there was no railroad, spotty telegraph lines and roads were scarce. Thompson used what we’d refer to today as skis, but back then, he called them snowshoes. Despite promises of payment on both sides of the mountains, he was not compensated for his efforts.

One of the few survivors of an 1860 altercation with Native Americans, Thompson served when asked, despite the risks. Inside CDCR takes a closer look at a man who stepped up to help shape California.

The lure of the Gold Rush

From the age of 2, Thompson was raised by his widowed mother. The family relocated from Norway to the U.S., moving across the plains states. Eventually the California Gold Rush lured Thompson, by then a young man, to try his hand at mining in Placerville.

Colorized photograph of blonde man with beard.
John Thompson, undated. Courtesy El Dorado County Historical Society.

By 1851, it became apparent communication with California and the western area of modern-day Nevada was difficult at best without regular mail service.

Supplies and goods were shipped around the tip of South America or delivered to central America, loaded onto overland wagons to be hauled across the jungle, to be reloaded on ships for transport to California. It was time-consuming and expensive. Overland routes from the east were nearly impassable during the winter.

“The time and the conditions (were difficult as) there were no buildings or store houses for the safe keeping of goods, no banks, vaults or safes for the deposit of money or valuables. There were … no telegraph lines, no quick communication between town or camp. No man had any knowledge or acquaintance with his neighbor. Ever restless, ever on the move, men would be in Sonora today and gone tomorrow. No one paid the least attention to their coming or going,”  according to “California Men and Events, 1769-1890,” by George Henry Tinkham, published in 1915.

The state legislature worked with the federal government to help ease the lack of communication.

“We are glad to perceive that action is about being taken to better the present mail regulations in California. There is no state in the Union which labors under half the disadvantages of California. Senator Gwin has been furnished with a list of practicable routes by Col. Johnson, the Census Commissioner, and Gen. Douglass, Marshal of the State,” reported the Sacramento Transcript, March 5, 1851.

West coast cut off

Statue of John Thompson holding a long stick wearing snow ski
At Genoa, Nevada, a statue is dedicated to Thompson. Photo by Don Chaddock.

Two years later, efforts were still underway to maintain steady contact with California. Because so many people moved about in the west, it was often difficult to locate the sender’s intended recipient.

“By an act of Congress, approved (in) 1853, the Postmaster General was authorized to make such arrangements as he might deem advisable to insure, as far as possible, the delivery of letters sent by mail from the Atlantic states to California and Oregon to the individuals to whom they may be directed,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, May 26, 1856.

“And we are gratified to learn from the subjoined circular that the purpose thus held in view is about to be accomplished in what appears to us to be a safe, prompt, judicious and responsible manner,” the paper reported.

“It may be proper for us to state also, that this enterprise is commended by the Senator now here from California, by both the Representatives from that State, and by the Delegates in Congress from Oregon and Washington Territories. The importance of this enterprise will be appreciated when we state that of the letters sent to California during the entire year nearly one-sixth have been returned to the Dead Letter Office. Thousands of letters sent to the Pacific coast become dead letters,” reported the newspaper.

Thompson answers the call for help

When his adopted country pleaded with the public to help get mail across the Sierra, Thompson answered.

“He took the job after seeing an ad in the Sacramento Union, ‘People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier,'” according to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. “To get the mail through, ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson weathered huge snowdrifts on 25-pound skis. Thompson first transported mail in 1856 on the 90-mile Old Emigrant Road between Placerville and Carson Valley, Nev. Later, he carried mail on the Big Tree Route between Genoa, Nev., and Murphy’s Camp.”

California was a new state and the Utah Territory included what we know today as Nevada. Many settling in the western part of the territory wanted the vast territory to be split, claiming Salt Lake City was too far away to truly represent those farther west. Living so far west of Salt Lake City came with its own share of challenges.

“To expect that every mail will be delivered in scheduled time … at all seasons of the year, would be unreasonable. It might be considered almost a miracle if it were so delivered. These remarks will apply to any Overland mail line which is run for such a long distance over a new and unsettled country,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Dec. 17, 1858.

Faces dangers of high Sierra

Illustration of man on skis, a portrait of a man with a beard and a map that says "The Route of Snowshoe Thompson."
Illustrations of Snowshoe Thompson as well as his mail route from Carson City and Genoa to Placerville. Courtesy University of Utah.

Thompson defied the odds, able to make the snowbound trek in days rather than weeks, braving snowstorms and wild animals.

“Mr. Thompson, the Carson Valley Expressman, called upon us yesterday — having just arrived in this city from Carson Valley, which place he left on Tuesday, Feb. 10th. He arrived at Placerville on Thursday, the 12th, about noon — having made this trip in less than two days and a half. … On (his) next trip … nothing unusual occurred on the way,” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, Feb. 14, 1857.

Nothing unusual meant snow six-feet deep on the summit, catching him in a “severe storm on a Wednesday night and during the whole of Thursday.” Rather than a little more than two days, his next trip took almost four.

“I was never frightened but once during all my travels in the mountains. That was in the winter of 1857. I was crossing Hope Valley (south of Lake Tahoe), when I came to a place where six great wolves — big timber wolves — were at work in the snow, digging out the carcass of some animal. They were great, gaunt, shaggy fellows,” Thompson said later, according to historian Mark McLaughlin.

The wolves spotted him, lined up and came within 25 yards. Thompson held his breath and decided it best not to show fear, so he continued skiing. The wolves watched and howled but didn’t follow.

Coordinating his trips over the mountains to receive and send packages was a daunting task, requiring skill and ingenuity. He was innovative, crafting early snowplows to keep the passes usable.

“Thompson crossed the mountains (Dec. 17) on the summit, with sleighs, and arrived in Placerville, at 7 o’clock, without the mails. (Thompson) left Genoa yesterday, and no tidings had reached there of the delinquent mail. …Thompson says the road over the mountains is now in fine sleighing order, and that he will have no difficulty in keeping it so all winter. His snow plows work admirably,” reported the Sonoma Democrat, Dec. 23, 1858.

“John A. Thompson was the father of all … snow-shoers in the Sierra Nevada mountains; and in those mountains he was the pioneer of the pack train, the stagecoach, and the locomotive,” wrote Dan de Quille in Overland Monthly, 1886.

Helping others along the way

A small group headed to the mines in Nevada in late 1859 found themselves caught in a snowstorm.

Two men on skis slide down mountain.
Snowshoe Thompson rescues Lucky Baldwin in 1859, as published in the San Francisco Call, 1900.

“(Snow was falling) so fast we could not follow our tracks for 20 paces back and could not see ahead at all. There was a fallen tree lodged against a standing one and into this crevice the three of us crept. We had lost our matches and a search through all our pockets brought forth just three matches. We picked twigs and limbs from the fallen tree, shook off the snow, and sheltering the blaze from the wind with our blankets, we finally got a weak little flame,” reported the San Francisco Call, Jan. 14, 1900.

“Then we snuggled into the crevice, wrapped the blankets around us, thinking that in spite of all we would freeze to death. But as soon as the storm abated somewhat, the people of Strawberry sent out ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson, the mountain mail carrier, to rescue us,” recalled Lucky Baldwin, one of the pioneers Thompson rescued.

“We were half frozen when ‘Snowshoe’ found us. We drew straws with chattering teeth to see who would go back first. … I’ve covered ground in a good many ways, from an elephant’s back in india and a jinrikisha in Japan to the fastest coach and eight (horses) in California, but that ride on the back of those snowshoes was the most exciting one I ever had in my life,” he said. “Old ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson didn’t stop to say ‘look out for corners,’ and hanging on for dear life, we went sliding down the mountain. ‘Snowshoe’ made the three trips one after another without a complaint, although that was a terrible hardship even for a man as accustomed to the snow-covered mountains as was ‘Snowshoe.'”

Shortly after getting every safely back to Nevada, they camped behind the hotel of Major Ormsby. Within short order, Thompson again answered the call for service, this time with the military.

Riding with the Rangers

Much like the Texas and California Rangers, mounted volunteer militias were formed when necessary, acting as a sort state or territorial National Guard.

When Native Americans and settlers clashed in 1860, resulting in the death of some of the settlers, the militia was called up to confront the tribes they believed responsible.

Major William Ormsby activated the Carson City Rangers and cobbled together other volunteer units to respond to the attack.

The group was described as a “motley company mustered from the mining towns and settlements in the valley, poorly mounted and armed … with wretched muskets and shotguns. (The group) was a heterogeneous mixture of independent elements, poorly armed, without discipline, and they did not believe that the Indians would fight,” according to “History of the Comstock Lode,” published in 1883.

Again, Thompson answered the call from his community, volunteering for the local Rangers. He mounted up with Ormsby’s group along with the Genoa Rangers and the Silver City Guards, led by Capt. R.G. Watkins, who, along with Ormsby, was a veteran of a failed expedition in Nicaragua. Watkins lost a leg in the earlier expedition, requiring him to be tied into his saddle, according to Richard Moreno, a writer of Nevada history.

The group’s ranks swelled to 105 men with many joining from Virginia City.

Seeing their lack of unity, Ormsby pushed for them to agree to appoint a single commander but no consensus was reached.

Relations reach boiling point

The company stopped at Williams Station, where settlers were killed in an altercation with local tribes. The volunteer soldiers sifted through the burned buildings and buried the dead settlers. After the gruesome task was complete, they continued toward Pyramid Lake.

Major Ormsby knew many of the tribe members, having taught some of them how to read and write English. He considered many of them friends, knew their names, and said he was hopeful he could broker a peace deal. Without a single leader, and some of the soldiers still seething after burying the dead, peace wasn’t on the minds of most of the militia members.

Reaching their destination, and seeing only a few mounted Paiute tribe members, the company approached. One trigger-happy volunteer soldier fired a shot at the Paiute tribe, but was out of range. The militia leaders had not ordered shots to be fired, but for the Native Americans, the intention of the approaching army was interpreted as hostile. When the military reached the hilltop, the Native Americans were gone.

Again, soldiers spotted a small Paiute group on horseback, watching the militia from a hilltop just out of range of their guns. The militia pushed forward, but as they came to the bottom of the valley, they were outflanked on both sides by Native American warriors who had been hiding along the ridges.

Tin-type photo of bearded man wearing jacket and bow tie.
Major William Ormsby was killed in 1860. Thompson was one of only 29 rangers who survived the encounter at Pyramid Lake.

The militia was quickly overpowered with some estimates placing the battle time as lasting only minutes.

Gunpowder smoke, screams, dust and chaos created confusion at the scene. Horses bolted as their riders fell.

Some of the militia within earshot of Major Ormsby tried to follow the last order heard, “retreat.”

Ormsby, wounded in the arm and face, led his men up a steep trail, trying to escape the valley. That’s when he was confronted by more Native Americans.

Ormsby, unable to maintain his seat, was flung from his saddle. His men fell under bullets and arrows on the trail behind him. Witnesses reported that those on the trail could see and hear their comrades dying in the valley below.

That’s when Ormsby spotted what he hoped was a friendly face among the Paiute warriors. He called out to the person he recognized but before his friend could respond, a different Paiute warrior stepped in the way, pulled back an arrow, and shouted that it was too late for talk.

The warrior’s arrows struck Ormsby twice. Mortally wounded, the 45-year-old major fell into a gully, where he died a short time later.

Thompson’s narrow escape

Still on the battlefield, with own steed dead from a gunshot, Thompson heeded the last orders he heard and tried to retreat.

“As Thompson ran for the safety of the foliage along the Truckee River, he felt hot breath over his shoulder. Expecting hand-to-hand combat with a Paiute brave, he wheeled about quickly. His elbow struck the nose of a riderless horse, saddled and bridled. He leaped onto the animal and escaped with his life. For the rest of his days, Snow-Shoe Thompson believed that the horse had been heaven-sent,” according to Mark McLaughlin, author and historian.

Out of the 105 men who rode to Pyramid Lake, only 29 survived.

That crushing battle sparked the activation of the California Rangers to ride to Pyramid Lake. The Rangers included former San Quentin Capt. William Byrnes (link opens new tab). Since Byrnes and Thompson were neighbors in both Placerville and Carson Valley, there is a good chance they were acquainted.

“The services of (Capt. Byrnes) were again in requisition for warlike exploits, and he was called to take command in a force organized to subdue the (Native Americans) in Carson Valley. A scrimmage or two brought Winnemucca and his warriors (to agree to a) treaty and retire to their reservation (in 1860),” reported the Sacramento Daily Union, June 1, 1872.

After those altercations, and Ormsby’s defeat, it was believed a smaller territory would be easier to manage. The Nevada Territory was created by an act of Congress in 1861. A few years after that, Nevada became the 36th state during the Civil War on Oct. 31, 1864, earning the nickname, “The Battle Born State.”

Back to his mail route

Thompson returned to what he enjoyed – delivering the mail.

At one point, his friends encouraged him to petition Congress for compensation. He traveled to the nation’s capital but the expense of the trip, coupled with the red-tape of government, found him frustrated and rapidly depleting his funds. He left empty-handed and returned to his mail route.

Thompson continued carrying mail until 1876 when he died at 49 years old from a burst appendix.

Buried by his side in Genoa, Nev., is his only son, Arthure, who died in 1878 at 11 years old. His wife Agnes, who passed away in 1915, is buried in the third plot.

According to reports, he was never compensated for his mail delivery service.

Did you know?

A Scouting emblem with sketch of Abraham Lincoln in the center and the words "Be Prepared."
A 1933 commemorative letter celebrates Lincoln’s appointment as a post master. Courtesy National Postal Museum.

President Abraham Lincoln began his public service career at age 24 by becoming a post master.

“Lincoln’s political career illuminates a dedicated public servant with four terms in the Illinois House of Representatives, one term in the US House of Representatives, and finally serving as the sixteenth president of the United States.

“However, Lincoln’s first civil service position began at the age of 24 as the postmaster of the New Salem, Illinois, post office.

“He was appointed … May 7, 1833. The following year he won election to the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1836, Lincoln won reelection to the State House and with the closing of the New Salem Post Office, ended his tenure as Postmaster.

“With his inauguration on March 4, 1861, Lincoln became the only president of the United States to have previously served as a town postmaster,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

Three headstones in a graveyard. One has skis across the top.
John “Snowshoe” Thompson’s family grave site in Genoa, Nevada. He died in 1876, his 11-year-old son Arthure died two years later and his wife died in 1915. Photo by Don Chaddock.