Dennis Cassinelli: Crossing the Sierra Nevada

Probably the greatest difficulty for the westward migration in America was crossing the high Sierra Nevada. Early on, California and Oregon became the destinations for emigrants seeking to settle and prosper. In the 1700s, Spanish settlers and missionaries came to California “around the horn” by sea. Others, choosing to make new homes for their families came from the eastern states overland and were faced with a great mountainous barrier when they reached the Sierra Nevada.

In 1843, The Fremont expedition came down from Oregon and found there was indeed a barrier of mountains to cross before reaching California. They did cross the Sierra Nevada over Carson Pass to reach their goal in 1844 and returned by way of the Spanish Trail through Southern Nevada. His expedition disproved the legendary Buena Ventura River story that was thought to drain the area to the sea. He therefore named the region “The Great Basin.”

In 1846-147, the Donner Party made their ill-fated attempt to cross over the Sierra Nevada and had to spend most of the winter snowbound in the Truckee area. Rescue parties finally reached the survivors in February and March 1847. Of the 83 people who reached the encampments, only 45 survived to reach California after their rescue.

Wherever the white emigrants went, the Native American tribes lived and had been here for over 12,000 years. Sometimes they actually helped the emigrants crossing the Sierra Nevada until later on when they realized their hunter-gathering lifestyle was being threatened by westward migration.

In 1849, gold was discovered in California and created a massive rush of immigration by land to take advantage of this discovery. Once again, crossing the Sierra Nevada traveling west. In 1859, silver was discovered in the Comstock region of Nevada and many of the California miners then traveled east over the Sierra Nevada to work in the Comstock mines.

In 1860, the Pony Express was established to provide mail service between St. Louis and Sacramento, crossing the Sierra Nevada back and forth with mail for the expanding western population. The pony riders traveled their route through 1860 and 1861 until being replaced the transcontinental telegraph.

Eventually, the Overland mail service was created with stage coaches to replace the Pony Express. The problem with overland mail delivery was the impossibility of providing service in the winter months when heavy snowfall closed all the passes over the Sierra Nevada.

In 1855, John (Snowshoe) Thompson saw a newspaper ad for someone to carry mail during the winter months. Thompson answered the ad and offered to haul the mail over the rugged Sierra Nevada. No one in the region had ever seen skis before Thompson showed them his homemade long boards and single brake pole. On his first attempt from the snow line above Placerville over the mountains to the Carson Valley, his rucksack was packed with letters and packages. The return trip up and over the Sierras eastern escarpment took only 48 hours. The hefty load weighed between 60 and 80 pounds.

Snowshoe Thompson also took the first samples of Comstock silver over the Sierra Nevada to Sacramento for assay to confirm the value of the discovery.

I have flown over the Sierras aboard a Navy troop transport plane, took a train through the snow sheds on Donner Summit and have driven over old Highway 40, Interstate 80 and Highway 50 across the Sierra Nevada many times.

Several years ago, some friends of mine and I crossed over the Sierra Nevada with horses and mules from the June Lake Pack Station to Yosemite Valley in California. About a week was spent fishing in glacier fed lakes and streams and camping in the high Sierra Nevada among the marmots and bears.

I cannot begin to tell you how many crossings of the Sierra Nevada we have made to visit the Placerville, Napa and Sonoma wineries with family and friends.

Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books on his blog at


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