A biography of :John A."Snowshoe"
Snowshoe Thompson was a true "flesh and blood" character, but because of
the many articles and stories written about him, it is impossible to separate,
completely, fact from fancy and actual history from legend.
The actual beginning of this story goes back to the humble farm of Rue
which was near Tinn, Telemark, Norway - the district in Norway most famous
for skiing. The date was April 30, 1827, and a new baby boy had just been
born. I am sure, that as Tosten Olsen and his good wife, Gro johnsdotter
(Johnson), observed their newborn son,for the first time, they could not
realize how many would love and admire him and how many would be the poems
and stories that would be related about him in future years. Within less
than a month the proud parents were able to carry him gently and proudly
to the church where he was baptized and given the name of "John Tostensen"
It has been established that as a very young child, John was allowed to
accompany his father on trips to the villages over the mountains of Norway,
as it was necessary for all the old and even the very young - to become
proficient in the use of "snow skates" to enable traverse of the deep snows
of this northern country. These snow skates (later dubbed "snow shoes"
by the people of the western U.S.) were entirely unlike the ones used by
our North American Indians or the peoples of Canada. They were more like
our own modern skies - long slender blades of wood, curved at the front
and ending in a point with the foot resting just a little back of the center,
the heel fitting against a small block of wood. The fastening consisted
of only a single strap over the toe.
About the time that John was beginning to master the art of Norwegian "snow-skating;'
at the age of four years, another important event pertinent to our story
was taking place in far-away England. This event, which occured on November
4, 1831 was the birth of a lovely dark-haired daugther, the fifth child,
born to Thomas and Ann (Hall) Singleton of Preston, Lancashire, England.
These proud parents also took their small infant the following month (December
llth) to be christened in the Parish Church of St. john's nearby. There
she was given the name of Agnes Singleton. At the time of Agnes' birth,
this Singleton family consisted of the eldest child Mary (aged 11), John
(aged 7), and Samuel, who was slightly over the age of two years.
It is difficult to think that these two small ones, John Tostensen and
Agnes Singleton, having been born so many miles and countries apart, would
ever meet, but they did, and herein lies the reason for this biographical
Since "ordinary" families live just "ordinary" lives, and since the above-mentioned
individuals were a part of just such families, it would be hard indeed
to find out much about their early lives - the childhood fears and illnesses,
the joys of first successes, the young, carefree days with close friends,
and the sorrows that come when death takes a member of the family - as
when John's father, Tosten Olsen, died. So we must proceed with the facts
as they first come to us about John Tostensen from the writings of John
Hambro in an issue of the "American-Scandinavian Review" He tells us that:
"Late one night in the winter of 1837, three men on "skis" turned in at
the Rue Farm in upper Tinn, Norway. They had come that day from Numedal
and were on their way to Stavanger" Two of them . . . had visited the West
Coast port in the fall, and had there caught the 'America Fever' All winter
long they had remained on their farm in Numedal, but, instead of abating,
the 'America' fever had increased, and they now were on their way to America
with a friend from Kongsberg. They had a long and strenuous journey behind
them when they arrived at the Tostensen farm in Rue and asked if they might
spend the night.
The widow Gro, along with her two sons, welcomed the three weary travelers
imbued with dreams of going to America. Though they were tired, they did
not settle down for the night but spun yarns about the fabulous new country
they were bound for.
After much thought, planning and worry, the early sum mer found this young
widow and her two boys joining the group of farmers from Tinn (50 in all)
who were setting out for the long journey to America.
Once in this new land, they followed the other Norwegian immigrants who
had preceded them through the state of New York westward to the Fox River
settlement in Illinois. When they arrived there, John, the youngest of
the two boys (Tostein being the name of the oldest) was only ten years
old, and though they would have liked to settle down, a rest lessness was
upon them that kept them following other Norwegian settlers further west
into Shelby County, Missouri and later on to Sugar Creek, Iowa, where the
widow Gro Tostensen passed away after a short illness. The two brothers
then moved on into Wisconsin, and by 1848, at age 21 years, John was following
his trade as a farmer in Mt. Horeb, Dane County, Wisconsin. It is not certain
at what time or for what reason his name became Americanized, but whether
known as John Tostensen or John A. Thompson, the old restlessness continued
and he gave in to this urge to go further west by joining up with the gold
seekers going to California from Wisconsin in 1851. It is doubtful whether
it was the gold thirst that made John Thompson go west perhaps he looked
more for those treasures he had known behind in Norway - the forests, the
mountains covered with deep snow, and the wide green valleys. He was not
among the lucky ones who made fortunes on the gold found there, for according
to his biographers, he tried gold mining for a while but found it not much
to his liking, and he soon settled down in a small place along the Putah
Creek in Sacramento Valley and returned to farming and ranching.
By the time he had spent five years in California, the young man from Norway
still seemed eager for'adventure. One of his biographers "suggests" that
he may have been sitting by the fire in his log cabin fretting about this
old feeling when he saw a notice in the newspaper, "The Sacramento Union','
that the people living east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and west of
Salt Lake had lost all contact with the outside world as the winter snows
cuts off all corn munication. The great cry from these people was for 'mail'
and though Congress had passed a bill on August 18, 1856, providing for
a post road from Placerville (formerly called Hangtown) to Genoa (formerly
known as Mormon Station, Utah Territory) so far, no one had come that could
success fully or regularly carry the mail through these mountains in the
middle of winter. Before the railroad was built which now crosses the Sierras,
the mail was transported by stage coaches, but when winter set in, the
snow piled so high that even a man on horseback seldom could get through,
and no stage or wagon built could have surmounted the drifts in the mountain
passes. The U.S. government was aware of this problem and although several
contracts had been given out, and some individuals and groups of individuals
had tried to fulfill the mail contracts, each had had to give it up as
an impossible task.
Dan DeQuille, one of Thompson's able biographers, says that the idea for
carrying the mail over the Sierras came to him (Thompson) one day while
he was splitting the trunk of an oak tree - either for building a fence
or for fire wood. The piece of wood and the act of splitting it caused
him to reflect upon his childhood and the days spent with his father in
Norway. As his memory stirred within him,. he determined he would make
a pair of Norwegian snow skates that would carry him over the frozen wastes
of these high peaks just as in those early days of his childhood. He determined
to practice until he had recaptured the art he once knew. Then, he decided
he would offer to carry the mail between Placerville and Genoa for the
He started work immediately - using green oak with which to fashion a crude
pair of snow skates. He used pine to make later pairs. When completed,
these first ones were estimated to be about 10 feet long, four inches wide
behind the foot and four and a quarter inches wide in front, and weighed
about 25 pounds. He seasoned the wood well and created the upturn of the
wood in front by attaching a piece of string to the end of the boards and
pulling them into the desired shape. The wood was then soaked in water
and dried in that position.
(At the museum in Sutter's Fort, Sacramento, California, are a pair of
skis identified as those once worn by "Snowshoe" Thompson.)
The 25 pound weight of the skis alone would have encumbered most men, but
Thompson was described as a real superman . . . "six feet tall and weighing
about 180 pounds" One of his biographers, Dan DeQuille said this of him:
"He was a man of splendid physique ... his features were large, but regular
and handsome. He had the blond hair, beard, fair skin, and the blue eyes
of his Scandinavian ancestors, and looked a true descendent of the sea-roving
Northman of old"
When the snowskates were finished, John took them upon the back hills near
Placerville, where the people of the town could not see him, and began
practicing to regain his former skill. When he was discovered, it didn't
take long till curious crowds of people would gather every day to watch
him, and comments were heard such as, "Hey, men, here he comes. He's crazy
as a loon. Comes down that thar hill like he was a bird of sump'n. He'll
bust hisself to pieces, sure as yer born" (In this part of the world no
one had ever seen a pair of "Norwegian Snowskates;' but most had heard
of 44 snowshoes" When they saw Thompson's weird footwear, they thought
he had made himself some very fancy snow shoes - and thus he was nicknamed,
Soon John "Snowshoe" Thompson became so expert that he didn't care if the
people saw him or not, and his only worry was, would the U.S. Government
accept his offer to carry the mail if he volunteered his services? Would
be be able to cover the distance fast enough? Could he outdistance the
wild animals he would probably meet? Not until he felt he had practiced
sufficiently did he announce his intention of carrying the mail across
He applied at the office of the Postmaster, Mr. Thatcher, in Placerville,
and outlined his plan for a regular postal service from Placerville to
Genoa - to be carried by snow shoes during the winter months and by horseback
in the summer. (The course he outlined and planned to follow was approximately
the course of the present state highway). When asked if he was sure he
could find his way through the deep snows, he replied that it would be
an easy thing for him to tell the direction by the moss on the trees and
the rocks in the daytime and at night he would use the stars to guide him,
The population of Placerville, upon hearing of Thompson's offer to carry
the mail, thought him demented and took up wagers for and against his ability
to make the trip. Never theless the postmaster, Thatcher, noting Thompson's
con fidence, decided to give him a try. The distance between Placerville
and Genoa in Carson Valley was about 90 miles. "Snowshoe" figured if all
went well, he could cover this distance in about three days.
As he departed on his first mail trip on a clear day in January, 1856,
miners and ranchers did not expect to see him again. They liked this rugged,
determined Norwegian and admired his courage - though many asserted it
as foolhardiness. He carried only a little beef jerky and some dry biscuits
with him for food; he carried no bedding; he wore only a makinaw jacket
over his shirt, and strapped to his back was the mail bag weighing, it
was estimated, between 80 and 100 pounds. In front of him he carried a
long balance pole horizontally - such as we see tight-rope walkers use.
It is said that although he carried a gun on his first trip, he later decided
he did not need one, and ceased to carry a firearm on all his future trips.
During this first trip over the rugged Nevada peaks which were deep in
snow, Thompson encountered a severe storm. Ravines became filled up, rocks
were completely obliterated, familiar landmarks couldn't be seen, and the
blinding snow stung his face as he strained to see ahead trying to see
the moss on the north sides of the trees. He told others later that he
did not worry, however, and was quoted as saying: "I can go anywhere in
the mountains, day or night, in storm or sunshine, without becoming lost.
There's something in my head that keeps me straight" He followed the course
he had outlined to the postmaster and passed along the southern shore of
Lake Tahoe (Big Water) until he came to a small valley and reached a canyon
through which a river ran (This was the west branch of the Carson River).
The canyon for which he was looking and planned to follow was Woodford's
Canyon. Later, he told his friends that he, when thirsty, would scoop up
a small handful of snow to melt in his mouth and when hunger overtook him,
he would seek out a sheltering rock or ravine in which to enjoy his meal
of biscuits and jerky. He slept wherever the night found him, and whenever
possible he would find a dead pine tree that had a slight lean to it and
fire it up. Then he would make himself a bed of fir or spruce boughs, and
with his feet to the fire and Uncle Sam's mail bag under his head for a
pillow, he would sleep until dawn. According to Dan DeQuille, "He never
made his camp beside a tree that was perfectly straight. When he had a
leaning tree and it burned down during the night, he knew where it would
fall, and he was able to make his bed on the safe side"
Following along the Carson River he soon came to his long-awaited landmark
- the tallest peak - job's Peak with an elevation of 10,500 feet. Just
a little farther on at the base of this western range of mountains was
Genoa and the Stockade that then existed. The people of Genoa were very
much surprised to see him and to learn that he had left "Hangtown" (Placerville)
just three days before and that he intended to return there with the mail
from Carson Valley the following day. Thompson was their first contact
with the outside, west of the Sierra in several months.
Thompson and the postmaster at Genoa talked together for sometime, but
indefinitely, concerning the delivery of the mail or the payment for this
service. It was established, however, that the pay would come from that
end of the run and it was suggested that the mail trip be made about twice
Within the week "Snowshoe" Thompson was back in Placerville. He brought
the mail from the east as if the record breaking crossing had been mere
routine, which it did become in a few short months. When the weather was
not too fierce, he completed the round trip in five days - three days to
Carson Valley and two days, downhill most of the way, to Placerville. By
night he used the stars as his guide, and it is said he followed no set
trail, for "in a trackless waste of snow, there was no path to follow"
Since he did not have any knowledge of "ski wax;' sometimes the soft snow
stuck to and clogged his skis, so that he had to halt for several hours
during the day and resume his journey at night when the snow had crusted.
(During the summer of 1856, Asa Hershel Hawley, James Green, and John "Snowshoe"
Thompson carried a small skiff built by Hawley, to the Lake, later named
Tahoe, and while Green and Thompson rowed on a course paralleling the shore,
Hawley paced off a half mile on land to determine their rate of speed.
The three would-be mariners then proceeded to cir cumnavigate the lake,
becoming the first white men to do so, and came up with the startling calculation
that it was 150 miles around - more than twice its actual circumference.
The trio passed Tahoe's outlet, but Hawley later admitted that he and his
companions did not realize it was the head of the Truckee River. - Data
from memories of Asa H. Hawley in "Lake Tahoe;' Bancroft Ms, University
The winter of 1856-1857 found the miners in the vicinity of Virginia City
short of boots and unable to replenish their supplies locally. They came
to "Snowshoe" for help. He offered $1.50 per pound to any man who would
accompany him back to Placerville and help him carry freight to the Gold
Canyon, but he could find no one willing to face the perils of the journey
over the mountain. He often though, carried more than letters - food, clothing,
sewing needles for the ladies, fragile chimney lamps, equipment of every
kind and even gold and silver were known to have inhabited his mail bag.
Whenever he was expected to arrive on either side of the Sierras, it was
an occassion for a crowd to gather. They trilled to see him come down the
steep grade so gracefully and speedily - sometimes crouching in position,
then with a jump that sent him ten feet in the air. He would land 30, 40
or 50 yards below. (Although modern day skiers have made leaps and runs
that surpass the best Thompson ever attained on his crude skis, he is generally
hailed as the father of skiing in this country. It is a title well earned,
as a glance at skiing statistics will show. The first recorded results
of an official ski jumping contest in the U.S. held in Minnesota in 1887,
show that the longest leap attained was 37 feet. According to the eye witness
reports of his contemporaries, "Snowshoe" Thompson was making leaps of
over a hundred feet almost as a matter of course some twenty years before.
And it was not until 1916 that a skier in an official contest in Colorado
surpassed Thompson's reputed leap of 180 feet.)
The "Sacramento Union" of January 10, 1857, on his second trip that winter,
informs its readers of a spectacular act of rescue of John Thompson. The
article says Thompson arrived at a cabin in Lake Valley where he sometimes
stopped to rest during his mail trips over the Sierras. In the cabin he
"found a man lying alone upon the floor - without other covering than the
clothes he wore. The man's name was James Sisson and he lived some six
miles above Placerville. Apparently he had left his home a few days before
for Carson Valley on snowshoes, but had been overtaken by a severe storm.
Finally he had come to this small cabin where Thompson found him, "but
he could not build a fire because his matches were too wet, and when he
attempted to take off his boots, he couldn't because they had frozen to
his feet and legs. When "Snowshoe" arrived on this December 23rd, Sisson
had just decided he would have to cut off his legs with his axe because
he was sure that gangrene had set in. Thompson persuaded him not to take
such drastic measures, made him as comfortable as possible, built a fire
and gathered extra firewood for Sisson to use; then left the stricken man
to return to Carson Valley for aid. On Christmas Day he was able to get
five men to accompany him back to Lake Valley by rigging them up with some
snowshoes similar to his own, and taking a sled along on which to haul
the sufferer down the mountains. Though they encountered a storm on the
way and had to lay over until it had passed, they arrived safely back in
Carson Valley, with the injured Sisson on December 28th. The doctor had
to remove both Sisson's feet, but James Sisson outlived his rescuer, "Snowshoe,'and
spoke of him as the "hero of the skies"
Thompson named many of the valleys and peaks he passed through on his monthly
trips, and to this day these places have retained these same names. One
day as he traveled the highest ridge of Woodford's Canyon, he noted a small
valley in California lying just west of the Nevada state line. It was surrounded
by tall peaks, which to him resembled the prongs of a diamond ring, with
the valley as the diamond. He called it Diamond Valley and decided that
this was where he would like to build a permanent home. When the snows
melted in the spring, he returned there to look again and determined the
best spot for a house to be built. He found also, to his delight, that
on the eastern side of the valley, was a spring of clear cool water, and
another stream nearby large enough to water many acres. He decided then,
instead of buying land just big enough for a cabin, he would take up forty
acres under the Squatters' Rights Bill and make them help support him.
He was tired of waiting for the mail contract to be ratified and signed.
He had made only about $23 the first winter and about $56 the second, and
he could not live on that alone. (From the files in Washington D.C., it
seems the confusion arose over a yearly contract which was given to one
man who, in turn, sublet it out to Thompson, but for which Thompson was
never paid. Apparently he did not know he held merely a sub-contract.
By late spring Snowshoe had cut down the trees on the land to use for fencing
and had hired some Indians from around Genoa to assist him, but it soon
became clear that it would be too big a job to fence all the land and build
a cabin too before summer was over; so he decided to dig a cave to use
as living quarters first, planning to build a house the following year.
This he did, near the spring of water on one side of the hill. The front
was built of logs which were chinked with mud, and the roof, made of boards,
was covered with three or four inches of dirt and another layer of boards.
The floor was of the same mud used for chinking, and with the door in front,
a hole in the roof for a chimney, a sheet iron stove and cot to sleep on,
his living quarters were corn plete. He and his Indian helpers then turned
back to fencing the land.
So the winter of 1859 began - his third for carrying the mail, and, according
to Edward B. Scott in his 'Saga of Lake Tahoe, pp. 363, John 'Snowshoe'
Thompson and his partner, judge John A. Child, on January 12, 1859, established
the first winter passenger and freight service between Silver Springs and
West Carson Canyon, over Johnson's and Luther passes, using horsedrawn,
three-seated sleighs instead of coaches.
In addition this same year, Thompson received a request to deliver the
mail throughout the year to what is known as Virginia City. He complied
and as well carried many other supplies for about four years to this mining
town. The miners in Virginia City at this time were wasting millions of
dollars in their frantic search for gold, as they did not realize that
the " black stuff" that clogged their rockers was silver, and they threw
it away. It was in the fall of 1859 that a man approached "Snowshoe" with
some of this black ore tied up in an old checkered shirt and asked him
to take it with him over the Sierras and have it assayed. The ore which
"Snowshoe" carried was the first to be taken from the "Comstock Lode;'
and it assayed at $2,200 per ton. This started the stampede at the Comstock
Lode. At this time Nevada's most prominent newspaper "The Territorial Enterprise"
was located in Genoa, but in November, 1859, it was moved to Carson City.
The year following, in October, 1860, it was moved to Virginia City, and
"Snowshoe" Thompson carried much of the machinery, as well as the newsprint,
on his back when the paper was moved. (There is a bronze plaque on the
front of the office of the "Territorial Enterprise" that praises "Snow
shoe and a friend for their helpful assistance in the progress of the newspaper.)
According to all his biographers, Thompson participated in the Piute Indian
War that occurred in the spring of 1860, and they claim he was the first
volunteer to enlist.
Any attempt to minutely outline the day by day aspects of the life of this
legendary figure would end in frustration, but it is known that more and
more demands were made on Thompson as the years went by. The peoples of
Nevada and California depended on him for all the news and many of their
In the book "Flying Snowshoes" by Evelyn Teal, a story is told of how "Snowshoe"
Thompson set out to rescue 3 foolhardy persons who had ventured into the
mountain passes during a storm - bound for San Francisco. When he found
them huddled together around a small fire, half-frozen and many miles of
mountain travel remaining, Thompson persuaded them that at their rate of
only eight miles per day, they would never make it before the cold overtook
them. To get them off the mountains, Thompson had each man, separately,
put his feet on the back of his snowshoes and his arms around his waist;
then he skied down the slopes with the man on behind - promising each of
the remaining ones that he would come back for them in a short while. When
pay for this spectacular rescue was offered Thompson by one of the men
involved, the postmaster at Strawberry station where the 6 6 rescued" had
been deposited, waved him away saying, "If you are thinking of paying Snowshoe
for such services, forget it. He won't take pay for saving lives. I've
seen others try to pay him before"
Though the mighty Sierras are known to be inhabited by wolves and grizzly
bears, Snowshoe always traveled unarmed, as he wanted to travel lightly
to gain more speed. He had many times crossed the fresh tracks of a bear
without ever meeting one face to face, but on one mail trip, it is known,
he suddenly came upon a whole pack of wolves as he sped along on his slender
skis. "I would have given much for a gun that day;' he was quoted as saying,
"as I came upon those eight large timber wolves feeding on a carcass in
the snow" There was only one thing he could do, and that was to keep going
straight ahead ri ht past them. Just as he was opposite the pack, one threw
back his head and let out a terrible howl, and then all the others did
the same. He corn mented to others after this experience that "a wolf's
howl is the worst sound you have ever heard, and the howl of eight wolves
is just eight times worse" He said he had just kept on going, though, and
didn't look back until he came to a bend where it was safe for him to observe
the wolves, but to his great relief, they had returned to their carcass
and were not following him.
Apparently Snowshoe finished building a rough cabin on his land in Diamond
Valley sometime in the summer of 1860, and he then used the primitive dugout
cave that had sheltered him his first winter there as a root cellar for
Two years later, in 1862, he took advantage of the Homestead Act passed
by Congress which provided that citizens (which by now he was) could obtain
160 acres of government land free of charge. The water on his present tract
of land was, of course, insufficient for watering more land, so he decided
to tap the west fork of the Carson River which flowed down Woodford's Canyon.
He called his Indian crew together again and built two ditches which would
carry enough water to irrigate his land and was able the next year to harvest
a good crop of hay, some alfalfa, and a little grain. His hours of labor
were long and hard, and he acted not only as overseer of his crew of Indian
helpers, but he had to cook for them as well. He had considered hiring
a cook, but, due to lack of time and money, he had not done so as yet.
It was about this time that the Singletons entered "Snow shoe' s" life
- for one of his biographers states that it was Sam Singleton "a rancher
in Carson Valley, who introduced Snowshoe to his (Sam's) sister Agnes"
And it was Sam who suggested that Agnes and her stepmother, Anne, recently
arrived from England, might consider coming in to do the cooking for "
Snowshoe" Continuing to quote from the same writer: "The Singletons, who
were apparently of Mormon origin, maintained a home that was distinctly
English in flavor" In Evelyn Teal's book "Flying Snowshoes" she says: "Agnes
Singleton came to Carson Valley from Preston, England in 1864" With her
mother assisting, Agnes must have done the cooking for Snowshoe for about
two years in his rude cabin. Then in May 1866, she and John A. "Snow shoe"
Thompson were married at Empire, Nevada - a small town some 30 miles from
Carson City. Says Herbert Hamlin in an article - "The new Mrs. Thompson
was reputed to be refined, attractive in appearance, even-tempered, and,
like her husband, religious in outlook"
The cabin in which they began their married life, had formerly consisted
of two rooms, but prior to their marriage, two more rooms and an attic
were added. Although most of the furniture was homemade benches, buck stools,
and tables, that year Snowshoe purchased a platform rocker for his bride.
He was able, also, to harvest another good crop, and he at last felt his
future was secure, so he ceased to worry about his contract with the government.
However, he still carried the mail - no other provision had been made to
have it done, and the people looked to him to continue.
The following year on February 11, 1867, joy filled their home with the
birth of a son to Agnes and "Snowshoe" He was named Arthur Thomas Thompson,
and as they looked at the little fellow in the cradle made from an old
ore sluice box, Snowshoe dreamed of how one day he could teach his son
to ski, just as his own father had taught him. The first Christmas, naturally,
found Snowshoe placing a small pair of skis under the Christmas tree, and
though Arthur was too young to stand upon the skis, he did learn to creep
around the room on his knees with his hands on the skis. Arthur was a healthy
child, full of life and animation, and Agnes' only concern for her young
son was that he had only Indian children for his playmates.
In addition to his regular mail deliveries over the Sierras and his farming
activities, Snowshoe had been doing a little prospecting on Silver Mountain.
One evening he announced his intention to stay up at the mine for the winter
and work it between his mail runs. There was a small, primitive cabin on
top of the hill near the mine where he could sleep after his digging, but
Agnes protested. She did not like the idea of his staying up there all
alone during so much of the winter, so she insisted that he take her along.
He knew it was no place for a woman, but she would have her way - knowing
that she could "keep the cabin warm for him to come home to and have a
hot meal ready for him to enjoy"
Before the snow began to fall, Snowshoe carried to the mine the supplies
necessary for their stay there, and Agnes prepared the needful clothes,
bedding, and personal essentials they would need. Everything went well
for a time while they lived in the small mine cabin, until one evening
while Snow shoe was away on a mail trip, little Arthur became very ill,
breathing heavily and was delirious with a high temperature. Agnes was
much relieved when her husband finally arrived home the following day,
for he always seemed to know what was best to do. Though she had given
their sick child what homemade remedies she could devise, she knew they
must take him to Genoa, several hours journey away to the only doctor.
"Snowshoe" was a man of action and few words, and as soon as he viewed
the situation, he walked outside to the tool shed that held his mining
gear, and began preparing a 44 contraption" with which to get his wife
and child down the mountain. He cut some straps of leather, made a sling
of them, and said to his wife, "Agnes, I'll put my arms through those two
loops and fasten the other strap around my waist. If you sit in the sling,
put your arms around my neck and your legs around my waist, I know I can
get you down the hill. I will carry the baby in my arms, while you ride
on my back"
Agnes gasped, "You are going to carry the two of us down that steep hill!
Oh, John, you can't"
"It has to be done,' he said, "There is no other way. While you are wrapping
Arthur up, I'll throw your snowshoes down the hill. You can use them after
we get further down"
Arthur was a husky boy of four years, and Agnes thought of her own hundred
and fifteen pounds as she climbed into the sling, closing her eyes and
holding her breath. When they were safely down the mountain, they went
to a mining camp nearby where the men helped them build a sled on which
to place Arthur for the remainder of the journey to Genoa. When near enough
for Agnes to continue alone, John hurried ahead with Arthur to the doctor's
home. Arthur's illness was diagnosed as a mild attack of lung fewer (pneumonia),
and due to the boy's youth and good health, he rallied within a few days.
It is said that Arthur loved to fish and be outdoors, as did his father.
His favorite playmate was an Indian boy named Benny, and Agnes continued
to worry that her son would grow up to be less than a gentleman with unschooled
savages as playmates, but "Snowshoe" consoled her by pointing out that
"being a man" and "being a gentleman" had the same meaning - one word was
British, the other American, and assured her that Arthur was in the process
of becoming a fine young man.
As the country became more permanently settled, some of the people began
to wonder how Snowshoe Thompson was being paid for all his regular mail
deliveries plus the many favors and services he provided them. The postmaster
had written Washington D.C. many times trying to get a contract settled
so that Snowshoe could get his government pay. Finally in February, 1869,
the Nevada legislature adopted a resolution asking the U.S. Government
for "six thousand dollars to compensate J. A. Thompson for carrying the
mail all these years;' but, as ususal, all they received back was another
polite letter. (It is said that he received as high as $5 per letter from
some individuals for carrying their mail over the mountains when a storm
was raging, but nowhere is there reliable evidence that either Thompson
or his widow received any pay from the government on the mail contract
he believed he had.) Snowshoe felt that all the letters did not tell the
true situation, and determined that it would be best if he went personally
and talked to the Congress in Washington, D.C. He knew, too, that he must
make the trip before spring plowing got underway. He made the necessary
arrangements, bid his wife and child farewell, and started on his journey
across the nation. He went as far as Reno on his snowshoes, where he boarded
the Central Pacific. He had heard so much about the great railroad and
was pleased to see it and ride on it. On the second day out from Reno,
they ran into a severe snowstorm. The train became bogged down because
of the deep snow, and after talking with the train officials on board,
Snowshoe discovered they were only 20 miles west of Laramie, Wyoming.
"Twenty miles isn't far, he said to his seatmate, "Let's walk it" He wished
he had his snowshoes along, but he and his partner arrived safely in Laramie
that evening - only to find that the trains weren't running out of Laramie
either. "Let' s find out how far it is to Cheyenne;' said Snowshoe. He
was told that it was 50 miles. Two days later the railroad stationmaster
at Cheyenne was electrified to see a man walk into his office covered with
icicles and snow. When Snowshoe announced that he had walked over from
Laramie, the stationmaster could scarcely believe it, but arranged for
Snowshoe to get on a train headed east.
Snowshoe finally reached Washington D.C. only to find that several eastern
newspapers were telling of a man called "Snowshoe" who had walked seventy-five
miles in a raging storm in the mountains when his train became stalled
and had reached Cheyenne two days ahead of the great iron horse.
Because of these newspaper articles, "Snowshoe" received a warm welcomein
the east and thought he would soon be home. His first hotel room, he wrote
Agnes, cost 21 dollars a week. Soon he found one for only four dollars
a week, and he limited himself to 2 meals a day. He tried to buy a pair
of new boots to replace his homemade boots called "buffaloes;' but on seeing
that shoes to be worn with gaiters cost eleven dollars, he told Agnes he
dared not ask the price of boots.
Time dragged by into weeks and months. He wrote Agnes, "I can't wait any
longer. The men here are all very kind and I know they are doing all they
can for me, but it takes more time than I can spare. I mustn't stay longer.
I am needed at home for the ranch work;' so he returned home to Diamond
Two years passed and Snowshoe still carried the mail. While resting one
day on one of his last trips of the winter season, he picked up a shining
piece of rock. It was gold! Examining the place more closely, he determined
that here was a rich vein of ore. He realized with great relief now that
the mail contract did not matter. He would be fixed well for life - financially.
He rushed through the rest of his trip and quickly went home to tell Agnes
and Arthur. It was rich ore, the assayer had assured him.
With the coming of the railroad, "Snowshoe's" services were no longer needed,
Human flesh could not equal the big engines of steel that soon roared over
the mountains crossing the Sierras from east to west and in many cases,
paralleling the very ski tracks of the legendary mail carrier himself.
After his discovery of gold, Snowshoe settled down to farming and ranching
on his place in Diamond Valley - not knowing that he had less than 2 years
left to spend there with his wife and son.
illness was brief, and though it was severe, he spent those last days of
illness personally doing the spring seeding in the ground which his Indian
helpers had prepared a few days previous. Agnes tried to persuade him to
rest, and " doctored" him with "sassafras tea and a dose of castor oil;'
but only after he had completed the spring planting did he retire to his
bed. His last words were to his son, "Always be a good boy, Arthur. Mind
your mother and be good to her" Death came quietly to this great man of
western legends. He was laid to rest in the Genoa, Nevada Cemetery which
lies at the very base of the great Sierras so well known to and so often
traversed by Snowshoe. A pair of "Norwegian Snowskates" are carved on the
large white marble stone that Agnes had put on his grave, and carved beneath
them is this inscription: "John A. Thompson, native of Norway, departed
this life May 15, 1876, aged 49 years, 16 days. Gone but not forgotten"
Nor is he forgotten in the memory of this writer and many others of his
and Agnes' relatives. In biographies he has been saluted as "one of the
most colorful personalities in the legends of the Pacific Southwest;' and
at the time of his death almost every newspaper on the coast and in the
Carson Valley paid him tribute. Typical was that from the Carson Daily
News: "Compared with other men in snows and snowstorms, he was as much
superior as the Saint Bernard is to the ordinary dog . . . Possessed of
herculean strength, with nerves of steel and an iron will, and a heart
susceptible of the kindest feelings, he was at once the beau ideal of strong
manhood. 'The bravest are the tenderest' . . . well applies to Our Man
of the Mountains"