First Wagons Over the Sierra

Donner SummitThe Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party of 1844 was the first American emigrant company to bring wagons across the Sierra Nevada into California, although they did so in stages. In the process they opened an important trail along the Truckee River, and became the first non-Indians to view Lake Tahoe. The party of about eleven wagons and 53 people arrived at Fort Hall, Idaho, without undue hardship, but when they reached the Humboldt Sink in modern Nevada, they had no idea which way to go. Fortunately they met an Indian whose name they misheard as “Truckee,” who led them across a 40-mile desert to a fine stream of water they named the Truckee River. More challenges lay ahead. Deciding to leave half of the wagons at a small alpine lake, they took the rest over the pass—only to have their way blocked by snow along the Yuba River. Most of the women and children, and two men, remained at the Yuba River camp while the others rode ahead to Sutter’s Fort to seek help. By March 1, 1845, all had arrived safely in the Sacramento Valley. The wagons they left at the lake—now Donner Lake—were brought in later that year.