First Wagons Over the Sierra

Seeing CAThe first American emigrant company to bring their wagons across the Sierra Nevada into California was the Stevens-Murphy party (also known as the Stevens-Murphy-Townsend Party) in 1844, in the process opening an important trail along the Truckee River, and becoming the first non-Indians to view Lake Tahoe. Martin Murphy Senior was a native of Ireland who took his growing family to Canada in the 1820s, then south to Missouri in 1840. By this time he was blessed with many progeny and his clan was content and prosperous—until malaria killed his wife and infant granddaughter.  Nearly 59 now, he determined to lead his family to the “disease free” land of California. Other local families signed up for the journey. At Council Bluffs the group was joined by Elisha Stevens, an ex-trapper and blacksmith, who was traveling alone. Also joining them was Dr. John Townsend, with his wife and brother-in-law—in all, about eleven wagons and 50 people headed for California. Taking a “shortcut” west of the Big Sandy River which cost them valuable time, they nonetheless arrived at Fort Hall (Idaho) without further 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. However, more challenges lay ahead. The story of their struggles to wrest themselves and their wagons over the summit is too long to recount here. But all, in due course—including two infants who were born along the way—arrived safely in the Sacramento Valley. In March 1845, Murphy senior moved to Santa Clara with six of his unmarried children. Martin junior and his wife Mary established a ranch near modern Elk Grove where they lived until they moved to San Jose in 1850. 


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