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“Snowshoe” Thompson – The Mailman of the Sierra

“Good Luck Snowshoe Thompson!” was the cry as John A. Thompson left Hangtown (or Placerville as it was officially known) that cold winter day in 1856 on homemade snowshoes (skis as we call them today). True to the American West, no person of notoriety lasted very long without having a nickname bestowed upon them. So it was upon this day, the man who would save the Town of Genoa 75 miles away in Utah Territory, was so christened.

Photo of Snowshoe Thompson
Photo of Snowshoe Thompson

Jon Torsteinson-Rue was born in Tinn, Telemark, Norway on a mountainside farm on April 20th of 1827. At the age of 10, he left his homeland with his mother Gro and sailed for America. Later John A. Thompson, as he was now known, longed for the tall pines that reminded him of his birthplace. He eventually followed the California Gold Rush of 1849 and settled at Putah Creek, near Placerville, California. When his attempts at gold mining failed, he settled into farming and did what came naturally to him. But in the early winter of 1856, when the small town of Genoa located at the base of the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, was isolated by the worst winter snows yet seen, the local newspaper featured an ad imploring anyone who had the ability to apply themselves to delivering mail and articles to the tiny Carson Valley community.

In the 20 years that he carried these articles which sometimes weighed as much as 100lbs in the pack upon his back twice a month during the winter, he experienced several adventures that would challenge the heartiest of men. He rescued no less than 3 men on two separate occasions, trapped by winter conditions and who had given up all hope of seeing their loved ones again. Taking three days to reach the Town of Genoa from Placerville and only two days upon return, he was never lost while often traveling at night. Once he encountered a pack of wolves and had no recourse but to ski close by them. His worries were subdued as he whooshed past them without any pursuit on their part. He also helped to carry the typeface and parts for the printing press of the Territorial Enterprise, the first printed newspaper in Nevada. He moved the items to Genoa in 1858, to Carson City in 1859 and then finally to Virginia City in 1860 where the newspaper grew to fame with Mark Twain as one of its most celebrated reporters.

Thompson was a man of his community. He eventually purchased land in Diamond Valley, California at the south end of Carson Valley, Nevada. He helped to design and install many of the irrigation systems throughout the adjoining valleys which are still in use today. He married Genoa resident Agnes Singleton in 1866 and together they had one child, a son Arthur, who was born in 1867 and passed away at the age of 11 in 1878 of diphtheria. John A. Thompson is reported to have successfully worked a gold mine somewhere above Carson Valley which remains lost to this day. He was involved in the local Genoa community and was even the first person to sign up with the Genoa Rangers during the Pyramid Lake Paiute Uprising of 1860 which ended with more than 75 Rangers dead,  Thompson being one of the few survivors.

'Snowshoe' Thompson's grave in Genoa
John ‘Snowshoe’ Thompson’s grave in Genoa

Ironically Snowshoe Thompson was never paid by the U.S. Government for carrying the government mail. While he was paid privately by individuals, he never formally signed a government contract. In the early winter of 1872 he traveled to Washington D.C. to plead his case with a sum of what he felt he was owed.  The U.S. Government declined to pay him compensation and he returned to his Diamond Valley ranch disappointed. On a mid-May afternoon in 1876 after feeling unwell while working his ranch, Thompson retired to his bed to take a rest before his dinnertime meal. He never left his bed again, passing away a few days later on May 17th from the effects of what was later understood to be appendicitis. His many contributions and his standing in his community led to a grand funeral which was held at the County Courthouse in Genoa on May 19th. He was laid to rest one-half mile north of town in what is now the Genoa Cemetery. In 1960 the Norwegian Olympic Ski team visited his grave, laying upon it a wreath of recognition. Today Snowshoe Thompson is honored from Placerville to Genoa and beyond, as a pioneer, innovator and beloved citizen of these communities.

Kim Harris
Western History ALIVE!

 

Friends of Snowshoe Thompson works to promote and foster the memory of John “Snowshoe” Thompson through events and activities, and to maintain the statue and planter in the Mormon Station State Park.  To be involved in the organization or participate in their historic eventswatch our events page for future events.

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