Few legends in Nevada history approach the amazing feats of strength and endurance of the great Sierra mailman, John A. “Snowshoe” Thompson.
“Snowshoe Thompson is in some ways a symbol of what Nevadans think they are,” UNLV History Professor Michael Green observes. “Namely, a guy who sets out to do something and does it and doesn’t let anything get in the way, either his own problems or other people making his life miserable.”
Born in Tinn, Norway, in 1827, Thompson immigrated to Illinois in 1837, and after time in Iowa and Missouri eventually made his way in 1851 to the gold fields of California. He was a strong, strapping fellow with blond hair and blue eyes, and brought with him a skill from the old country: the ability to swoosh down snow-covered mountains on long planks of wood folks referred to as “snowshoes.”
Following the Donner Party’s fateful attempt in 1847 to trek through the Sierra Nevada in winter, the snow-covered mountains and high passes gained a well-deserved notoriety for danger.
Trouble was, residents of the Carson Valley received most of their mail from Sacramento on the Western side of the mountains. Someone was needed to deliver the letters and packages, and when Thompson learned of the job he jumped at the chance. He made his first trip in January 1856, and for the next 20 years was a reliable source of everything from letters from home to wood stove parts.
The people and press marveled at Thompson’s skill and stamina.
The Sacramento Union newspaper enthused, “Mr. John A. Thompson left Carson Valley on Tuesday morning and reached this city at noon yesterday. He was three days and a half in coming through from Carson Valley and used on the snow the Norwegian skates, which are manufactured of wood.”
On the Nevada side of the mountains, Genoa postmaster S.A. Kinsey was overwhelmed by Thompson.
“Most remarkable man I ever knew, that Snowshoe Thompson,” Kinsey would recall. “He must be made of iron. Besides, he never thinks of himself, but he’d give his last breath for anyone else — even a total stranger.”
Through the years, Thompson encountered hungry wolves and saved stranded miners. And as the legend goes, he never lost a letter.
In 1858, Thompson hauled lead type for the printing press of the fledgling Territorial Enterprise of Genoa and, later, Virginia City.
He was more than a stout-hearted mailman, of course. He operated a 160-acre ranch in Diamond Valley, and in 1860 when the Pyramid Lake War with the Northern Paiute broke out, Thompson fought alongside Major Ormsby, who suffered a mortal wound in battle.
Snowshoe was reliable and loyal, but one thing he wasn’t was compensated for his efforts. From 1868 to 1872, Thompson battled from Nevada to the U.S. Congress for just compensation for his tireless efforts. He was denied, but continued to deliver the mail anyway, sometimes accepting a stipend from residents of the communities he served.
Thompson’s legend might have been lost to history had it not been for the efforts of an equally colorful character, journalist and short story writer Dan DeQuille. The longtime Territorial Enterprise scribe dug deep into his files to produce a lengthy profile on Thompson for the respected Overland Monthly magazine.
It was for the Overland that DeQuille described first seeing Thompson in action.
“He flew down the mountainside,” DeQuille wrote. “… He did not ride astride his pole or drag it to one side as was the practice of other snowshoers, but held it horizontally before him after the manner of tightrope walker. His appearance was graceful, swaying his balance pole to one side and the other in the manner that soaring eagle dips its wings.”
Thompson, whose name was sometimes spelled “Thomson,” made his final mail run in 1876. After a brief illness, which history has most often recounted as a bout of appendicitis, he died. Thompson was buried in Genoa.
Visitors who appreciate his legend and life will note that that a pair of his famous “snowshoes” are carved on his headstone.
John L. Smith writes a regular column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (702) 383-0295.