Old Greenwood: Tahoe Sierra trailblazer, Part I

Old Greenwood helped guide Stephens Party to California in 1844. | California State Parks

Caleb Greenwood was illiterate so what we know about him was written or reminisced by otherswho met him. Incredibly, Greenwood was more than 80 years old when he became a major player in the opening of the California Trail over Donner Pass, blazing shortcuts and cutting alternate routes used by tens of thousands of emigrants before and during the Gold Rush.

Old Greenwood, as he was known, was instrumental in guiding the Stephens Party (first wagons over Donner Pass) in 1844 and involved in the critical rescue efforts of Donner Party survivors in 1847. He possessed grit, determination and fortitude, essential characteristics of America’s western mountain men.

Born in Virginia in 1763, he grew up in the years of unrest and periodic violence preceding the American Revolution. When he was 18, he killed a sheriff who was collecting the Greenwoodfamily’s Black cook (probably a slave) as payment for debt owed. Caleb’s father had agreed to the transaction, but when the woman protested, the teenager grabbed a rifle and shot the lawman.Greenwood Sr. ordered his son to leave the country, so the teenager journeyed west past the Mississippi River into Indian Country.

Little is known of young Greenwood’s life during the next quarter century, but in 1810, at the age of 47, he was unmarried and working as a meat hunter for John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company on the Upper Missouri River. He soon switched to a rival trapping outfit but continued in the fur trade for another decade before joining the Crow Indian tribe at the age of 63 to take a wife, Batchicka Youngcault.

Wagon train guide
In the summer of 1844, Elisha Stephens met Caleb Greenwood on the Oregon Trail and hired him to guide his small wagon train of families past the Rocky Mountains to Fort Hall, a primitive trading post on the Snake River in eastern Oregon Country. At the time, Old Greenwood was 81 years old and boasted more than 30 years’ experience as a wilderness trapper.

He was accompanied by two of his sons, John (20) and Britton (18). Over the years Greenwood had “gone Indian” from long residence with the Crow Tribe in Yellowstone country, where his half Crow, half French wife Batchicka birthed seven children.

An adolescent pioneer described the aged guide: “Greenwood was a very picturesque old man. He was dressed in buckskins and had a long heavy beard and used very picturesque language.” His sons were mixed race but wholly Native by their upbringing. In general, they kept to themselves while guiding wagon trains.

On Aug. 17, 1844, the Stephen-Townsend-Murphy Party left Fort Hall and the Oregon Trail to follow the tracks of a packtrain from the year before. In fact, frontier explorer Joseph Walker had traced an Indian trail down the Humboldt River to California in 1833 through Owens Valley and Walker Pass and in 1843 guided the Joseph B. Chiles party that way, but no one had successfully reached the Pacific Coast with wagons. Captain Stephens’ group of 50 men, women and children had little information about the trail ahead but determined to push forward. Greenwood was vaguely familiar with the region.

Isaac Hitchcock, a 64-year-old backwoodsman with the group, informed Greenwood that he had been part of Walker’s 1833 expedition and knew a shortcut southwest over barren high desert toward the vital Humboldt River. Nearly 50 miles of the route lacked water, but it took 85 miles and seven days off the journey. Mountain man William Sublette had also tested the route the year before. Ironically, the shortcut became known as the Greenwood-Sublette Cutoff.

Chief Truckee shows the way
The party reached Humboldt Sink in early October and fortuitously encountered an old Northern Paiute Indian. Greenwood communicated with him by sign and diagrams drawn on the ground. It seems the trapper named the Indian Truckee for his frequent use of the word. (This was not the man’s name, but even so the Indian chief adopted it for the rest of his life. Chief Truckee’s granddaughter Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins wrote that the word means “all right or very well.”)

Truckee indicated that 50 or 60 miles to the west a river flowed east out of the mountains with large trees and good grass. Stephens and two others took the kind old Indian as guide/hostage to find the river. The Indian’s description was correct and the party pressed on eventually crossing a 40-mile-wide desert to reach present-day Truckee Meadows (Reno, Nev.). In appreciation they named the stream Truckee and ascended into the river’s upper canyon. The route was a natural passageway west, but challenging; one day they had to cross the river 10 times. Men and oxen labored for hours in cold water where feet and hooves grew soft from constant immersion creating debilitating pain and lameness.

Opening the California Trail
In mid-November, the Stephens Party approached the junction of the Truckee River and a creek (Donner) about 1 mile west of the present town of Truckee. First to arrive and unsure which stream to follow, six headed south on horseback along the river; one man, two boys and threewomen. Free of wagons they traveled light and fast to Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento). They would alert John Sutter that wagons were on the way.

The balance of the party with 11 wagons pushed west toward Truckee Lake (Donner Lake). From there they could see a massive wall of granite closing off the basin and after three days reconnoitering realized it was impossible to get all their gear over it. On Nov. 25, the company crossed the pass with five wagons and became the first to open the California Trail. In the memoirs there is no mention of Caleb Greenwood during this final portion of the journey, but it is reasonable to think that his physical presence, experience and the vitality of his sons contributed materially to the success of the epic crossing.

Shortly after their arrival in early 1845, Caleb, John and Britton joined John Sutter’s military effort in the Micheltorena War. After the brief conflict ended in defeat for Sutter’s volunteer army, the Greenwoods traveled north to explore Napa Valley. Barely six months after their arrival in California they agreed to lead a dozen, jaded emigrants back to Fort Hall.

On the way east, instead of struggling with the tortuous terrain in the upper Truckee Canyon, Greenwood blazed a new route by following a ravine northeast of the river to Alder Creek, Russell Valley and through Dog Valley. (This explains why the Donner Party arrived at Truckee Lake from the north.) Back at Fort Hall, Greenwood was looking to earn more money leading greenhorns to California. It was a new economic reality for old trappers as the beaver pelt trade disappeared and westbound pioneers needed guides with wilderness experience.

Stay tuned for Part II in next edition out on June 5 and at YourTahoeGuide.com/history.