Old Greenwood: Tahoe Sierra trailblazer, Part II

Unidentified son of Caleb Greenwood. | Bancroft Library

By August 1845, Caleb Greenwood and his sons — John and Britton — were waiting at the junction of the Oregon and California trails, just in time to promote the Sacramento Valley over the Willamette. The silver-tongued frontiersman assured emigrants that the road to California was shorter and easier. The climate was better, there were no hostile Indians and entrepreneur John Sutter was offering work and land for free.

Old Greenwood was soon employed as guide for a train of several hundred emigrants with 50 wagons. He charged $2.50 per rig, a good wage for an old trapper. He led them through his new Dog Valley detour and everyone made it to California without abandoning any wagons — a first. Among them were the William Ide family, Mormons from Springfield, Ill., who wrote letters back home that inspired Springfield residents George Donner and James Reed to head west with their families in 1846.

One emigrant girl in the wagon train guided by Caleb and John wrote: “They were mountain men, and dressed the same as Indians. I was more afraid of these two men than of the wild Indians.”

Her intuition may have been correct, at least regarding John. In one incident along the Humbolt River, John Greenwood murdered an innocent Indian who spooked his horse. Greenwood’s companions laughed when he was nearly thrown from his mount, which infuriated John and he shot the offending man. The emigrants were furious and forced him to flee the company in fear for his life. It was unprovoked killings like this that gave American Indians reason to attack pioneer wagon trains.

Treacherous Hasting’s Cutoff
In April 1846, Greenwood met famed frontiersman James Clyman and a sketchy lawyer turned California booster, Lansford W. Hastings. They were visiting Johnson’s ranch on the Bear River, a tributary of the Feather River in northern California. Preparations were being made for an overland trip back to Fort Hall with Hastings, Clyman and a small party returning east with 150 horses and mules.

Old Greenwood conducted the party over Donner Pass, but owing to the early season they were challenged by swollen streams and deep snow. Greenwood and Clyman led them across Nevada, out toward the treacherous Hasting’s Cutoff, which none of the party had seen before. Hastings was planning to direct westbound emigrants from Fort Bridger over this treacherous trail, one he had promoted in his 1842 book, but was now investigating for the first time.

It was a more direct route to the Humboldt River but among its hardships traversed a 100-mile waterless desert. It was a trail barely suited for mules let alone families with oxen, wagons and children. In his publication promoting settlement in California and Oregon, Hastings promised to personally lead wagon trains over his new cutoff. His broken commitments eventually cost many members of the Donner Party their lives.

Old Greenwood scoffed at Hastings’ route and stayed on the traditional Humbolt trail back to Fort Hall, safely delivering the people in his charge. There Greenwood arranged for the rest of his children — his wife Batchicka died in childbirth in 1843 — to join him so he could take them to his new home near Clear Lake in northern California. Greenwood agreed to guide a small party back to California, but after getting them safely to the Humboldt River he departed to take his own children quickly over Donner Pass before winter snow set in. Even at age 83 his pathfinding skills were still making the overland route easier.

Greenwood opens Roller Pass
During the summer of 1846, Old Greenwood advised the season’s first wagon company to try a new way over the steep Sierra crest south of Donner Pass. It required the use of a log roller and chains, but Roller Pass became the most popular route for emigrants until toll roads were built in the early 1860s.

In November 1846, recruiters for John C. Frémont’s volunteers that were to fight Mexican soldiers for control of California came across Old Greenwood’s hunting camp near Clear Lake. Edwin Bryant, in the process of writing a book, described the venerable mountain man: “…six feet in height, raw-boned and spare in flesh, but muscular, and not withstanding his old age [83], walks with erectness and elasticity of youth. His dress was of tanned buckskin [which Caleb crafted himself], and from its appearance equal to the age of its wearer and had probably never been off his body since he first put it on.”

Aiding the Donner Party
Old Greenwood learned about the snowbound Donner Party two weeks after survivors snowshoed out of the mountains for help in February 1847. He promptly made his way through flooded countryside to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) where he met James Reed, co-captain of the marooned wagon train, who was organizing a rescue operation.

It was not until Feb. 23 before Reed, Greenwood and others left Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River, leading horses with precious food. In the mountains, the pack animals bogged down in snow forcing rescuers into snowshoes. Reluctantly 84-year-old Greenwood was ordered to remain behind at camp while the others, including Caleb’s son Britton, proceeded on foot to Truckee (Donner) Lake with supplies.

Caleb Greenwood was 87 when he passed away in northern California during the winter of 1850. Only his youngest son James was present. He stated that his father died “during the night outdoors, sleeping under the stars.” Just as he had lived.


Read Part I at YourTahoeGuide.com/history