Snowshoe Thompson

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Snowshoe Thompson

Snowshoe Thompson (April 30, 1827 – May 15, 1876) was a nickname for the Norwegian-American John Albert Thompson, an early resident of the Sierra Nevada of Nevada and California. He is considered the father of California skiing.[1]


Jon Torsteinson Rue was born on the Rue farm in Tinn, Telemark county, Norway. He was the son of Torsten Olsen Rue and Gro Johnsdatter Håkaland. His father died when Thompson was 10 years old.[2] At that time, Thompson came to America with his family, settling on a farm in Illinois. The family moved on to Missouri, then Iowa, and eventually Thompson went to stay with his brother in Wisconsin. In 1851, Thompson drove a herd of milk cows to California and settled in Placerville. For a short while he mined in Kelsey Diggins, Coon Hollow and Georgetown. With the small amount he saved, he bought a small ranch at Putah Creek, in the Sacramento Valley. Later, he purchased a ranch in Diamond Valley.[3]

Mail delivery[edit]

Between 1856 and 1876, he delivered mail between Placerville, California and Genoa, Nevada and later Virginia City, Nevada. Despite his nickname, he did not make use of the snowshoes that are native to North America, but rather would travel with what the local people applied that term to: ten-foot (over 3-meter) skis, and a single sturdy pole generally held in both hands at once. He knew this version of cross-country skiing from his native Norway, and employed it during the winter as one of the earlier pioneers of the skill in the United States. Thompson delivered the first silver ore to be mined from the Comstock Lode. Later he taught others how to make skis, as well as the basics of their use. Despite his twenty years of service, he was never paid for delivering the mail.[4]

Thompson typically made the eastward trip in three days, and the return trip in two days. He usually traveled the route known as "Johnson's Cutoff", a pathway first marked by early explorer (and first man to deliver mail over the Sierra) John Calhoun Johnson, which is today the route of U.S. Route 50 as it winds its way from Placerville, California to South Lake Tahoe. Thompson carried no blanket and no gun; he claimed he was never lost even in blizzards. A rescue attributed to him was that of a man trapped in his cabin by unusually deep snow. Thompson reached him, realized the damage to the man's legs from frostbite was sufficient to kill him, skied out to get chloroform, skied back in with it, and delivered the chloroform in time to save him.[2]

Personal life[edit]

In 1866, Thompson married Agnes Singleton, who had come to America from England. The Thompson’s only child, Arthur Thomas, was born on February 11, 1867.

From 1868 to 1872 Thompson served on the Board of Supervisors of Alpine County, and was a delegate to the Republican State Convention in Sacramento in 1871. In spite of a resolution sent to Washington, D.C. by the Nevada Legislature, the many political contacts he had gathered, and a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1872, Snowshoe Thompson was never paid for his services delivering the United States Mail.

Snowshoe Thompson died of appendicitis which developed into pneumonia on May 15, 1876. His grave can be seen in Genoa, Nevada, in Carson Valley, east of Lake Tahoe. His son, Arthur, died two years later of diphtheria, and was buried next to his father at the cemetery in Genoa.[5]

We salute John “Snowshoe” Thompson.

On his homemade 10 foot long skis, John carried the mail and supplies over the snowy Sierra for 20 winters. Legend has it that he saved the lives of seven people who were snowbound in mountain cabins. In 1866, after this tall Norwegian became an American citizen, he homesteaded a 160 ranch in Diamond Valley. Respected by all who knew him, John was elected to the Alpine County Board of Supervisors.

Many relatives of John still live in the Nevada, California area to this day. He also has many other relatives in the Midwest and we all get together every year or so.

Thompson in culture[edit]

Country and Folk Singer Johnny Horton recorded a song about Thompson's adventures as a mail carrier in his 1956 song Snowshoe Thompson. The song is track 4 on the compilation: Johnny Horton Makes History. Scottish rocker Alex Harvey covered the song on his posthumous 1982 release, Soldier On The Wall. In 2008 Norwegian Terje Nordberg wrote a Donald Duck comic story, which Norwegian Arild Midthun drew – The title "Snowshoe Duckson" shows the obvious reference.[1]


Other sources[edit]

  • Kenneth Bjork, Snowshoe Thompson: Fact and Legend (Northfield, MN: Norwegian-American Historical Association, Norwegian-American Studies, Vol XIV p 62-88. 1956)

External links[edit]