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][2]


Jon Torsteinson Rue was born on the Rue farm (Rue i Luraas-grenda) in Tinn, Telemark county, Norway. He was the son of Torsten Olsen Rue (ca. 1760-1829) and Gro Jonsdatter Håkaland (1781-ca. 1846). His father died when Thompson was 2 years old.[3][4][5]

In 1837, at the age of 10, Thompson came to America with his mother, settling first on a farm in the Fox River settlement in LaSalle County, Illinois. The family subsequently moved on the Norwegian immigrant settlement in Shelby County, Missouri which was under the leadership of Cleng Peerson.[6] In 1839, they were joined by Thompson's brother Tostein (1819-1880) and sister Kari (born 1822). In 1840, they followed Hans Barlien and moved to the Sugar Creek Settlement in Lee County, Iowa.[7][8]

In 1846, Thompson and his brother Tostein came to Dane County, 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. In 1860, Thompson homesteaded a 160-acre ranch in Diamond Valley, south of Genoa in California's Alpine County.[9][10]

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.[11]

Thompson typically made the eastward trip in three days, and the return trip in two days. 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.[9]

Thompson usually traveled the route known as "Johnson's Cutoff", a pathway first marked by John Calhoun Johnson, an early explorer and first man to deliver mail over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Today this approximates the route of U.S. Route 50 as it winds its way from Placerville, California to South Lake Tahoe.

Personal life[edit]

In 1866, Thompson married Agnes Singleton (1831-1915) 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.[12]


  • In 1885, a marble stone was erected on the site of Snowshoe's grave. Engraved are a pair of crossed skis and the phrase "Gone but not forgotten."[13]

Thompson in popular 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 author Terje Nordberg wrote a Donald Duck comic strip (Donald Duck & Co), which Norwegian artist Arild Midthun illustrated. The title "Snowshoe Duckson" makes an obvious reference.[16]


  1. ^ Famous mail carrier has left an indelible legacy from Genoa to Placerville (Nevada Magazine)
  2. ^ "Snowshoe Thompson". Lokalhistoriewiki. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  3. ^ "Telemark. Tinn herad. Rui". Matrikkelutkastet av 1950. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  4. ^ Kjetil Steinsholt. "Jon Torsteinson Rue -Postarbeider, Eventyrer, Skipioner". Norsk biografisk leksikon. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  5. ^ "From Cotter's Son In Tinn To American Ski Hero" (PDF). Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  6. ^ Andres A. Svalestuen translated by C. A. Clausen. "Emigration from the Community of Tinn, 1837-1907: Demographic, Economic, and Social Background" (PDF). The Norwegian-American Historical Association (Volume 29: Page 43). Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  7. ^ H. F. Swansen. "The Sugar Creek Settlement in Iowa". The Norwegian-American Historical Association (Volume IX: Page 38). Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  8. ^ "Sugar Creek at Lee County, Iowa". Donnellson Public Library. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Snowshoe Thompson, Legendary Skiing Mailman (Mic Mac Media)
  10. ^ Snowshoe Thompson, mailman and hero Snowshoe Thompson, Legendary Skiing Mailman (Town of Genoa)
  11. ^ Pioneer Skier & Mail Carrier (Stories of El Dorado County History)
  12. ^ The Soaring Eagle of the Sierras (Ron Watters. 2009)
  13. ^ "Snowshoe Thompson". Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  14. ^ "Friends of Snowshoe Thompson". Snowshoe Thompson website. Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  15. ^ "Snowshoe Thompson: Legendary Skiing Mailman". Retrieved March 20, 2016. 
  16. ^ Slik gjør du skiskyting enda morsommere (Donald Duck & Co)

Other sources[edit]

Related reading[edit]

  • Stoutenburg, Adrien, Laura Nelson Baker (1957) Snowshoe Thompson (Scribner; Book Club) ISBN 978-0684209586
  • Tortorich, Frank (2015) John A. "Snowshoe" Thompson, Pioneer Mail Carrier of the Sierra (Pronghorn Press) ISBN 978-1941052105

External links[edit]