The Stephens–Townsend–Murphy Party consisted of ten families who migrated from Iowa to California prior to the Mexican–American War and the California Gold Rush. The Stephens Party is significant in California history because they were the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. In 1844, they pioneered the first route at or near what was later named Donner Pass. The crossing was a year before the third expedition of John C. Fremont, two years before the Donner Party, and five years before the 1848–49 Gold Rush. Three other known European exploration crossings of the Sierra Nevada had previously occurred at points south of this however, including Fremont's second expedition the previous winter, at Carson Pass.
The 50-member Stephens group left near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa on May 22, 1844. They departed with a larger group of Oregon-bound settlers in a train of 40 wagons. Fifty travelers left Iowa; 52 arrived in Sacramento with the Stephens party, as there were two births along the way. Elisha Stephens was elected captain of the wagon train because he had spent several years as a mountain man and beaver hunter in the Pacific Northwest. He also had skills as a blacksmith. He had worked at the Potawatomi Council Bluffs US Indian Subagency before resigning to go to California.
Dr. John Townsend, his wife Elizabeth, and her younger brother Moses Schallenberger, were also going west. A man of vision, Townsend wanted a chance at grand adventure and opportunity in California. He would become the first licensed physician in California.
The largest family group in the party was headed by Martin Murphy, Sr. His family had 23 members. As Irish Catholics, the Murphy family, along with the Martin and Sullivan families, were seeking religious, economic, and political freedoms in the West. The group included James Miller (1814–1890), an Irishman, who would marry Martin Murphy, Sr.'s third daughter and settle at Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y Las Gallinas near San Rafael.
The party was guided by mountain men Caleb Greenwood and Isaac Hitchcock. In Wyoming, Hitchcock, who had been "trapping and trading" in California in 1832, led the party west from the Big Sandy River to the Green River on a bypass of Fort Bridger that came to be known as the Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff. This bypass covered a dangerous 40 miles (64 km) without water for livestock, but shortened the common route by 85 miles (137 km) and seven days. This cutoff, later popularized in a guide book, was used heavily by miners heading to the California Gold Rush.
In the Sierra Nevada they encountered snow and on November 14, 1844, the party split. Six of the party, including Elizabeth Townsend, her servant Francis, Oliver Magnan, Ellen (or Helen) Murphy and her brothers John and Daniel, set off on horseback following the Truckee River southward with the aim of reaching Sutter Fort quickly and sending help back. They became the first Americans to set foot on the shore of Lake Tahoe on November 16 (John C. Frémont had been the first American to see it the previous February). They arrived at Sutters Fort on December 10.
The rest of the party continued until reaching Truckey's (or Truckee) Lake (now Donner Lake). Here, they left six of their eleven wagons because of difficulties getting the wagons over the pass and continued with the remaining five. At one point they had to unhitch the wagons and haul them up a cliff with makeshift pulleys while the oxen were led up through a narrow slot. On November 25 they managed to reach the top of the pass. Three men, Joseph Foster, Allan Montgomery, and Moses Schallenberger, returned to the wagons with the intent of watching over them until the snow melted. They quickly put up a cabin (later used by the Donner Party) but soon realized that it would be very difficult for them to survive the winter. On makeshift snowshoes they set out after the party ahead of them but after the first day the youngest, eighteen-year-old Moses Schallenberger realized he couldn't make it and returned to the wagons. He survived only by trapping High Sierra foxes for food.
The rest of the party after crossing the pass continued until snow made it impossible to continue with wagons on the upper Yuba River valley. They set up camp and, on December 6, 17 of the adult men continue in order to find help while the women, children, and two adult men remained in the camp. Unfortunately most of the men were enticed or coerced to fight with Captain John Sutter for Mexican California Governor Manuel Micheltorena in exchange for promises of land grants. Instead of joining them, Dennis Martin returned to the upper Yuba with supplies for the women and children. Upon learning of the plight of Moses Schallenberger, twenty-three-year-old Martin crossed the snowbound Sierra Nevada in mid-winter (February, 1845) to rescue Schallenberger at Donner Lake. Martin showed Schallenberger how to construct proper snowshoes and successfully the two recrossed the Sierras to the Central Valley.
Elisha Stephens settled in the San Jose/Cupertino area, where Stevens Creek [sic] is named for him. In 1862, he left the area, heading to Kern County in central California. He was the first non-native settler in what is today the city of Bakersfield. A state historic plaque in that city marks the approximate site of his homestead. Stephens died in Bakersfield in 1887. He was buried in Union Cemetery. His gravesite was discovered in 2009 by members of the Kern County Genealogical Society. On May 1, 2010 the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) California/Nevada Chapter in cooperation with the Kern County Historical Society (KCHS) installed a historical plaque at the gravesite of Elisha Stephens.
John Townsend was California's first licensed physician and was, for a short time in 1848, alcade or mayor of San Francisco; Townsend Street in San Francisco is named for him. He and his wife, Elizabeth, treated the victims of the 1850 cholera epidemic in San Jose until they died of it in December 1850. Elizabeth's younger brother, Moses Schallenberger, settled in Santa Clara county and died in 1909. Schallenberger Elementary School in the San José Unified School District and Schallenberger Ridge just south of Donner Lake are named for him
In 1846, Martin Murphy Sr. purchased the Rancho Ojo del Agua de la Coche. Son Martin Murphy Jr. was the founder of the city of Sunnyvale. Sons John and Daniel struck gold in the Sierras, then made a fortune selling dry goods to local miners and Native Americans. The town they established in the Sierra foothills still bears the family name of Murphys. Helen Murphy, the youngest daughter of Martin Sr., married Charles Maria Weber, the founder of the city of Stockton.
Dennis Martin also struck gold in the Sierras and purchased ranch properties from the grantees of Rancho Cañada de Raymundo and Rancho Corte de Madera which include much of the modern day back lands of Stanford University, including the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, the Ladera subdivision and the Webb Ranch. After financial misfortune and land disputes typical of the era, his lands were bought by Leland Stanford in November, 1882. Dennis Martin died in June 1890 and was buried at the St. Dennis Cemetery (Martin had built his own church) on his former property (then Stanford's). Woodside's Dennis Martin Creek is named for him.
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- Appendix to "First And Last Consul" by author John A. Hawgood, page 113 (re: Isaac Hitchcock in CA in 1832) and page 118 (re: Joseph Walker in CA in 1833).
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