By: Irene Davis Heritage Member
John “Snowshoe” Thompson
Some people thing that John “Snowshoe” Thompson’s
life is just as much legend as fact. Could one person
have been so many things- powerful, determined, brave,
steady, generous, athletic, skilled with his hands,
and handsome? Read on to find out.
Jon Torteinsen Rue was born in Telemark, Norway in
1827 and was destined to be an extraordinary human
being. Jon’s boyhood was happy, but by the time he
turned ten, his father, Thor, had died, him mom
married a guy named Thom Thompson, and the new family
was on the way to farm in the American prairies.
Jon never forgot his love for Norway’s mountains. He
promised himself that he would visit the American
mountains as soon as he was of age and his help was no
longer needed on the farm. But the years passed, the
family grew from three kids to five, and Thom moved
them all from one new farm to another. Jon was now
needed more than ever.
It took all of Jon’s might to keep him from joining
gold seekers, heading west in 1849. Not until his
mother gave him her blessing to follow his dream, did
he leave home. He took the Americanized name of “John
A. Thompson” in honor of his now beloved step-father.
The 6” tall 24-year-old rode on horseback all the way
from Missouri to California.
John hadn’t really thought about mail delivery until
he wanted to tell his family about his travels and
wanted to hear what was going on back home.
Everywhere along the western trails people searched
for someone to carry or deliver their letters. He
even found a letter in the crotch of a tree addressed
to “Ezra Green.”
John carried that letter with him from camp to camp,
and never finding Ezra, but learning something about
himself. He wanted to find gold to build a different
life, while other miners wanted to build lives around
finding gold. One day, John saved a young gold seeker
from drowning. The boy had been a partner of Ezra
Green, but the letter arrived too late, Ezera was
John left mining and returned to farming, this time
in California’s Sacramento Valley. The high Sierra
Nevada Mountains nearby called him. There,
snowshoeing reminded him of life in Norway. It also
taught him that he liked farming no more that he was
in the Midwest.
When a letter arrived with news of his mom’s death,
John thought about how he had failed to prove himself
to her since leaving home. In front of him was an ad
in a newspaper for a mail carrier who could snowshoe.
Could this be his chance?
Very few people hiking across the Sierra Nevada
Mountains in winter had lived to tell about it. John
knew that ordinary snow shoes were no good under
certain snow conditions. But the “snow skates” of
Norway were different.
The determined Norwegian immigrant carved wooden
runners out of oak planks, attached straps for his
feet, and headed to the mountains to try them out.
Weighing 12 pounds each, John’s runners were hard to
control. Hour by hour, day by day, he practiced until
his bones ached. But he learned how to slow down,
stop, pick up speed, climb hills, take corners, and
maneuver with a single hand-helped pole.
News of snowshoes he called “skies (shees)” spread
fast. John was hired to carry the mail 90 miles from
Placerville, CA to Carson Valley, Utah Territory.
John’s first run took longer than he had originally
thought. The 80 pound mail sack slowed him down. A
blizzard and sub-zero cold nearly froze him. In
crossing an ice bridge, he plummeted into a canyon and
had to crawl his way back to the ridge. All night
near the mountain peaks, he did a “halling folk
dance“, afraid to sleep and never wake up. But once
over the peaks, John’s skies whizzed him down to his
destination. There, the amazed and grateful residents
named his “Snowshoe Thompson.”
Snowshoe’s reputation grew on both sides of the
Sierra Nevada’s as he performed daring feats, year
after year. He learned to jump on his skis to make
better time, was said to reach speeds of 55 mph, and
with no compass, came to know the mountain slopes like
the fields of his farm.
In 20 years, Snowshoe rescued person after person
from the winter mountains, carried supplies from one
town to another, delivered to Sacramento the first
lumps of silver ore from Comstock Lode, and survived
the area’s first deadly battle with Paiute Indians.
He saw the arrival of the Pony Express, the first
transcontinental train, and other Norwegians on skis.
He is said to have raced for sport & jumped a record
180 feet. Everyone agreed that he died far too young.
It was illness and not the mountains that took him at
the age of 49. He was outlived by a wife, and a
Today, monuments to him stand, ski races are held in
his name, and the humble and amazing
Norwegian-American pioneer will remain in America’s
memory for a very long time!
Research for this article came from the Viking for
Kids magazine. After reading it, I had to share this
with everyone! I found it so interesting, and made me
more proud of my Norwegian heritage!