Jon Torsteinson Rue came to America with his family from Tinn, Telemark, in 1837 when he was 10 years old. Jon moved in with his brother in Wisconsin in his early 20's, and was 24 when he drove a herd of milk cows to California and settled in Placerville. This was during the Gold Rush, and Jon was able to make enough panning for gold to buy a small piece of land in the Sacramento Valley.
In the fall of 1855, "John Thompson" saw an ad in the Sacramento Union : "People Lost to the World; Uncle Sam Needs a Mail Carrier." He had had personal experience with mail deprivation, having once received long delayed news of a flu epidemic which claimed his mother's life, and quickly applied for the job.
Thompson crafted a set of oak skis that were 10 feet long and weighed 25 pounds. A crowd formed in Placerville for his first mail run in January, 1856 and one voice in the crowd called out: "Good luck, Snowshoe Thompson!" His first run was a success, and the name "Snowshoe Thompson" stuck. For twenty years, as often as once a week, Snowshoe Thompson made the 90-mile mail run from Placerville, California to Genoa, Nevada. He wore a Mackinaw jacket, a wide rimmed hat, and painted his face with charcoal to prevent snow blindness. He carried matches to start a fire and his Bible, but despite all the wildlife along the way he did not carry a gun for protection.
Thompson didn't only bring back the mail, but also supplies ordered by local residents. In 1859 Thompson brought the first sample from the Comstock Lode to Sacramento for assaying. It proved to be silver, and because of the influx of miners he added Virginia City to his mail route. Despite his faithful service, Snowshoe Thompson was never paid for his services delivering the United States Mail.
Dan de Quille of the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise later wrote of Thompson: "He flew down the mountainside. He did not ride astride his pole or drag it to one side as was the practice of other snowshoers, but held it horizontally before him after the manner of a tightrope walker. His appearance was graceful, swaying his balance pole to one side and the other in the manner that a soaring eagle dips its wings."
Snowshoe Thompson died of appendicitis which turned into pneumonia on May 15, 1876. His wife Agnes remarried, but in 1885 had a marble stone erected on Snowshoe's grave, engraved with a pair of crossed skis and the phrase "Gone but not forgotten." Later, a plaque was added that reads
We salute John “Snowshoe” Thompson
On his homemade snowshoes John carried the mail and supplies over the snowy Sierras for 20 winters.
As he traveled, 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-acre ranch in Diamond Valley.
Respected by all who knew him, John was elected to the Alpine County Board of Supervisors.
The Genoa postmaster S.A.Kinsey said: "Most remarkable man I ever knew, that Snowshoe Thompson. He must be made of iron. Besides, he never thinks of himself, but he'd give his last breath for anyone else - even a total stranger." The few times Thompson had thought of putting an end to his legendary Snowshoe Express, he continued just for the look on the faces of the people living in isolation. Hundreds of thousands from all parts of the globe emigrated to California in search of gold, but few left such a heartfelt mark on the Golden State's history as John A. "Snowshoe" Thompson.
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