He was born John Albert Tostensen in Norway in 1827. Ten years later, his parents brought him to America to farm in Illinois. In 1851, “gold fever” lured the husky, six-foot blond to California where he panned enough gold to buy a small farm in the Sacramento valley and Americanized his name to Thompson.
In 1856, the 29-year-old outdoorsman answered a Sacramento ad to deliver mail in the Sierra Nevada. On his hand-carved, 25-pound oak, 7-1/2-foot skis (then called snowshoes), using a 12-foot pole for balance, he delivered mail across Ebbetts Pass, Carson Pass or Luther Pass. Alone, he defied blizzards, avalanches, grizzly bears, and timber wolves on his two to four round trips a month—three days for the 90-mile trip west; two days to return.
Snowshoe Thompson carried out the first ore sample from Virginia City for assay in California, and the silver rush to the Comstock Lode began. He packed in during several trips, piece by piece, the printing press and type for Virginia City’s pioneer newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise.
During the winter months, Snowshoe Thompson was the only contact with the outside world for the gold and silver camp miners between Genoa, Nevada, and Placerville, California. He carried as much as 100 pounds of supplies and mail on his back and rescued lost prospectors and snowbound travelers along the way.
The response to his request to the U.S. government for payment of $6,000 for his 20 years (1856-1876) of mail delivery service was a letter of thanks.
Snowshoe Thompson died May 15, 1876, in his Diamond Valley cabin in Alpine County.
See other tributes to “a man who matched the mountains” at Carson Pass in Alpine County, and Placerville and South Lake Tahoe in El Dorado County.