The unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service is “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” and there is no better example than that of John “Snowshoe” Thompson.
John Thompson was born in Norway in 1827, but his family emigrated to the United States in 1837. After moving through the Midwest, he caught Gold Rush fever and landed in Placerville, California, where he bought a ranch in 1851. Rather than panning for gold or becoming a farmer, John’s destiny led him to be one of the toughest and most famous but unappreciated postal carriers of all time.
Delivering the mail over the Sierras was nearly impossible in the winter. The first trains were nearly 20 years in the future and the treacherous passes were deadly on foot. Previous carriers had taken 16-60 days to make the 90-mile run through the mountains and many had died on the journey.
However, when the call was put out for help in 1855, John came to the rescue, using a skill left over from his childhood. When he was young, his father made him a set of “snowshoes” to get to school during the Norwegian winters. These were not the webbed snowshoes of today—they were more like modern skis—which few had ever seen before. He showed up with one steadying pole that he carried in both hands and two 10-ft. oak slabs strapped to his feet. John Thompson not only made a successful run through the Sierras with 60-80 lbs. of mail in his bag, he delivered it in just three days. His return trip only took two. He continued to make this trip at least twice a month for the next 20 years, hauling valuable supplies, medicines, love letters and more over the rugged passes of the Sierras.
Throughout his journeys, “Snowshoe” Thompson never carried more than a compass, some matches and some non-perishable food. He was unarmed and rarely stopped for food or shelter. He is thought to have rescued up to seven stranded and hurt travelers along the way and despite his heroics and dependability, he was never paid for his services. For years he was promised proper compensation by local authorities, but none was ever given because his naive faith in humanity had resulted in him not ever signing a formal contract with the U.S. Postal Service. He famously said, “If I do my job and get the mail to the people, Uncle Sam will pay me.” He was wrong.
John “Snowshoe” Thompson died in 1876 from appendicitis that became pneumonia. Monuments and statues to his memory abound and can be found along his routes through the Sierras—perhaps the most famous and fitting location being at Boreal Ski Resort on Donner Pass.
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