Following John App’s Journey to California – Crossing the Sierras

Today, August 14, 2014, was a day to backtrack a little bit. When John App continued on his journey after his last diary entry he would have continued along the California Trail toward the Northern Mines in present day Nevada County, California (at that time it was Yuba County). His route in 1850 would have taken him over the Sierras (using close to the same trail as the Donners in 1846-47) passing just north of Donner Lake. Since two years later he married Leanna Donner this place called Donner Summit has a special significance.

 This is where the Donner Party was stranded during the winter of 1846-47 only a few miles from summiting the Sierras and preserving their lives. John would have known about the Donners’ experience… all Americans knew about it and certainly all emigrants were aware of it. I have visited several times the Donner’s campsite at Alder Creek and also the other camps near the lake. Today I was drawn back there because of the story but also because of the beauty. It is an incredibly beautiful area in the summer, but during the winter when the Donners were there I can’t imagine their thoughts. The first night it snowed three feet. Ultimately the snow depth at the camp was 23 feet. The wind blowing through the pines might sound comforting to us but I wonder what memories that sound brought back for Leanna in later years.

After the emigrants crossed the summit most of them were headed to Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento today). It was a supply depot for people arriving in California, primarily miners who needed equipment in the gold fields. It is said that merchants selling supplies to the miners made more money than the miners themselves.

John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who obtained permission from the Mexican government to make good use of thousands of acres of land in 1839. This was Mexican territory at the time. The Mexican War was in 1846-48 and in 1848 gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. John Sutter tried to suppress the news, but we all know that didn’t work out very well. By 1849 miners were flooding into California and so many of them dug the ground, cut timber, modified rivers, etc. until Sutter’s land was ruined. He was bankrupt and went back east to ask congress for some kind of restitution, but died before anything came of his plea. I bring this up because John Sutter played a major role in American culture by starting development of something that was attractive worldwide, and yet he died penniless and is buried with his wife in a Moravian cemetery in Lititz, Pennsylvania far away from where he accomplished so much. I was able to visit his gravesite in 2013 (see picture and memorial) and it was quite an experience to be the only one standing there next to one who played such a large part in the history of the American west.

John App was a pioneer (that word has a special meaning in the west) and undoubtedly knew John Sutter (Leanna and her sisters were taken in at Sutter’s Fort after their rescue from the mountains, and John App and Leanna were married in 1852 either in or near the fort). The importance of today’s travel was to retrace part of John App’s trip over the Sierras and into California in the context of the history of that trail.


Pioneer Memorial at Donner Summit

Pioneer Memorial at Donner Summit

Donner Summit

Donner Summit

John Sutter's grave

John Sutter’s grave

John Sutter memorial

John Sutter memorial

Donner Lake

Donner Lake. Just over those mountains was safety.

Donner Summit

Donner Summit

About storiesretoldblogger

I am an Elkhart, Indiana native and became interested in applying video to history when consumer video cameras were first introduced on the market in the late 1970’s. My production company, Stories Retold, specializes in preserving oral history, traditions, and values with video. Primarily interviewing individuals, I sometimes document families, and on occasion document an entire community. My niche is developing a personal relationship with clients which helps me to tell their story just the way they would like to have it told. Everyone has a story worth preserving, and I enjoy discovering interesting stories from people with whom I come into contact on a daily basis. In years to come, these videos will be priceless as they portray original stories complete with visual images and actual voices filled with all the primary material and emotion that was intended to be. I gain a strong sense of personal satisfaction with each completed project whether it involves an individual or an entire community.
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