Rite of Passage
Eating this coyote meat, Moses thought to himself, has to be worse than chewing on a lumberjack’s boot.
But Moses kept on chewing, because the tough, stringy meat dangling from the blade of his knife was the only thing hanging between him and death, and the foul taste which was filling his mouth was the only thing reminding him that he was still trying to breathe, sucking air through his mouth and around the foul meat because his nostrils were frozen shut; but still clinging to life as the snow piled up around him on this freezing November evening high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. So he chewed, and swallowed, then filled his mouth again and chewed some more as he watched the daylight fade and the cascade of a million snowflakes blurred into just one continuous white wall, limiting his world view to just the few feet surrounding him and his fire, until that too faded and he was left with only the small dancing flames.
This isn’t how I thought it would happen, he mused. This isn’t how I thought I would die.
Not many seventeen year old boys spend time pondering how they will die. But then, not many seventeen year old boys find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly left to face a Sierra winter, and to face it all alone, not knowing if it will last three months or eight; not knowing if the first man to pass this way in the Spring will find him, or instead by chance just come across the remains of his body.
In the year 1844 Moses Schallenberger was just a boy who was emigrating to California, making his way west with his family and neighbors in a train of wagons in what would later come to be remembered as the Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party. They are remembered in the history books primarily because they were the first party of immigrants to arrive successfully in California with covered wagons. Yet what history tends to forget is that they were also famous for abandoning a seventeen year old boy in the wilderness, leaving him to find a way to survive alone as winter descended into the mountains – or, more likely, instead leaving him to starve and freeze.
The Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party arrived at the eastern base of the Sierra late in the Autumn of 1844; later than they had planned because of a dozen delays along the way; none of which were serious but all of which resulted in them staring up at the Sierra from the East as October drew to a close instead of from the West. Scouts were sent out to try to discover an easy and quick way to cross the mountains, but no such path was to be found. Yet time was pressing, so they decided to begin the crossing on what appeared to be the least arduous route. They had barely begun when the trail led them to a Native American who was catching fish in a rocky stream that tumbled out of the narrow gorge. So they paused and talked to him – or tried to talk, but their communication ended up being mostly hand gestures, pointing, and a few words they optimistically hoped were mutually understood.
The native, whose name they understood to be Truckee, was very emphatic that they would not be able to cross the Sierra on the route they had chosen. He instead directed them farther North where they would find a passage by which they could ascend the mountains. He bid them to hurry, indicating that winter’s arrival was very close.
So the Stephen’s Party turned around and went looking for the path indicated by the helpful native. When they found the entrance next to a raging stream they wasted no time and immediately started up, naming it the Truckee Trail after the man who had guided them to the path. But the Truckee Trail soon turned into a series of zigzagging rocky declivities filled with one obstruction after another. Soon they were forced into the river itself as that offered the only way wide enough for the wagons to pass. Then they reached rock outcroppings ten feet high and more and had to lead the oxen around one at a time, then haul the wagons up by ropes. It was exhausting work, and November was entering its latter days when they reached a lake where they made camp, and they christened it Truckee Lake in memory of the helpful native whose advice had gotten them this far. There was little grass to be found for the livestock this late in the year, but the lean, boney creatures dug along the shore for what green shoots they could find. Game, at least, was still plentiful, and the men managed to shoot a few deer for food as well as a nice fat bear. With full stomachs they went to sleep hopeful that the coming days might see them safely across and down the other side.
But that night snow fell, and the camp awoke to more than a foot of the white stuff covering the ground. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing and the Truckee Trail lay buried and hidden. They knew that the wagons were not going any farther, so each of them bundled up food and some possessions and set out on foot, hoping to finish the crossing while they could still walk through the snow. Seventeen year old Moses, along with two other men, was chosen to stay behind for the winter and guard the wagons.
As the snow continued to fall, Moses and his two companions chopped down trees and hastily built a log cabin, a small enclosure measuring about twelve feet by fourteen feet in size. They had nothing with which to fill the cracks between the logs or the spaces between the roof poles, so they piled brush on top and along the sides. They also built a stone hearth with a chimney made of thick limbs going up one side. The cabin had no windows; just one low doorway for entrance and egress. But there was no door to close - just an old blanket hung across the opening to keep out the elements. They cut as much firewood as they could as the storm continued. The party had left them two oxen, which they slaughtered and butchered and hung outside to freeze. Then they settled down to wait out the winter.
The snow continued to fall without letup. Within a few days there was over ten feet of snow on the ground, and there was no end in sight. The three had quickly come to the realization that they were not going to survive the winter if they just continued to sit and do nothing. The wild game, which had been so plentiful upon their arrival at the lake barely a week ago, had now completely disappeared, and the two stringy oxen were not going to feed them for long. They decided they had to get out, and get out fast.
The next morning they cut branches to fashion some makeshift snowshoes, then headed out in a westerly direction. The snow was soft and they sank several inches with each step, then had to lift their feet back up out of the snow along with several pounds of snow that would fall in on top of the snowshoes with each step. Progress was slow and painful. Not knowing how many miles they had gone that first day the men made camp, cutting branches for a fire then huddling around it in their blankets. When they awoke the next morning they saw that their still smoldering campfire had melted down through the snow and now lay on bare dirt at the bottom of a fifteen foot deep circular hole in the snow. Without cooking a breakfast, they moved on. It was still snowing.
They had just started out when Moses began to get cramps in his legs. He could soon barely take twenty steps without excruciating pain lancing through his muscles, and had to stop to rest every few minutes. After only a couple of hours of this he knew he couldn’t go on. The three men sat down in the snow to talk, and Moses volunteered to stay behind. He said that he could probably find his way back to the cabin by Truckee Lake, and he would spend the winter there while his two companions went on. The others agreed. It was a brief but emotional farewell; all of them thinking that they would never again see each other. Then they turned and went their separate ways while the snow continued to fall.
Moses was successful in finding his way back to the lake by the end of that day - which was no small feat for a boy now alone, trying to follow a trail buried in snow, and with only a few feet of visibility before him. He dug his way into the cabin, lit a fire, then he collapsed from exhaustion. When morning came he rekindled the fire and then settled down to munch on a frozen strip of ox meat as he pondered his options.
Moses knew he couldn’t survive a winter of seemingly endless snow on just the little bit of meat left to him. But he also remembered that he had several wagons parked close by. True, there was no food in any of them and they now lay buried in almost twenty feet of snow, but he realized there might be items hidden in them other than food which could prove useful. So he started digging and, when he found the wagons, he began to search through them. He brought up more blankets and thick clothing to cover the walls as well as the open doorway to keep more heat in. He brought up armloads of books to read, because he knew that most of his time was going to be spent sitting quietly with little physical activity throughout the endless snowfall of winter. And, in one wagon, he found what he thought just might get him through the winter – a set of traps that one of the party had left behind. The next morning Moses baited the traps with pieces of ox meat from the precious little that was left, then set the traps out in a circle around his camp, and he smiled to himself as he walked across part of the now frozen Truckee Lake.
Moses is walking on water.
And he laughed, startled as his own voice echoed back to him across the frozen stillness. Then he went back to the cabin to wait. The next morning he got up and at first light went out to walk his trap line. To his surprise and delight one of the traps held a coyote. He killed it, reset the trap, then went back home to feast. After he had roasted it over the fire to a nice medium rare, he blew on it and then took a bite. It was horrible – the worst thing he had ever tasted. And he knew that it must really be bad because, in his starving state, anything should taste good. Yet no seasonings of any kind – not even salt – had been found in any of the wagons. Later that day he tried frying a coyote steak, but it tasted just as bad. The next day he tried boiling it, but that didn’t help. The day after he slow-cooked what was left in a Dutch oven, but even that didn’t improve the flavor of the meat as its taste seemed to grow even more vile with each attempt at cooking it. Each morning he went out to check the trap line, hoping for some variety. But, for the next three days, the traps remained empty.
I was wrong, he mused as he chewed. I think coyote must taste more like cow dung than a lumberjack’s boot.
Then, one morning, two of the traps held foxes. Moses was ecstatic, knowing in his heart that anything was going to taste better than that damned coyote meat. Moses hung one of the foxes along the back of the cabin to freeze and butchered the other, then cut a leg from the carcass and roasted it over his fire. The aroma of the roasting meat drove his stomach into a frenzy of noisy anticipation, and he could hardly wait until the meat was warmed through. Then he took his first bite, and smiled. It was delicious.
As the days passed the trap line continued to yield a steady supply of food. Coyotes and foxes, it seemed, were the only two local animals which didn’t migrate or hibernate in this part of the high Sierra at Truckee Lake, and Moses found himself living on a diet of fox, which continued to taste delicious no matter how much he ate. Fortunately, those tasty foxes comprised most of what he caught in his traps. When he did trap a coyote he would keep it in the event of wild game again becoming suddenly scarce, hanging it and letting it freeze along the back wall of the cabin; a supply of emergency meat if winter eventually drove all the game away and into hiding.
As December passed, Moses kept count of the days and celebrated Christmas all by himself. In one of the wagons he had found a small folded paper with a few spoons of coffee grounds inside, and he had saved that as a Christmas present for himself. On Christmas Day the aroma of coffee boiling in a pot joined that of roasted fox, and the cabin was host to a happy and warm Christmas.
As December passed into January, Moses continued in his solitary existence. It was easy for him to believe that he was the only person in the world; a world which he shared only with foxes and coyotes, spied on by the occasional crow flying overhead. Firewood was plentiful, as all Moses had to do was snap off tree limbs to keep his fire fed. His cabin now lay totally buried in snow – except for the tunnel he had dug – and the insulation the snow offered helped to keep him and his shelves of books warm.
January turned into February, and still the snow continued to fall. But wherever the foxes had hidden their dens they still managed to come out and up to the surface, enticed by the small pieces of meat in Moses’ traps. After walking his trap line every morning and starting a pot of meat cooking, most of Moses’ day was then spent reading. There were dozens of books in the wagons, enough to keep him entertained and educated for months.
It was at the end of February that Moses suddenly felt he was hallucinating; that the winter had finally gotten to him and driven him mad. He was out walking his trap line when he glanced up and swore that he could see the figure of a man walking out of the trees along the shore of the lake. Moses blinked, then rubbed his eyes and blinked some more. But the man was still there; still walking toward him. And when the man shouted and waved, Moses knew that he wasn’t alone in the world any more. It was the twenty-eighth of February, 1845, and Moses’ winter of isolation had ended.
For many months Moses’ sister had been begging members of the Stephen’s Party to return to Truckee Lake to rescue her brother, and for months her entreaties had been refused. No one wanted to return to face the mountain winter on foot, and all had felt that Moses had probably passed on to the next world very quickly after he’d last been seen to walk off into the snowy wilderness. But finally Moses’ sister had been able to cajole, or to shame, one man into going back to save Moses if he could, or to discover Moses’ fate if he couldn’t. When that man finally got to the lake, he was surprised to find Moses very much alive and not at all in need of saving. So after catching up on news over a meal of roasted fox he helped Moses construct some new snowshoes and together they walked out of the mountains. Moses left behind a string of eleven uneaten coyotes hanging outside on the wall of his cabin, forever grateful that he wouldn’t be forced to taste that meat ever again.
A few years later another party of immigrants got stuck at that same lake when winter fell, and they didn’t do nearly as well as that seventeen year old boy. Instead of taking the initiative to save themselves they instead sat down and waited to be saved. They starved, and they ate each other, and the lake got renamed in their memory, forever becoming Donner Lake - now a lasting memory of an epic failure instead of a tribute to a helpful native called Truckee. But in that winter of 1844 – 45 a young boy not only survived there alone by his own wits but he thrived, ending his winter in the mountains with more food than he started it with. He began that winter as a seventeen year old boy, and ended it as an eighteen year old man.
It was a Rite of Passage; a test which few men of any age or experience could pass. Moses did so with determination and intelligence, a passage through the mountains and into manhood.
Pause, if you will, and take a few moments out of your busy schedule to accept an introduction to a colorful individual named Smokey Jack. He’s not the main topic of this story, but meeting him will serve as an interesting path to the real subject of this tale, and that in turn will eventually lead us to the final destination of discovering how a 7,818 foot mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains got its name. Smokey Jack was not the man’s real name, of course, but an acronym settled upon his colorful personage by those who repeatedly chanced upon him over the years as he tended his flock of sheep in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This was just one of many acronyms which were tossed about, which included not only Smokey Jack because of his countless hours spent alongside a campfire, but also Baked Bean Johnnie because of his limited diet, and the inevitable Sheepshit Jack because of his years spent trailing along behind his herd of sheep and plodding through the byproducts of his profession. Unusually – at least in the case of mountain men – the gentler nickname of Smokey Jack was kindly settled upon as the more commonly used phrase to reference him.
Smokey Jack was a loner, yet cheerful in the company of his sheep. As he roamed through the mountains, camping for a week or two at one meadow before guiding his animals on to the next, he survived almost entirely on a diet of beans, slowly baked in his cast iron Dutch oven over a campfire and seasoned with mountain herbs he would pick along his walks. Rarely would there be any meat to add to the pot – Smokey Jack was a shepherd, not a hunter. Jack would begin each day with a bowl of beans, and after he had eaten his fill he would then proceed to stuff the pockets of his greatcoat with them, taking large handfuls from the pot and simply dumping them into the various pockets until they were full to overflowing, which he would them dip into and eat along the way, all day long. As evening fell he would again sit by the campfire and eat more beans, and the next day begin the same routine all over again; the Happy Shepherd with the pockets full of beans. As the days, months, and years passed without Smokey Jack ever changing his clothing, his pants and shirt as well as the greatcoat inevitably became soaked through with bean juice. The thick liquid also dripped down onto his socks and into his boots, which also became saturated with the stuff. But becoming saturated with beans did not, as one might imagine, destroy Jack’s clothing. Instead as it seeped into the cloth it made the fabric thicker and stiffer as it hardened. It also became more compact as Jack sat and laid on it, building upon the cloth and eventually burying the fabric within a sort of bean sandwich. As Jack walked through the hills and the valleys, pieces of the mountains and the meadows began to stick to him. When parts of his wardrobe upon which the beans had not quite completely dried brushed against a tree or shrub, then a leaf or twig would attach itself and become a part of Jack’s outfit. When Jack laid or sat down, then an insect body or dead animal part might become likewise affixed to his wardrobe, as would small stones. Butterflies and bees which flew into him were destined to remain forever. Eventually almost all of Smokey Jack’s original clothing and footwear lay hidden within layers of an impressive collection of botanical and biological specimens, all held in place by an ever-thickening layer of increasingly aged baked beans. With a large fur hat on his head, an impressive crop of facial hair, and a long wooden staff held in the hand that wasn’t being used to feed gobs of beans into his mouth, Jack might rightfully be construed to be someone in whom more than a passing interest would be taken.
Yet Smokey Jack continued to walk through life in the company of his sheep, blissfully unaware of any discomfort to himself or any perception of being slightly strange in the eyes of others. And yet, when Smokey Jack did happen to venture near towns or mining camps – such as on his annual pilgrimages to and from the mountain meadows in the spring and summer, or when he was taking shelter from the winter snow in one of the relatively civilized wooden structures of a mining town – then he was indeed looked upon with wonder. And sometimes with horror. For the mining camps and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada were filled with immigrants from all over the world, and those new arrivals had brought along with them many of their traditions and much of their folklore. One of those traditions from the Germanic areas of Europe was that of the Habergeiss, which told of a giant goat-demon with snapping jaws and who was clothed in animal hides; a demon who could steal one’s soul as it menacingly approached and gazed into your eyes, jaws moving and teeth grinding; a salivating soul-devourer risen from out of the shadows. So when Smokey Jack walked out of a snow storm on a windy moonless night and pounded on the door of some unfortunate miner who had recently arrived from Germany, then that unlucky fellow might well be excused for having a wardrobe accident of his own as his bladder let loose and he screamed in fright at the sight of this Habergeiss, this demon who had followed him halfway around the world and was here to lay claim to his soul.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Smokey Jack is not the real topic of this story. He’s more of an introduction, useful in illustrating the fact that many of the immigrants to California in the mid-1800’s; many of the miners, loggers, and trappers who made up most of the population of these mountains, may have been Californians in the physical sense but were still rooted in Old Country ways as far as their culture, traditions, and patterns of thinking were concerned. And it was those deeply ingrained ways of thinking that helped to shape their reality.
Jacob Bockweiss was a German immigrant who lived near the town of Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although he had started life in California by panning for gold, he soon tired of the backbreaking work and decided to trade in his pan and long-tom for a good rifle and a set of traps. He was an excellent shot, and providing food for the camps proved to be easier work than competing for the elusive yellow flakes with thousands of other men. He could sell the meat in town, send some of the pelts to sell in San Francisco, and still have enough leisure time to barter for a native wife and start a family – which he did. Jacob’s wife was named Sally – at least, that’s what he called her. Her real name and tribal affiliation are unfortunately forever lost. Jacob was one of many men in California who boasted German ancestry, and he was one of many first-generation immigrants who still held German culture and tradition fresh in their minds and hearts. It was one such aspect of this Germanic folklore – the Anklopfnachte - which inadvertently led to the naming of a mountain, but naming it not quite in the way which one might expect.
The German tradition of Anklopfnachte, or Knocking Nights, has in modern times lost its historic affiliation of mingling with The Dead and has instead evolved into a passive musical visitation akin to Christmas caroling. But in the mid-1800’s the tradition of Knocking Nights was still frightening in its Other-Worldly elements which it held over from centuries past. The Knocking Nights tradition dictated that the door to another world could open and allow a group of masked, caped demons through who would quietly approach a house or a farm, creeping silently toward the place where animals were kept, then knock loudly on a barn door or corral fence. The sudden noise in the middle of the night would startle the animals and they would vocalize their fear. And, if one listened closely, within these frightening squeals could be heard the names of people in the house or in the village; not just any people, but the names of those who were fated to die within the coming year, their fates foretold by the masked demons and given voice through the animals.
And so, late on the night of the Fifth Day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, there came a group of darkly cloaked and masked men to the cabin of Jacob and Sally Bockweiss; a group of his friends; a group of fellow German immigrants out in the night to play a joke on their German compatriot. They knocked and ran, waking the animals into an uneasy clamor as the masked men made their way off down the road laughing, still visible in the night as Jacob and Sally went out to see what was causing the disturbance. Upon seeing the backs of the retreating men and remembering what night it was, Jacob chuckled and went to settle the animals. But Sally was unfamiliar with the tradition, so after quieting the stock Jacob sat down by the fire to laughingly explain it to her. But Jacob was shocked when, instead of seeing his wife laugh at the prank as he expected, a look of horror fell across Sally’s face. When Jacob asked what was wrong, Sally began to shake and whispered that upon entering the yard she had heard the pigs squealing her name.
Jacob laughed and tried to ease her fears, saying that those weren’t real demons but just their neighbors out to play a joke; that animals could not foretell death; that Sally’s name had not been spoken by the pigs. But Sally would not be persuaded. She insisted that she had heard her name called; that her death had been foretold. And she asked Jacob to take her away from there; anywhere would be better as long as it was far away from the demons who had come calling; away from the pigs which had spoken her name. Jacob, of course, refused. He told her not to be silly. He said this was their home, this was where they made their living. Sally said they could make a living hunting and trapping anywhere; that they could live happily anywhere. Jacob refused. Sally begged him, pleading that she wanted their baby to be born away from this place; that she was afraid the baby wouldn’t be born at all if they stayed because she would die first. Jacob refused.
The holiday season passed and winter settled hard into the mountains. Most of the game had either migrated to lower elevations or was in hibernation, so Jacob was spending most of his time in the cabin with Sally, who never gave up in her pleading with Jacob to take her away. By the time Spring arrived Sally’s baby bump was large, and her pleas to leave became desperate. She could no longer sleep, as each night she awoke hearing the pigs squeal her name. “Sally. Sally.” And each night her sharp intake of breath as she sat bolt upright would also wake Jacob.
Finally, Jacob agreed to leave the town behind, and asked Sally where she wished to go. She immediately replied that farther up into the mountains would be best; away from people and domestic animals. So in May Jacob acquiesced and they departed, heading first in a southerly direction until the remaining snow no longer lay in their path, then higher up into the mountains. By June they were in what is now the Sierra National Forest, and the highest mountain they could see is now called Shuteye Peak. In the shadow of a smaller peak standing directly over them they set up a permanent camp, as Sally’s pains were growing sharp and frequent, and they knew the birth was quickly approaching. On the second day after making camp Sally went into labor. Jacob did his best to help her, laying her on a soft bed of animal skins and bathing her face in cold water. He later told friends that the only time he broke out in an uneasy sweat was when Sally would utter a sharp scream that would then echo off the rocks and through the ravines, as if other women were lurking out there repeating her call. At such times his own perspiration would become a cold blanket and send chills down his spine. On the third day in camp Sally finally gave birth. She had been in labor for more than twenty-four hours and was exhausted from the delivery as well as from the loss of blood; blood which continued to drain out of her after the birth was over. Jacob gave the baby a quick rub with a towel, then wrapped it in fur and laid the little girl in her mother’s arms. Sally moved the baby to her breast, and smiled happily up at Jacob as her tiny daughter attached her mouth and tried to suck.
Then Sally died.
Jacob buried Sally and her little baby girl there at the base of the peak under which she had given birth; Sally on her back with the baby still at her breast, both of them wrapped in soft, warm fur. He marked the grave with a cairn of stones and broke camp, his heart aching at leaving his family, but not able to make himself stay any longer there next to the grave. He said his goodbye, then looked up at the peak standing above and asked the spirit of the mountain to watch over them. And as he gazed up at the peak its shape brought to mind the image of Sally’s breast as he’d laid the baby on it, so he named the mountain Squaw Nipple Peak.
A romantic man? – Most definitely. An eloquent man? – Perhaps not so much.
Jacob left the high country and returned for a while to his cabin near Coloma, then moved onward from town and from history after leaving one name on a map.
The peak continued to carry that name on maps through the end of the 1800’s. But by the turn of the century the name was getting abbreviated to Squaw Peak, and as the 1900’s took hold it underwent another change to Squaw Dome, the name it still carries to this day. Sally and her unnamed baby still lie somewhere beneath, the cairn of stone having long vanished.
The naming of a place can be a strange thing, sometimes reflecting the spirit of that place, or sometimes instead instilling a spirit within it. Sally’s spirit of feeding her newborn daughter, the last act of a new mother as she lay dying, was gifted upon that mountain by her husband and then changed years later, perhaps out of deference to political correctness, or more likely due to anatomical prudishness.
For map makers, ‘Squaw’ is apparently perfectly acceptable, while ‘nipple’ remains offensive.
Smokey Jack, or Squaw Nipple Peak. It’s all in the name.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
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