One More River To Cross (2019)



In 1844, two years before the Donner Party, the Stevens-Murphy company left Missouri to be the first wagons into California through the Sierra Nevadas. Mostly Irish Catholics, the party sought religious freedom and education in the mission-dominated land and enjoyed a safe journey--until October, when a heavy snowstorm forced difficult decisions. The first of many for young Mary Sullivan, newlywed Sarah Montgomery, the widow Ellen Murphy, and her pregnant sister-in-law Maolisa.

When the party separates in three directions, each risks losing those they loved and faces the prospect of learning that adversity can destroy or redefine. Two women and four men go overland around Lake Tahoe, three men stay to guard the heaviest wagons--and the rest of the party, including eight women and seventeen children, huddle in a makeshift cabin at the headwaters of the Yuba River waiting for rescue . . . or their deaths.

One More River To Cross - The Numbers


0 – Number of successful wagon train attempts prior to Stephens-Murphy-Townsend; Number of lives lost in the company.
1 – First wagon train to successfully cross the Sierra Nevada; Number of men who eventually wintered alone at Stephens (Donner) Lake
2 – Babies born along the way; Women part of the horseback group
3 – Men with mountaineering experience
4 – Number of wagons reaching California in the summer of 1845
5 – Married women in the company; Single women in the company
7 –  Days cut from the route using the Truckee cutoff
8 – Women who wintered at the Yuba River
10 – Women in the company
11 – Wagons that left Missouri
12 – Approximate number of miles travelled per day
17 – Children in the party
23 – Number of “Murphys” in party
25 – Men in the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend company
50 – Number in the original party
52 – Number that arrived in California


Comparing & Contrasting The Stephens - Murphy - Townsend Party to the Donner Party

While nearly everyone has heard of the Donner Party, the history making, trail blazing survivors of the epic journey from Missouri to California aren't nearly as well known. The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party accomplished many "firsts," even though history records little about this impressive company of emigrants.

Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party
Donner Party
Mostly unknown
Widely known
History making event
Dramatic event
Little documentation
Well documented
Discovered the pass
Pass named for them
Constructed cabins for the winter
Some in the Donner Party used a cabin built by the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party
Native & foreign born
Migrating to California
Included women and children
Used ox drawn covered wagons
Followed roughly the same route
Shared the most significant challenge: snow
Middle Westerners
Caleb Greenwood (a trapper) was a member of both parties


One More River To Cross - The Map


Maps didn't tell the whole story. Besides the weather and wildlife, the terrain also posed its own challenges...
The image below, from the Donner Memorial State Park, shows how In 1844, the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party forced their wagons over what would become Donner Pass to open the California Trail.


Company Connections

While the greatest familial connection in the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Company may have been the Murphy's (numbering just less than half of the entire group), other family connections existed in the company as well.

Schallenberger Ridge
Photo: The Trust For Public Land,
The ridge is named for Moses Schallenberger, who wintered there in 1844,
two winters before the Donner Party of emigrants got trapped nearby to begin a legendary episode of pioneer hardship. 

Elizabeth Schallenberger
Sister of Moses and wife of Dr. John Townsend who became known as California's first licensed physician.
Elizabeth and John were living in San Jose at the outbreak of the 1850 cholera epidemic. Both helped treat victims until they themselves succumbed to the disease in December of 1850.

Emigrant Trail

Many markers dot the countryside throughout the areas travelled by the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend company and other emigrants headed to California beginning in the 1840's.

SMT Marker
Plaque located at 49645 Hampshire Rocks Rd, Emigrant Gap, CA 95715
Near South Yuba River
GPS: 39°18'23.9"N 120°31'03.9"W


Praise for Jane Kirkpatrick's One More River To Cross

"Jane Kirkpatrick has turned a scrap of history into a story of courageous women strong enough to meet the challenges of nature--and of men. Starting with a footnote about a group of 1844 pioneers caught in snows of the California Sierra, Kirkpatrick weaves a tale of extraordinary women (oh, and a few men too) who fight blizzards and starvation to save those they love."
Sandra DallasNew York Times bestselling author

"What an incredible journey this novel is! Without ever trivializing or sentimentalizing the harshness of the circumstances, Kirkpatrick centers her novel on the bonds of community, family, and friendship that sustained these strong, complicated women through a harrowing winter trapped in the Sierra Nevadas. There's not a false note in this book. It's moving and beautifully told, and I absolutely loved it."
Molly Gloss, award-winning author of The Jump-Off Creek and The Hearts of Horses

"I can wholeheartedly recommend the book. Jane gets the facts as right as they can be got out of the stories of the various participants in the experience of the winter of 1844-45 in the Sierra Nevada of California. Anyone can tell you what it was like--dirty and hungry and cold and lonely. Jane puts the heart-pounding, breath-taking, adrenaline-soaked feelings into the thoughts and the mouths of the people who lived the experience as real-time commentary on the events. The thoughts and words may not be exactly what those folks were thinking and feeling, but I believe in my heart they could be."
Stafford Hazelett, editor of Wagons to the Willamette

"Award-winning western writer Jane Kirkpatrick tells the remarkable story of survival of the Murphy-Stephens-Townsend Overland Party of 1845, the first to bring wagons through the Sierra Nevada into California. Unlike the great loss of life suffered by the tragic Donner Party the following year, all fifty members of the party survived, despite harrowing ordeals in mountain snows, often with nothing to eat but tree bark. As with so many of Jane's books, she tells the story of the women who are so often ignored in western histories--giving birth along the trail; enduring their own illnesses to comfort near-starving children; taking charge in emergencies, such as helping rescue a drowning man or a stranded horse; and resisting men who try to shout them down when they insist on being heard. And don't overlook Jane's acknowledgments at the end where she says she hopes this story 'might celebrate the honor of self-sacrifice, the wisdom of working together, and the power of persevering through community and faith.' This wonderful new book accomplishes this, and more."
R. Gregory Nokes, author, former editor for the Oregonian


Writer's Recollection

Jerry and I drove the trail this wagon train took through the Black Rock desert of Nevada some years before in the summer.  But this year, with record snowfall in the Sierras, we found Donner Lake still with snow in May. The cold breezes brought home the courage of these women as they tried to keep their children — and themselves alive while living with uncertainty. 


Available everywhere September 3, 2019