Elisha Stevens - Blazed The Trail to California
A classic frontiersman, Elisha Stephens was the first to guide a wagon train safely
over the treacherous Sierra Nevada mountains, opening Northern California to
overland migration. Born in South Carolina in 1804, he worked as a fur trader
and trapper in the mountains of Georgia, and then became a skilled black-
smith while working for the Indian agency in Iowa. Always seeking adventure,
in 1844 he joined the Townsend and Murphy wagon train bound for
California. Stephens’ self-confidence and wilderness skills quickly earned him
the role of the train’s leader. Against unbelievable odds he led all fifty weary
adults and two infants across the dangerous snow-blown Sierra Nevada summit,
the first wagon train ever to transit the continent directly into California. The
trail Stephens blazed became one of the three major branches of the Overland
Emigrant Trail to California. Even then, the trail remained treacherous, as the
ill-fated Donner Party discovered a few years later.

On arrival in California, he was conscripted by Captain John Sutter to serve in several military
campaigns. He then became a farmer and trapper near San Jose, until the area became “too crowded” for the solitary, eccentric and taciturn Stevens. He moved to the more remote Kern River Valley, near what was to become the city of Bakersfield. He was one of the first white settlers, preceding Colonel Thomas Baker, the city’s founder. He and Baker became good friends, and Baker’s son wrote an early biographical sketch of Stephens.

When Stephens died in Bakersfield in 1887, his exploits were known to few outside his family. For
many years he lay in an unmarked grave in Historic Union Cemetery, until local historians found the
location of his remains in 2009 (space 345-7). Today he is rightly regarded as a national hero and one of the great pioneers of California and the West.