We made a tortuous journey through the snow before we came to the headwaters of the Yuba river, where there were mules to carry us down to Johnson’s Ranch. . . . I stayed several days at the ranch, enjoying the comforts of civilization again, but I never could erase from my mind the sight of the dying people left behind at the lake. Mr. Johnson, a former merchant seaman, had built a substantial adobe building and was engaged in cattle raising on the Bear river.Mary Murphy, survivor of the Donner Party disaster
Johnson’s Ranch figures large in California history. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson camped there. The Stevens-Townsend Party, the first to bring wagons over the Sierra Nevada, traversed the ranch. The U.S. Army had an outpost there at Camp Far West. It was a resting place and river crossing for many a pioneer and forty-niner.
And most importantly, it was the gathering place for the rescue parties that set out to retrieve the remnants of the Donner Party, and the first civilized dwelling-place that received the survivors.
And yet . . . how many Californians know where Johnson’s Ranch is? Who has visited it and seen the remains of Johnson’s adobe and the ford where countless wagons crossed the Bear River? Is there a monument there? Is it a state park? Or has it faded from memory?
There is a marker along Highway 65 in Wheatland, about 20 miles north of Roseville.
The ranch itself is still in private hands. Some archeological work was done back in the 1980s by Jack and Richard Steed (see their book The Donner Party Rescue Site). They located the site of Johnson’s adobe house, the Burtis Hotel, and the river crossing. But these historic sites on the ranch are still inaccessible to the general public.
That is about to change. Writing in Trail Talk, the newsletter of the California-Nevada chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, Bill Holmes reports that he has made contact with the ranch owner and ranch manager, and they are eager to have Johnson’s Ranch recognized as the important historic site that it is. Bill Holmes was primarily interested in locating the site of Camp Far West. Although known to be located near the still extant cemetery, the actual placement of the camp was in doubt. He believes he has pinpointed the location of the camp.
Will we be able to have a look ourselves? According to Mr. Holmes, “The next step in our written plan is to create, build and install interpretive panels for each historic site plus the trail itself. ” The property owner is interested in preserving the historic points of interest and making them available to the public, with parking and maybe even a museum. It’s an exciting time for Johnson’s Ranch and I hope someday soon to be able to visit it.