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 Stephens. 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.