It was long after dark when we got to Johnson’s Ranch, so the first time I saw it was early in the morning. The weather was fine, the ground was covered with green grass, the birds were singing from the tops of trees, and the journey was over. I could scarcely believe that I was alive.
The scene I saw that morning seems to be photographed on my mind. Most of the incidents are gone from memory, but I can always see the camp near Johnson’s Ranch.
~John Breen, April 24, 1847
John Breen wrote this letter once he had crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the foothills of California as a member of the emigrant group now known as the Donner Party.
Out of the 87 members of this doomed party only 48 survived. Most of the 48 survivors where women and children. Breen and his family were lucky. All of their family members survived.
It is unclear where Breen wrote this well known letter but is was either at Sutter’s Fort (in present day Sacramento) or at Johnson’s Ranch (near Wheatland).
Johnson’s Ranch was the first settlement the emigrants encounter once they entered California on the California Trail. They often paused here after the grueling passage over Donner Summit before heading down to Sutter’s Fort in present day Sacramento. They would camp near the banks of the Bear River.
Once the Breens came into California at Johnson’s Ranch and then Sutter’s Fort, they relocated to the mission town of San Juan Bautista.
Johnson’s Ranch was a Mexican Land Grant that eventually ended up in the hands of Willian Johnson. In 1846 be built a humble adobe house that became known as Johnson’s Rancho.
During the winter of 1847, the seven surviving members of the Forlorn Hope staggered into Johnson’s Ranch. They were a party that set out from Truckee Lake in order to get help for the ill fated Donner Party. The party got lost and of the 17, only seven made it to the ranch. The survivors that made it to included it’s leader William Eddy, and sisters Sarah Fosdick, and Mary Ann Graves.
All of the relief parties that took the remaining survivors from the Lake and Alder Creek Camps back into California, staged and departed from Johnson’s Ranch.
Today the town of Wheatland is near the location of the ranch. Nothing remains of the original ranch. Just California Registered Historical Landmark No. 493. The plaque sits in the town’s park near the railroad tracks. It reads:
The first settlement reached in California by emigrant trains using the Emigrant (‘Donner’) Trail, this was an original part of the 1844 Don Pablo Gutiérrez land grant. It was sold at auction to William Johnson in 1845, and in 1849 part of the ranch was set aside as a government reserve-Camp Far West. In 1866, the town of Wheatland was laid out on a portion of the grant.