First Ascent

Week 26: #52 Ancestors – Legend

By Eilene Lyon

A Man on the Move

In researching my Jones relatives for the California gold rush book, I discovered a legendary figure who eventually married into the family. Elias Davidson Pierce was born in Harrison County, Virginia, in 1824. But upon reaching adulthood, he moved on and rarely slowed down.

He studied law for a time in Indiana, despite being nearly illiterate. From there he went to serve his country during the conflict with Mexico in 1848. Though he nearly died from an intestinal disease acquired down south, he rallied and crossed the continent to California with the 49ers. He was such an effective leader, he was given the honorary title of Captain.

Yreka, California, in 1851. Copied from a daguerreotype.  (California Historical Society)

From mining, he progressed to being a pack-train trader. He (with others) laid out the town of Yreka in Siskiyou County in 1851. Later that year, he was elected to the State Assembly and served one term as a representative from Shasta County.

Pierce traded with the Nez Perce Indians to bring horses to California, learning their language in the process; supervised the building of the Big Ditch in Siskiyou County; was appointed as the first sheriff of Walla Walla County, Washington, in 1859 (he declined the post); pioneered an emigrant road from Chico, California, to Owyhee, Idaho. Whew! That’s quite a laundry list.

LOC 1876 Map Walla Walla
Walla Walla in 1876. At center-left past the city limits is the Singleton farm, bounded by trees. Pierce originally held squatter’s rights on the land, but sold it prior to 1860. It is now a large chunk of downtown Walla Walla. (Library of Congress)

But this is about one of his more notable achievements: He was the first to reach the summit of Mount Shasta, in 1854. True story.

Capt. E. D. Pierce was a tall, slender man of uncommon intensity. He obsessed about fame (fortune, too, but he had no talent for that). Living in the shadow of Mount Shasta, he knew it’s history. John C. Frémont had failed to summit the peak and declared it couldn’t be done.* Oh, a challenge! Pierce was up for it.

Elias D. Pierce in 1870, age 45. Photo by W. B. Ingersoll, Oakland, CA.
A Spirited Race

The elevation of Mount Shasta is 14,179 feet (4,322 m), and it rises almost 10,000 feet (3,048 m) from the base. It’s the second tallest peak in the Cascade Range. Pierce’s narrative of his party’s treacherous journey made it into the San Francisco Daily Herald on August 28, 1854. A few excerpts:

“Believe me when I say, that each one of the party, when scaling the dizzy heights, turned deathly pale, and I assure you that most of the pale faces were of long duration.”

“The next six miles we found to be very steep and difficult to ascend; so much so, that we were obliged most of the way to proceed on all-fours. In many instances our upward course was rendered both difficult and dangerous from the fact that we were obliged to climb over loose detached rock, which was liable at any moment to start off in the shape of an avalanche, with our little party as outside passengers – a journey from which there would have been no return.”

“After a few necessary preliminaries, precisely at 12 o’clock [August 14, 1854] we unfurled the Stars and Stripes, and raised the standard to its long resting-place, amid the deafening cheers of the little multitude.”


Mt. Shasta Summit. Photo by W. A. Herrick, c. 1880s. (California Historical Society)

Despite the hazardous ascent, they managed to have a wildly good time on the way down:

“After descending some two miles, we came to a ravine of snow, and being somewhat fatigued and in a hurry to get clear of the smell of brimstone, we set sail in the following manner:

The grade being on an angle of some 75 degrees, and the top of the snow soft, we sat ourselves down on our unmentionables, feet foremost, to regulate our speed, and our walking sticks for rudders…Some unshipped their rudders before reaching the quarter, (there was no such thing as stopping), some broached to and went stern foremost, making wry faces, while others, too eager to be the first down, got up too much steam, and went end over end; while others found themselves athwart ship, and making 160 revolutions per minute. In short, it was a spirited race…”

Coasting down Mt. Shasta. Photo by W. A. Herrick, c. 1880s (California Historical Society)

You could say that Pierce was a forerunner in equal rights: He led a party of women to Shasta’s summit so they could prove their mountain-climbing mettle – in skirts!** Thus, Mary A. White, age 21, mother of two, became the first woman to summit. She reached the top at 11:00 a.m. on September 9, 1856.

Oh, and Pierce started the Idaho gold rush. The influx of miners led directly to the creation of that state, split off from Washington Territory. Also true, but that’s a story for another time.

Feature image: Mt. Shasta – Grass Lake – Siskiyou Co. Cal., by C. R. Miller, 1907. Print in collection of the California Historical Society.

*Pierce made this assertion in his memoir, but it isn’t true.

**The women actually wore bloomers, which is a combination of baggy pantaloons gathered at the ankle, combine with a slightly-below-the-knees skirt.


“First Ascent of Shasta Butte – Interesting Narrative” The Daily Herald (San Francisco), Monday, August 28, 1854, p. 2, c. 3. Online at:

“What a Portland Lady Did” The Morning Oregonian (Portland), October 5, 1888, p. 10 – via

Note: The W. A. Herrick photos, taken sometime in the 1880s, are mounted on boards and badly bowed, thus they couldn’t be scanned. They have been cropped and the lights cast glare, impacting the images I’ve used here.

30 thoughts on “First Ascent

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  1. “amid the deafening cheers of the little multitude.” I love that! It is nice to see that fun was a part of the life then. So much was a difficulty and they made it a memory.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. THAT was true freedom. And those men were fine examples of the adventurous spirit this country was built on. It’s like someone told them they had everything to lose and they were like “Yep, sign me up!”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A nice piece of history. This was a time when folks were just starting to venture into the mountains in Europe, especially anything above 10,000 ft and with snow on them. But… in this tale I have a problem believing they glissaded down a snow slope of 75 degree angle?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. While Pierce had a facility for language and storytelling, he had very little education – certainly no one ever taught him geometry! I think he heard some exaggerated claims about the slope amongst his party and inflated whatever the highest estimate was.

        Liked by 2 people

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