While meandering through some old magazines from a second hand store in Valley Springs, California, I came across an issue of Real West Magazine. This was published back in 1963, so the stories within the publication are very old, forgotten and for the most part, unknown. Noticing how rare this issue was, I decided to purchase it for possible inspiration into later investigations. At home, as I flipped through the pages of this historical find, I stumbled upon a small article towards the back titled, "Story of Susan's Bluff." I immediately was pulled in.
The story in the magazine tells the tale of a young lady, Susan O'Brien, (allegedly about 15 years old) who was traveling with her family in a wagon train headed west in 1849. According to the story, the party "possessed 40 wagons and 50 head of cattle," meaning it was a big wagon train, with a lot of people.
At some point the party decided to make camp at Goose Creek. The men all went out to hunt for food, while the women and children were left behind with the wagons. As the saying goes, "when the cat's away, the mice will play," and so a group of natives came into the camp, knowing the women were basically defenseless. Once in camp, they began demanding food and whiskey. Although their demands were met, Susan allegedly picked up two guns that were packed in the wagon, and pointed them at the natives, making her own demand that they leave.
Although they did leave, this story was far from over for Susan.
As the party proceeded onward, they moved along the Humboldt River, which follows along where present day Hwy 80 runs. By the time they reached Lassen's Meadows, some of the party split up. One group decided to go north towards Oregon, while a smaller group of others were determined to head in a south-westerly direction crossing the "Forty-Mile Desert." Eventually, the smaller wagon train approached the Carson River, and planned on following that all the way to California.
In the smaller group that was headed westward, the O'Brien family, which consisted of Susan's father, mother, her teenage brother, Michael and herself, were in the advance of the other wagons, trail blazing ahead along the river.
By the time they reached the canyon area, where the present day Lahontan Dam is now located, the O'Brien's wagon was attacked. It was more than likely the same natives who had been to their camp demanding food and whiskey, which I believe their intent for that incident was sizing up who was there, and what supplies they had to come back later and take.
The O'Brien family, being ahead of their party and thus isolated, were now surrounded and unable to defend themselves. The natives proceeded to attack the wagon, brutally murdering the entire family, including hacking Susan's brother to death with their weapons. Susan allegedly had hid in a trunk within the wagon itself, and only once the natives had started rummaging through the belongings to take what they could, did they discover her.
As the story goes, the natives kidnapped her and held her in a cave while they rustled up all the cattle that the O'Brien's had with them. Then allegedly, they gave her to their Chief. Waiting until the cover of darkness, she supposedly makes her escape, but while attempting her getaway, she is caught once again by the natives. Refusing to be taken alive, Susan does the unthinkable and literally jumps off the top of the cliff side where she had been held against her will, and falls to her death into the rocky ravine below. Later the party that was traveling behind, eventually caught up to the ghastly site, where they discovered the bodies of the O'Brien family, and yes, Susan's mutilated corpse at the bottom of the cliffside.
Of course, the story sounds tragic and a bit romanticized, doesn't it?
Well, I had a lot of questions being that some of the story seems impossible to know exact details to, since the only other people who could have known what happened would have been the murderers themselves, those among the native tribe who slaughtered the O'Brien family.
I was determined to find some answers so I kept digging.
According to research done by a Nevada columnist for the Fernley Leader, Ms. Laura Tennant, she interviewed a member of the local Paiute tribe, who stated that their people had their own version of the tale. According to Curtis Hamar, the story about Susan that has been passed down for over 150 years was mostly correct, although Susan's demise came in a different way.
Supposedly, she was taken to be held for ransom in order to obtain guns from the approaching party. While being held at the top of the cliff where the natives had their women cooking, Susan allegedly got into a fight with one of the Indian women. Wanting to be released, she picked up one of the grinding stones used to prepare meals with, and allegedly chucked it over the cliff. This upset on of the Indian women so much she proceeded to attack Susan, ultimately pushing her over the edge and killing her.
Now, that is certainly a different version of the story, isn't it? Either way, both versions end badly, and ultimately Susan dies in each telling.
So is that why the area is known today as Susan's Bluff? I decided to look a little further into the story and the pieces of the puzzle started to fit a little better.
According to page 217 of the "Third Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, 1911-1912," the story gets a little more clear.
The publication states, "Susan's Bluff is located about 14 miles below Dayton, opposite Clifton. At its foot are the graves of three emigrants with a sunken wagon tire at the head of each grave. The name of one of the emigrants was Susan, hence the name of the bluff."
Very little is known about the O'Brien family and where they came from. We do not even know the names of the parents, only the children, which is also a bit odd to me.
Do I believe that this story happened? Yes. However, I am on the fence about which version I believe, or if the truth of this tragedy can be found somewhere in the middle. In many cases, unless we have concrete primary sources from eye witnesses that were there at the time this took place, everything we believe is just conjecture.
One thing we do know for a fact is that a girl or woman named Susan and "others" were found dead at the bottom of that cliff, and they were buried there by the passing wagon train.
I have to thank those who came before me, who were also interested in this story, so much so, that they trekked up Fort Churchill Road to take in the site of what is known today as Susan's Bluff, and then wrote what they knew about the story to keep Susan's story alive.
Although her story is not as widely known as the stories of the Donner Party, Kit Carson or the tales of Joaquin Murietta, this tragedy is not any less important.
One spring or summer day in the high desert terrain near present day Dayton, Nevada, in 1849, a family of settlers looking for a better life were attacked, and their lives were stripped from them.
Whether Susan was kidnapped and committed suicide, leaping to her death to escape what awaited her, or she was thrown from the cliff -- she died. The bodies of those victims are buried there at the bottom of the cliff, literally forgotten in time. There are no burial markers for them, no monuments, no headstones, nothing.
There are also no photographs of them to remember them by. All we have is the story. I believe that by reading this story, and sharing it with others, we will not only honor Susan and her family, but we also honor all the settlers who lay forgotten in unmarked graves across the western lands. People who came searching for a better life, a life they would never get to experience.
(Copyright 2022 - J'aime Rubio, www.jaimerubiowriter.com)
"Real West Magazine," Volume 6, No.30, July 1963
"Third Biennial Report of the Nevada Historical Society, 1911-1912," published 1913
"The Marker," (newsletter) by Trails West, Inc., published Fall 2011