Everyone who can walk knows what it is like to get tenderfeet as you walk far and wide through stores and shopping malls at holiday shopping time, seeking those special gifts. 

And with the present supply chain shortages, you might be walking even more this year than in the past.

However, there once were folks in Nevada who were seeking other kinds of prizes and they knew what tenderfeet were like than most of us probably ever will. 

It’s a good story and comes from the pages of Nevada folklore in the days of Old Nevada.   

During the summer of 1849 groups of gold seekers, some large, some small, were heading to the California gold fields near Sutter’s Fort. This migration brought a lot of people into contact with the Humboldt River on lands that later became our beloved state of Nevada.

Dry, dusty conditions existed all along the way. Those who came early had some knowledge, albeit not enough, of the section that emptied into where Lovelock is today, and continued into the area between Fernley and Fallon. 

A metal plaque, Nevada Historical Marker 26 erected sometime back, notes this region was a “barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland. It was the most dreaded section of the California Emigrant Trail. If possible, it traveled at night because of the great heat.”

First traveled by the Walker-Chiles party in 1843, it nevertheless became the accepted route for countless numbers who would follow. Historians note, “here starvation for man and animals alike stalked every mile.”

Some pioneer diaries reveal it took ox-drawn covered wagons “about two days and two nights” to cross the feared Forty Mile desert.

The trail was littered with the carcasses of dead animals rotting in the sun, making the desert air very foul smelling.

But a series of thermal hot springs did exist about half way across, where thirst-crazed and sore-footed animals were occasionally known to plunge headlong into the springs, not knowing it was boiling water, and getting scalded to death. Many emigrant families later learned to use these hot springs to their own advantage, but that is another story in itself.

In 1850, an emigrant by the name of “Pop” Haver came to one of the hot springs.

He and his team of oxen barely made it and he decided to rest a spell, let the animals recover and regain their strength for the next leg of the journey to California, up and over the daunting Sierra Nevada mountains.

But as is told, just as Haver himself was getting ready to move out, a party of gold seekers arrived in a big rush to push on, and get over the Sierra’s, “before all the mines were exhausted.”

So eager were they to get going, they offered to swap “Pop” their 70-head of sore-footed oxen, five wagons and their spare goods for the 22-head of trail-ready stock he had.

This just might have been an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he agreed and then, for himself, planned to spend the winter right where he was. 

“Pop” made four such transactions during that winter and by the spring of 1851 he had amassed over 200 head of stock, 20 wagons and more property than he could haul or know what to do with. 

It is likely he was able to buy feed for the animals at Truckee and haul it back to his place. 

The camp became a fixture along the Humboldt Trail and soon earned the name “Tenderfoot Station.”

Here, under “Pop” Haver’s care, tender footed animals were traded for fresh oxen to make the final trip over the Sierra’s to California.

Historians say that as new caravans approached the hot springs, the question was often asked by those waiting for them, “I wonder how many tenderfeet in that outfit?”

The word was first applied to trail-weary oxen and then to the inexperienced travelers in the frontier west.

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1995) notes that the word “Tenderfoot” is of American origin from the mid-1800s. 

Undoubtedly, it sprang out of the once heavily traveled alkali flats along present day U.S. Highway 95 and Interstate 80.  It is another of the many colorful stories to be found when you go in search of Old Nevada. 

(adapted from a story by Harold’s Club, 1948, and author Jim French of Winnemucca)