I first heard about the legend of Susan’s Bluff over 40 years ago from Oliver Perondi, a fellow employee at the Nevada Department of Transportation. We were traveling east on Highway 50 a few miles east of Dayton when he pointed to a mountain off to the south and told me that it was called Susan’s Bluff. We often amused ourselves when traveling across the desert by pointing out landmarks and telling stories about them.
Ollie then related to me the story of how Susan’s Bluff got its name. The year was 1849, and a large party of pioneers was making its way across the untamed expanse of Nevada desert to California. One of the families was the O’Brien family, consisting of a father, a mother, a 12-year-old son named Mike and a 15-year-old daughter named Susan. Already, the group had narrowly escaped disaster in the Goose Creek area, near what’s now the Utah border, when a band of Indians tried to demand food and whiskey from the women and children. The men were away on a hunting trip to obtain meat for the wagon train. Young Susan showed her extreme courage when she pulled out two guns the family had hidden away and turned them on the intruders. When the Indians saw the resolve of the girl, they backed away and left the encampment without further incident.
The wagons continued along the Humboldt River and split into two groups at Lassen’s Meadows, with a few taking the cutoff to Oregon. The others, including the O’Briens, continued on to the Humboldt Sink near present-day Lovelock. From there, they crossed the dreaded Forty Mile Desert and arrived at the Carson River near Ragtown. Like most other pioneer families, the O’Briens stayed at Ragtown for a few days to rest the animals, wash the desert dust from their clothes and make preparations for the final push over the Sierras to California.
After the welcome rest, the O’Briens took the lead in the wagon train. They resumed their journey down the dusty California Trail along the Carson River toward what now is Dayton. When the party reached the Break-a-Heart Ranch, the advance wagons were attacked by Indians. The attack was so sudden, and there was no way to escape in the narrow Carson River Canyon, so the pioneers were not able to put up much of a fight. Susan O’Brien had to stand by, helpless to do anything, while the Indians killed her mother and father. Her 12-year-old brother, Mike, was brutally tomahawked. Susan was finally able to conceal herself in a trunk in one of the wagons.
It was just a matter of time. The Indians ransacked all the belongings of the immigrants. Eventually, they discovered Susan hidden in the trunk. They dragged her up the steep north slope of the canyon, badly scratching her in the brush and rocks along the way. She was held captive while the Indians gathered up all the livestock the family had brought. At the end of the day, battered Susan was given to the Indian chief. When the guards fell asleep that evening, she decided to make a desperate dash for her freedom. Unfortunately, the captors woke up and chased after her.
Susan realized she was too badly injured to escape the guards who were quickly gaining on her as she ran across the plateau above the Carson River Canyon. Determined to not be taken alive, the girl made a dash for the edge of the rocky bluff overlooking the river. With her last ounce of strength, Susan hurled herself over the cliff to be smashed to death on the rocks far below. When the other wagons in the party finally reached the scene of the tragedy, they buried Susan O’Brien and the other victims of the massacre. They named the cliff where she made her final plunge “Susan’s Bluff” in her honor.
Visitors can see Susan’s Bluff by taking US 50 east of Dayton and turn right at Fort Churchill Road. It is just about seven miles to the fateful cliff along the north side of the Carson River Canyon. Fort Churchill Road is a dirt road, but it can be traveled easily with a passenger car. The scenery is spectacular through the canyon with farms and ranches along the way and large stands of the Fremont Poplars. You likely will see deer and wild horses along the way. If you have time, just a little further down the road are the ruins of Fort Churchill. This expansive adobe fort, now partially restored, was built in 1860 to protect the burgeoning immigrant population from attacks such as those described above. This is just one of hundreds of small side trips that make visits to Nevada so interesting.