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Peter Lassen

Early Life

Terms and Vocabulary:
One of Honey Lake Valley's first residents was Peter Lassen. He was born to Lars Nielsen and his wife Johanne Sophie in Farum, Denmark, on October 31, 1800. It was the Danish custom to have a last name based on his father's first name. He was named Peter Larsen (Lars' son). His father was a farm laborer and his family was poor. He had many brothers and sisters, several who died in their early childhood years.
This map shows the distance between Denmark and Lassen County
A map showing the distance between Denmark and Lassen County
The red box on this map shows the area of Denmark where Farum is located
A map with a red box just above Copenhagen Denmark
This is a close up of the area shown above in the red box. Farum is at the bottom of the map.
A map of Farum Denmark

Peter probably did not go to school because it was not common for poor children to do so. However, his mother's father, his namesake was a schoolteacher and probably taught Peter elementary skills.

When Peter was 17, he moved to his uncle's home in Kalundborg. Here he learned to be a blacksmith. When he was 23, Peter Larsen finished this education. Seeking a better fortune, Peter moved to Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. This blue-eyed, brown haired Dane was reported to be 5 feet 2 ½ inches.

A portrait of a man

History at that time reports Copenhagen as a dirty and noisy city with garbage and wastewater in the gutters and poor housing. There were no alarm clocks so working people had strings tied around their wrists and hung out the window. When it was time to get up, a night watchman would walk along the streets pulling the strings hanging out of the windows. Sometimes pranksters would pull the strings in the middle of the night. Life in Copenhagen is not what Peter wanted.

Lassen, Rene Weybye. Uncle Peter: The Story of Peter Lassen and the Lassen Trail. Paradise, CA. 1990

Information presented on this page was researched and contributed by:

Holly Azevado
Marilyn Chapman
Heather Cluck

A New American

Terms and Vocabulary:
The United States 1815-1845
A map of the United States from 1815-1845

September 17, 1830, Peter Lassen appealed to the King of Denmark to leave the country and travel to the newly established Danish Colony in America. He received permission on September 23rd and sailed on October 10th. He never returned.

When he arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, he changed his name from Larsen to Lassen and worked as a blacksmith. He left after a few months and moved one place to another for the next ten years.

He headed west to Keytesville, Missouri. He must have enjoyed living on the edge of civilization, because he stayed there about eight years. It was here that Peter Lassen joined the Masonic Lodge. He also met John Sutter who was moving west and who would later establish Sutter's Fort in Sacramento.

A portrait of John SutterA drawing of Sutters Fort
Peter decided to move west. In 1839, ten men and two women joined him in this journey. At Fort Hall, north of Salt Lake, the two women were exhausted and decided to stay at the fort.
A drawing of an old stone building
They joined twenty-seven trappers of the American Fur Company as they traveled to Oregon. Since it was late in the year, the party decided to spend the winter at Camponit, present-day Oregon City.
An old settlement
When spring came, Lassen was eager to get on his way. He and six others from his group decided to travel to California by ship. Instead of sailing all the way to Yerba Buena (San Francisco), Peter and company disembarked at Fort Ross, about 75 miles north. At this time, the Mexicans controlled most of California, but the Russians controlled the north coast. The Russians treated them warmly.
A drawing of buildings on a grassy field
In order to travel to Sacramento and meet with John Sutter, the group needed permission from the Mexican government. General Vallejo denied them permission. Not deterred, they sent a letter to the American Consul. The letter said they would wait fifteen days. They were going to defend themselves with guns if necessary. Hearing no response, Peter and his traveling companions traveled on without the permission. Eventually, General Vallejo did give permission to them.
General Vallejo
A portrait of a man. General Vallejo
Lassen, Rene Weybye. Uncle Peter: The Story of Peter Lassen and the Lassen Trail. Paradise, CA. 1990


Information presented on this page was researched and contributed by:

Holly Azevado
Marilyn Chapman
Heather Cluck

Life in California

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Peter Lassen immediately headed for Sacramento to spend a couple of weeks with his friend John Sutter. He purchased some forestland near Santa Cruz and built the first working lumber mill in California. After a short while, he grew restless and sold the mill for 100 mules and returned to Sutter's Fort.
Hauling lumber with oxen in the Santa Cruz Mountains
Oxen hauling lumber through the Santa Cruz Mountains

In the spring of 1843, immigrants stole some of Sutter's cattle and headed north. Lassen, John Bidwell, and others headed north to recover the animals. This was a very important trip for both Lassen and Bidwell. They both fell in love with the land in the Chico and Red Bluff area and returned to settle there after returning the cattle to Sutter.

Peter requested a land grant from Mexican Governor Micheltorena to settle this land that is as "beautiful as a picture." On December 26, 1844, he was granted 22,000 acres. He was the only white settler amongst the Indians. Peter strived to learn the Indian language and culture. He treated them well. The Indians called him "Uncle Peter."

Governor Micheltorena was the last governor of Alta California appointed by Mexico
A portrait of Governor Micheltorena
On his new land, he built a house and a store, trapped, and sold otter and beaver. He wanted to build a community called Benton City. It was located near the current town of Vina. Settlers came and built houses. Lassen built a gristmill on Deer Creek to grind flour. In 1847, Lassen returned to Keytesville, Missouri to bring more settlers to Benton City.
A gorge filled with trees
In May of 1848, Peter gathered a group of settlers in Missouri and had a charter to establish a Masonic Lodge in Benton City.
A plaque near Vina, CA on Highway 99A plaque near Vina, CA on Highway 99
Plaque near Vina, CA, on Highway 99 near the Deer Creek Bridge.
A plaque near Vina, CA on Highway 99

Unfortunately, Lassen was not the best trail guide. The group became lost in the high desert of northeastern California. But they found their way.

A map of California with different County's highlighted
Lassen was excited to show off his city and its many residents. However, when they arrived in Benton City, they found the town deserted and the buildings boarded up. Gold was discovered near Sutter's Fort, and the town's residents left to find it. Many of the new residents he brought did the same thing.
A portrait of Petter Lassen Petter Lassen

Lassen sold part of his ranch and tried his hand at gold mining. He soon realized he could make more money selling supplies to miners. His idea was to run a steamboat up the Sacramento River and Feather River carrying supplies. He purchased the boat Lady Washington, filled the boat with supplies, and began to sail back to Benton City with his Indian crew. For some reason, Peter lost the boat and all the supplies on Lady Washington's maiden voyage. He returned to Benton City without supplies and lost cattle, money, and property.

In 1850, Lassen heard about the mythical gold lake. Searching for Gold Lake brought Peter Lassen to the Indian Valley and Honey Lake Valley for the first time. He returned to his ranch for the winter and sold everything he owned to traveled to this newfound land. He settled in the Indian Valley near Greenville.

A river

In 1851, Peter Lassen opened a store near Greenville to sell meat and his homegrown vegetables. He also worked as a blacksmith. In 1855, Lassen left for the Honey Lake Valley believing gold was somewhere in the valley. He camped under an enormous pine tree and fell in love with this spot just outside of present day Susanville. This spot is where he built his log cabin and is currently buried.

A old tree. Peter Lassen's Monument. Susanville, CA Circa 1936
A drawing of an old home
Lassen's companions at this time were Isadore Meyerowitz and Joseph Lynch. Lassen continued to be a friend of the local Indians. He soon met and became friends with Isaac Roop who was the first permanent white settler in the Honey Lake Valley. He and Roop helped establish the Territory of Nataqua with a government and laws for this wilderness area. Lassen was named the chairman and surveyor for the new Territory. Peter Lassen's surveying skills are questionable since the boundaries of the Territory of Nataqua did not include the Honey Lake Valley.
A drawing of a man sitting next to a tree with other men sleeping around him
Lassen, Rene Weybye. Uncle Peter: The Story of Peter Lassen and the Lassen Trail. Paradise, CA. 1990


Information presented on this page was researched and contributed by:

Holly Azevado
Marilyn Chapman
Heather Cluck

Unsolved Mystery

Terms and Vocabulary:
Who killed Peter Lassen? This is still an unsolved mystery. His murderers had an eleven-day head start and were never found.
A map of Nevada with Black Rock Desert highlightedA map of the border of California, Nevada, and Oregon
A sign in the desert that reads, "Black Rock Desert"
On April 17, 1859, Captain Weatherlow and three others set out looking for silver mines in the Black Rock Desert in northeastern Nevada. Two days later, Peter and his friends Edward Clapper and Lemericus Wyatt also set off with three horses and two mules. They were supposed to rendezvous with Weatherlow's group. The groups never met. While sleeping one night, Lassen and Clapper were shot. Wyatt survived and rode 140 miles to Susanville bareback. An expedition of Lassen's Masononic friends returned to bury the bodies. Later, Lassen's remains were brought back to be buried in the Honey Lake Valley near his favorite Ponderosa pine tree.
A monument next to a large tree

Clapper was left buried in the desert. In the 1990's, Clapper's bones were discovered, brought back to Lassen's monument and buried near his friends, Peter Lassen and Joseph Lynch.

Who killed Peter Lassen and Edward Clapper? This has been debated since it happened April 26, 1859. It was blamed on the Indians, but many disagree.

Could it have been the Paiutes? "Not likely," said Captain Weatherlow and Chief Winnemucca. Peter Lassen had a very good relationship with the Paiutes and the Maidu. Could it have been the Pit River Indians? The tribe had accused Lassen of killing several of their members. However, no supplies were taken from the camp and no Indian footprints were found. Indians at this time would have taken the food and ammunition left at the campsite. To add to the confusion, Lassen's gun was found in 1862 in possession of a dead unidentified Indian.

Could it have been a settler? At first Captain Weatherlow and his party were suspected since they were camped only a mile away. But Honey Lakers could not believe so. Was his party ever questioned? There is no evidence they were. Could it have been someone wanting Peter Lassen's mining information? Could it have been Wyatt, the only survivor and witness? Could it have been an emigrant who had threatened to kill Lassen because of his poor trail directions and the severe hardships on the Lassen Trail? Whoever it was, the eleven day start hampered serious investigation. Residents of the Honey Lake Valley were very saddened at the loss of this beloved 59-year-old pioneer.

Abandoned wagon in the Black Rock Desert
Abandoned wagon in the Black Rock Desert

Many things have been named after Lassen. The story of naming Mount Lassen begins with Peter Lassen stuck in the mountain area in a snowstorm with only his horses. He supposedly survived several weeks on moss from evergreen trees and slept with his horses to keep warm. When he told his story upon his return, people began to refer to the mountain as "Lassen's Buttes" or "Mt. Lassen."

Mount Lassen with a lake in front of it

The only possessions left of Peter's are a pipe and a fork in the Lassen Historical Museum and a clock and his Masonic apron in the Masonic Lodge on Lassen and Nevada Streets.

An old smoking pipe
The Masonic Lodge erected a monument for Lassen on June 24, 1862. It was made of granite and started to decay. It now has a roof over it and a fence around it for protection. In 1917, a marble monument was erected. Money for this monument was raised by a "penny drive" gathered by children throughout northern California.
A plaque that reads "Dedicated by Lassen Lodge No. 149 F. & A.M. to Peter Lassen - Founder of Peter Lassen TrailA monument with a fence around it
A large monument for Peter LassenA monument that reads "In memory of Peter Lassen. The pioneer who was killed by the Indians. April 26 1859. Aged 66 years
A monument that reads "Erected in honor of Peter Lassen. By the people of the northern counties of the state of California"

An exact duplicate stands in Farum, Denmark, Lassen's birthplace.

A monument for Peter Lassen in Farum, DenmarkA monument for Peter Lassen in Denmark

Peter Lassen built his home and was buried by his favorite Ponderosa pine tree. Only a stump remains showing the location of the tree. In the late 1940's some teenagers decided to dynamite the tree for fun. It is no longer here to enjoy because it killed the tree. Peter's favorite landmark was chopped down for safety reasons in the late 1960's. A large round from the tree can be seen today leaning against the wall of the old Lassen Historical Museum building next door to the new Museum.

A log building with a sign that reads, "Lassen Historical Museum"

Joseph Lynch continued to live in Lassen's cabin after Peter's death. Lynch died in 1885. The cabin was burned in 1896 because the logs were decayed and the cabin was falling down.

Lassen, Rene Weybye. Uncle Peter: The Story of Peter Lassen and the Lassen Trail. Paradise, CA. 1990
Fairfield, Asa. Fairfield's Pioneer History of Lassen County, California. San Francisco. 1916.


Information presented on this page was researched and contributed by:

Holly Azevado
Marilyn Chapman
Heather Cluck