Thompson was born Jon Torsteinson-Rue in the hilly countryside of Tinn, Norway. Between 1856 and 1876, he delivered mail between Placerville, California and Genoa, Nevada and later Virginia City, Nevada. Despite his nickname, he did not make use of the snowshoes that are native to North America, but rather would travel with what the local people applied that term to: ten-foot (over 3-meter) skis, and a single sturdy pole generally held in both hands at once. He knew this version of cross-country skiing from his native Scandinavia, and employed it during the winter, as one of the earlier pioneers of the skill to the United States. Thompson delivered the first silver ore to be mined from the Comstock Lode. Later he taught others how to make skis, as well as the basics of their use. Despite his twenty years of service, he was never paid for delivering the mail.
Thompson typically made the eastward trip in three days, and the return trip in two days. He usually traveled the route known as "Johnson's Cutoff", a pathway first marked by early explorer (and first man to deliver mail over the Sierra) John Calhoun Johnson, which is today the route of U.S. Highway 50 as it winds its way from Placerville, California to South Lake Tahoe. Thompson carried no blanket and no gun; he claimed he was never lost even in blizzards. A rescue attributed to him was that of a man trapped in his cabin by unusually deep snow. Thompson reached him, realized the damage to the man's legs from frostbite was sufficient to kill him, skied out to get chloroform, skied back in with it, and saved his patient by performing the required amputation himself.
From a plaque on his grave:
We salute John “Snowshoe” Thompson
On his homemade snowshoes John carried the mail and supplies over the snowy Sierras for 20 winters. As he traveled, he saved the lives of seven people who were snowbound in mountain cabins. In 1866, after this tall Norwegian became an American citizen, he homesteaded a ranch in Diamond Valley. Respected by all who knew him, John was elected to the Alpine County Board of Supervisors.
Country and Folk Singer Johnny Horton recorded a song about Thompson's adventures as a mail carrier in his 1956 song "Snowshoe Thompson." The song is track 4 on the compilation: "Johnny Horton Makes History."