Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage
California National Historic Trail
California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri,
During the mid-19th century, the United States, which began as a cluster of States hugging the East Coast, had its sights set to the west like never before. The California Trail was just one of a vast network of wagon roads and footpaths that brought Americans from the country they knew to the unfamiliar frontier – and eventually west to California and the Oregon Territory. This was the greatest mass migration in American history.
Crossing 10 States, the entire California National Historic Trail system spans approximately 5,665 miles. About 1,100 miles of trail still have obvious remains on the ground such as trail ruts and other remnants, many on public lands. More than 320 historic sites are located along the trail system. The California National Historic Trail helps tell the many stories of its diverse travelers: some seeking new farmlands, others seeking gold, all finding a daunting journey across some of the harshest land in the interior of North America. Despite the treacherous route, more than 200,000 people traveled west from Missouri along the California Trail during the 1840s and 1850s. This migration forever changed the cultural, religious, and architectural practices of formerly Spanish-owned territory.
The California Trail reflects a complex and layered story, one of mass emigration, commerce, hope and perseverance, but also of the amalgamation of cultures as Easterners (many of Anglo-descent), met Westerners (of Spanish-descent or American Indians) for the first time. The opening of the West had a profound effect on national policies, international borders in North America, and the eventual admission of California and Oregon as States before 1860.
The California Trail and the other routes that carried people west-- the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and Pony Express National Historic Trails, offer extensive historic and scenic resources for today’s travelers. Hundreds of historic sites linked via these trails and driving routes that follow them allows modern adventurers to experience the original path of the trails and learn about their contributions to mid-19th century westward expansion.
Placing the California Trail in the context of American landholdings and politics at the time of its creation only underscores its importance. The dawn of the 19th century brought great change to the United States. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 doubled the country’s land. When the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, a victorious United States gained the large territory of Alta-California fulfilling what many saw as its Manifest Destiny to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
These changes opened up vast amounts of under-populated and unsettled land “out west” that caught the imaginations of Americans further east. Most people had only the vaguest idea of what conditions lay beyond the Mississippi River, but tales of bountiful forests and fertile coastal farmlands tempted thousands. Spanish and later Mexicans, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, had already colonized much of coastal California. American explorers, trappers and traders had contact with these Californians and brought home stories of expansive cattle ranches and ideal agricultural conditions.
Getting to the riches of California was, of course, the challenge. Though American frontiersmen forged various trails in the 1820s and 30s, none of these earlier trails were suitable for the average family with a wagon in tow – especially through the brutally steep Rocky Mountain region. Luckily, by the early 1840s, travelers discovered that the South Pass through the Rockies was practical for wagon travel. In 1841, the Bartleson-Bidwell party left Independence, Missouri and successfully used the South Pass to make the long journey to California. Thousands of others soon followed.
The 2,400-mile trip was far from easy. At the time, the entire journey took five to six months to complete. Along the route, travelers not only faced the treacherous Rockies, but also the barren deserts of Nevada and the frigid Sierra Nevada Range. Early on, very few supply stations existed and travelers had to be self-sufficient in finding food, water, and shelter. Those who took the trail quickly had to acquire skills such as building fires, chopping wood, capturing clean water, and setting up camp nightly. Extreme temperatures and threats of violence, stealing, mortal accidents, and American Indian raids were all constant concerns. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, cholera outbreaks along the trail killed travelers by the thousands.
Despite the risks, Easterners could not resist the possibility for a new and prosperous life, especially during the California Gold Rush years. In 1848, James Marshall, a young emigrant from New Jersey, discovered gold by accident. Word quickly spread, and by 1849, tens of thousands of people poured into California seeking the precious mineral. Some of these so-called “49ers” traveled via ship around the tip of South America at Cape Horn, and others crossed the Isthmus of Panama via mule train. Those who could not afford these less arduous routes flooded the California Trail.
Prospectors mined an estimated $216 million in gold from the earth during the first five years of the California Gold Rush. The miners quickly depleted the gold supply but moved on to follow gold strikes made elsewhere during the latter half of the century. By the 1860s, the railroad system in the United States vastly changed the way both people and goods traveled throughout the country. The Transcontinental Railroad connected the east and west coasts in 1869, bringing the age of the California Trail to a close.
Congress officially designated the California Trail as a National Historic Trail in 1992, recognizing it as a national treasure. Today the trail commemorates and interprets the rich heritage of the route through hundreds of historic sites, visitor centers, educational programming, and tour options. The trail itself was never a straightforward, singular route. Numerous paths, cutoffs, and detours made up the California Trail during its decades of service, and parts of the trail overlap with the Oregon, Mormon Pioneer and Pony Express National Historic Trails.
Signs mark the route of the former California Trail for those who wish to travel it today. Much of the original trail is now accessible by car. The National Park Service provides self-guided auto-tour information that suggests stopping points for its entire length. Brochures are available on a State-by-State basis and can be found online here or picked up at local tourism centers.
Many visitors along the California Trail enjoy seeing the deeply etched wagon ruts that still exist in many places. These tangible remains are poignant reminders of the numerous wagons that traversed the trail during the mid-1800s. At the Ash Hollow Complex (aka Windless Hill) in Lewellen, Nebraska, visitors can see the wagon ruts clearly. Windless Hill was a popular campsite for travelers along the trail because the area was lush with grass for oxen, lumber for fires, and fresh water. A visitor center offers tours and interpretive exhibits.
Farther down the trail, travelers would excitedly await their first glimpse of Chimney Rock in present-day Bayard, Nebraska. The clay and sandstone column is a natural wonder that once served as an important landmark in measuring travelers’ progress west. Chimney Rock is a National Historic Landmark, and a nearby visitor center welcomes guests interested in learning about its history.
Fort Laramie in Wyoming is another popular stop along the California Trial, just as it was nearly 200 years ago. Originally built to protect the growing fur trade industry of the 1840s, the fort later served as a welcome stopping point and supply station. Indians, trappers, traders, gold seekers, overland pioneers, soldiers, and Pony Express riders stopped there or passed by this important military post.
Sutter’s Fort in present-day Sacramento, California was the site of a Mexican land grant made to John Sutter in 1839. Sutter, a Swiss emigrant, created New Helvetia (New Switzerland), an agricultural empire, which was Sacramento’s earliest settlement, the first settlement in California’s Central Valley not made by American Indians. Sutter was hospitable and his landholdings were lush. Thousands of California Trail emigrants rushed to his community, including gold seekers. All that is there today is a fort, a large Spanish-style adobe reconstruction (based on an 1847 map) that offers exhibits, living history displays, and tours.
The historic resources along the trail are diverse and many, representing various cultures. There are historic buildings and structures in a variety of architectural sites and natural wonders. Museums thus offer exhibits about the California Trail. Visitors can explore the National Oregon/California Trail Center in Montpelier, Idaho or the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri for a one-stop exploration of the trail’s many decades and miles of use.