California Trail Junior Ranger

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“Ho for California!” Free land. Gold. Adventure. Between 1841 and 1869, more than a quarter million people answered this call and crossed the plains and mountains to the “El Dorado” of the West.

By 1849 the lure of instant wealth and tales of gold beckoned at the end of the 2,000­ mile California Trail. The story of the men, women, and children who traveled overland to the West Coast has become an American epic. Since the late 1700s, the West had held out the promise of boundless opportunity. After Lewis and Clark found a way to the Pacific in 1805, fur traders followed Indian trails up western river valleys and across mountain passes, filling in the blank spaces on early maps that represented unknown country.

By the late 1830s, mountain men had explored most of the routes that became overland trails. In 1837 an economic panic swept the United States and gave people already itching to move an additional reason to go west. Throughout the 1840s promoters and trail guides worked hard to create an idyllic picture of the prospects for greater fortune and better health open to Americans who made the journey to California. One young emigrant reported that a pamphlet describing a lush California with its ideal climate and flowers that bloomed all winter “made me just crazy to move out there, for I thought such a country must be a paradise.”

Gold Rush

James W. Marshall discovered gold on January 24, 1848, at John Sutter’s sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, about 40 miles east of Sutter’s Fort. Fortune hunters from California, Oregon, and Sonora, Mexico, flooded the goldfields by June, but the news spread more slowly across the continent.

In December 1848 President James Polk confirmed the discovery in a report to Congress, thus setting the stage for the largest voluntary migration in American history. By the spring of 1849 gold fever was an epidemic. Single men headed west to find wealth and adventure. Married men left families and jobs, hoping to return home in a year or so with enough money to last a lifetime.

Thousands of travelers clogged the trail to California. The size of the rush created a host of problems. Almost every blade of grass vanished before the enormous trail herds. Overcrowded campsites and unsanitary conditions contributed to the spread of cholera. Desperation created tension as Indians saw the plants and animals they depended on for food disappear.

The gold rush added new trails to California. Mountain man Jim Beckwourth and surveyor William Nobles opened routes across the Sierra Nevada, while thousands traveled to the goldfields across Mexico and the Southwest. Cherokee Indians from Arkansas and present-day Oklahoma opened a route through the Rockies, the first that did not use South Pass.

Getting There

Going west was an expensive proposition. Emigrants needed supplies (food, utensils, stoves, bedding, lanterns, and more), hardware (axes, wagon parts, shovels, rope, other tools), livestock, and money to last for many months. Most travelers used light farm wagons that came to be called prairie schooners because their canvas tops reminded emigrants of sails on a ship. Schooners could carry about a ton of food and supplies, and often travelers packed their belongings into every bit of space. Treasures such as china, heirlooms, and furniture were jettisoned when it became obvious that the load was too heavy.

Overlanders preferred oxen to pull their wagons. They were slower than horses but cheaper, more reliable and powerful, and harder to steal. Oxen also fared better on prairie grass than did horses and mules, an important consideration because emigrants’ lives could depend on the health of theirlivestock.

Getting started was one thing—getting safely to California was another. Guidebooks, or “waybills,” became available almost as soon as the trail opened. Most waybills offered practical advice about routes, landmarks, distances, and what equipment and supplies to take. Some, such as The Emigrants’ Guide, to Oregon and California, 1845, by promoter and guide Lansford W. Hastings, described California in almost heavenly terms and helped fuel what became “California fever.”

American Indians and Emigrants

The quiet land along the California Trail may have seemed empty, but Indian nations had lived there for more than 10,000 years. Unlike Hollywood stereotypes, Indians were more of a help than a danger to emigrants. In the 1840s fatal confrontations were rare. Travelers entrusted their wagons and families to Indians who guided them across swift rivers and through unfamiliar country. In 1844 Paiute Chief Truckee guided emigrants along the route and the river that they named after him. Stories of Indian massacres far outnumbered actual hostile encounters. “We are continually hearing of the depredations of the indians,” wrote Caroline Richardson in 1852, “but we have not seen one yet.” Conflict increased in the 1850s and 1860s as thousands of emigrants and their livestock destroyed Indian food sources. Some Indians tried to collect payment for passage across tribal lands. A few emigrants paid, but most felt little sympathy for Indian claims to the land. Relations deteriorated: Indians killed travelers, and emigrants killed Indians.

The violence attracted attention, but it was not the reason most emigrants perished. Thousands died from drownings, accidents, and disease, especially cholera. Many incidents were the work of criminals called “white Indians,” who were notorious for their brutality. One 1850 traveler concluded that “the savage Indians” were “afraid to come near the road” and “near all the stealing and killing is done by the Whites following the Trains.”

Emigrants saw the West as theirs for the taking. Indians saw the land as their home. For Indians, western settlement led to
loss of homeland, broken treaties, and the destruction of their traditional ways of life.

Travel to California in days, not Months!

In 1869 the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific from the west connected their rail tracks at Utah’s
Promontory Summit. A golden spike tapped symbolically to celebrate the union hailed a new, exciting way to travel the continent, and it signaled the demise of the wagon trails to the West. Although dust from the wagons settled nearly 150 years ago, the California Trail’s heritage lives on—with the people who love its history and in the railroads, interstate highways, and powerlines that follow the routes of the old emigrant trails.

Today, public lands preserve much of the original landscape. Surviving ruts offer silent testimony of the California Trail, but no one tells this epic better than the people who traveled it. Westward travelers shared similar experiences: the drudgery of walking more than 2,000 miles, the struggle to cross forbidding landscapes, extremes of temperature and weather, shortages of food and water, fear of Indians, accidents, sickness, and death. These emigrants, who saw the elephant and more, remembered the trip west as their life’s greatest adventure. Their experiences—often recorded eloquently in journals, drawings, and letters— inspired American popular culture and influenced art, literature, and the movies. Their stories are part of the legacy of the American West.

California National Historic Trail

Last updated: June 13, 2022