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Main route of California Trail (thick red line), including Applegate-Lassen and Beckwourth variations (thinner red lines)

The California Trail was a major overland immigrant trail of about 2,000 miles (3,200 km) across the western half of the North American continent from Missouri River towns to what is now the state of California. It was used primarily from 1841 to 1869. It followed the same corridor of trails, following different river valleys, as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail till it turned off in Idaho, Wyoming or Utah to follow trails leading to the Humboldt River valley. Most of the trail across the Great Basin in Nevada followed the Humboldt River valley to obtain the water, grass and 'wood' needed by all travelers. Once in western Nevada and eastern California the pioneers worked out several paths over the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains into the gold fields, settlements and cities of northern California.

The trail was used by about 2,700 settlers prior to 1849. These settlers were instrumental in helping convert California to a U.S. possession as volunteer members of John C. Fremont's California Battalion assisted the Pacific Squadron's sailors and marines in 1846 and 1847. By 1845, the province had a non-Native American population of about 1,500 Californio adult men (with about 6500 women and children), who lived mostly in the southern half of the state around Los Angeles.[1] Most immigrants (nearly all adult males) lived mostly in the northern half of California. The 455 Californios ranchos had slightly more than 8.6 million acres claimed (nearly all bestowed by the local governor to friends) averaging about 19,000 acres each. The main product of these ranchos was cow hides and tallow (for making candles and soap) that were traded for other goods. The cattle, horses, etc. essentially grew wild. The minor armed resistance in California ceased when the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed on January 13, 1847 with the Californios who had wrested control of California from Mexico in 1845. [2] California was bought and paid for from Mexico in February 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which terminated the war. After the discovery of gold in January 1848 word spread about the California Gold Rush. Starting in late 1848 over 250,000 businessmen, farmers, pioneers and miners passed over the California trail to California. The traffic was so heavy that in two short years these settlers, combined with those coming by sea across the Isthmus of Panama and around Cape Horn, had enough residents in California by 1850 to make it the 31st state.

The California Trail route was partially discovered by American fur traders like Kit Carson, Joseph R. Walker, Jedediah Smith as well as Hudson Bay Company trappers led by Peter Skene Ogden from about 1829 to 1840. A usable but very rough wagon route was worked out along the Humboldt River (then called Mary's River) and over the Sierras by California bound settlers between 1841 and 1844. The trail was heavily used in the summers until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The original route had many branches and cutoffs encompassing in all about 5,500 miles (8,900 km) total of different trails and cutoffs. About 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of the rutted traces of the these trail remain in Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada and California as historical evidence of the great mass migration westward. Portions of the trail are now preserved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service (NPS) as the California National Historical Trail and marked by BLM, NPS and the many state organizations of the Oregon-California Trail Association (OCTA) [3].

See Also: National Trail Map [4]National Park Service Trail Map [5]


Getting Ready--Trail Supplies and Equipment

About 50-70% of the Argonauts were farmers and the first thing most did after deciding to go was sell the farm (business, etc.), use the money to put together an outfit and supplies. As farmers, many already had much of the wagons, animals etc. needed, A pioneer’s typical outfit usually consisted one or two small, sturdy farm wagons outfitted with bows and a canvas cover (new cost about $75 to $175 each), six to 10 head of oxen ($75 to $300) and chains and yokes to attach them to the wagons. If three or more were traveling together a tent was often included; but most slept on the ground with a rubber ground cloth or buffalo robe--getting in the wagon only in case of bad weather. When mules or horses were chosen to pull the wagons they typically cost about twice as much money and required more expensive harnesses. Horses were often found to be incapable of the months of daily work without supplemental grain and thousands were recorded as dying near the end of the trip in Forty Mile Desert. A horse or mule was often included for riding and keeping herd on the animals. Saddles, bridles, hobbles, ropes, harnesses etc. were needed if they had a horse or riding mule, and many men did. Extra harness parts, rope, steel chain and wagon parts were often carried. Steel shoes for oxen, mules or horses and some spare parts for the wagons were carried by most. Tar was often carried to help repair an injured ox's hoof.

Food for the trip had to be compact, lightweight, and nonperishable. The more knowledgeable also brought dried fruit and vegetables to provide some variety and Vitamin C–-an ascorbic. The method of preparing desiccated vegetables was to squeeze them in a press to remove most of their juice and then bake them for several hours in a low temperature oven. They kept well if kept dry and a piece of dried vegetables the size of a fist when put in water and cooked could feed four. The recommended food to take per adult was 150 pounds (68 kg) of flour, 20 pounds (9.1 kg) of corn meal, 50 pounds (23 kg) of bacon, 40 pounds (18 kg) of sugar, 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of coffee, 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of dried fruit, 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of salt, half a pound (0.25 kg) of saleratus (baking soda), 2 pounds (0.91 kg) of tea, 5 pounds (2.3 kg) of rice, and 15 pounds (6.8 kg) of beans as well as pepper and other spices. Ex-trappers and Indians often used pemmican made by pounding jerky until it was a coarse meal, putting it into a leather bag and then pouring rendered fat (and sometimes dried berries) over it—this was very light weight, could keep for months and provided a lot of energy. The nearly all male Argonauts usually tried to do a minimum of cooking—getting by on mostly beans, biscuits, flapjacks and bread combined with bacon and coffee. Some families took along milk cows and goats for milk and chickens (penned in crates tied to the wagons) for eggs and chicken dinners. Additional food like pickles, canned butter, cheese or pickled eggs were occasionally carried, but canned goods were expensive and relatively heavy to carry and food preservation was primitive, so few perishable items could be safely kept for the four to six-month duration of the trip. These provisions were usually kept in water-tight containers and carried inside the covered wagon to minimize getting wet. Meat filled barrels (200 pounds (91 kg)) were often bought and then, to reduce weight, the bacon and ham were usually transferred to bran filled sacks and stuck in the bottom of the wagons to stay as cool as possible--the barrel being discarded. In hot weather bacon and ham was often hauled in large barrels packed in bran so the hot sun would not melt the fat.

Each man typically took a rifle and/or shotgun and the necessary balls, powder and primers for hunting game and protection against snakes and Indians. Many took their fishing gear along. Belt knives or folding knives were carried by nearly all men and boys and considered essential. Farm implements such as a plow, pick, shovel, scythe, rake, hoe; plus carpentry tools - saw, hammer, nails, broad axe, mallet, plane. Farmers typically took seeds for corn, wheat and other crops. Some even included fruit trees and vines in their loads. Awls, scissors, pins, needles, thread and leather laces to repair clothes, shoes, harnesses, equipment and occasionally people were constantly in use. Spare leather used for repairs was often needed and used. Goggles to keep dust out of eyes were used by some. Storage boxes for food and supplies were often the same height so they could be arranged to give a flat surface inside the wagon for sleeping during bad weather. If the cargo weighed too much these boxes were typically discard and nearly everything put into bags.

The usual meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner along the trail was bacon, beans, coffee and biscuits/bread/corn bread or flapjacks.[6] The typical cost of enough food for four people for six months was about $150.[7] Then, $150.00 represented about 150 days worth of work or half a year’s typical salary so most of the poor were excluded from travel unless they got a job herding and guarding the livestock or driving a wagon. Since the most popular draft animal was ox teams (~70%) most walked nearly all the 2,000 + miles to their destination. Oxen are driven by walking on the left side and yelling “Gee” to turn left, “Haw” to turn right, “Git-up” to go forward and “Whoa ” to stop—words often emphasized with a snapping whip (and occasional swear words).

The amount of food required was lessened if beef cattle, calves or sheep were taken along for a walking food supply. Prior to the 1870s there were vast herds of buffalo in Nebraska which provided fresh meat and jerky for the trip. In general, wild game and fish could not be depended on for a regular source of food, but when found it was relished as a welcome change in a monotonous diet. Travelers could hunt antelope, buffalo, sage hens, trout, and occasionally elk, bear, duck, geese, salmon and deer along the trail. Many travelers went via Salt Lake City, Utah and the Salt Lake Cutoff to get repairs, fresh supplies, fresh vegetables and rested up livestock.

Cooking along the trail was typically done over a campfire dug into the ground and made of wood, dried buffalo chips, willow or sagebrush—whatever was easily available. Flint and steel or matches were used to start fires. Cooking equipment was typically light and included only simple cooking utensils such as butcher knives, metal plates and cups, spoons, large spoons, spatulas, ladles, Dutch ovens, pots and pans, grills, spits, coffee pots and an iron tripod to suspend the pans and pots over the fire. Some brought small stoves, but these were often jettisoned along the way as too heavy and unnecessary. Wooden or canvas buckets were brought for carrying water, and most travelers carried canteens and/or water bags for daily use. One of the first tasks at almost every stop was getting a new supply of water for drinking, cooking and washing. At least one ten gallon water barrel was brought, but it was usually kept nearly empty to minimize weight (some water in it helped prevent it from leaking); it was typically only filled for waterless stretches. Some brought a new invention—an India Rubber combination mattress and water carrier.[8] Nearly all brought at least two changes of clothes (wool usually recommended for its toughness and warmth) and multiple pairs of boots--two to three pairs often wore out on a trip. Moccasins at $0.50 to $1.00 per pair were often bought from Indians encountered on the way. About 25 pounds of soap was recommended for a party of four for washing, bathing and washing clothes. A washboard and tub was also usually included to aid in washing clothes. Wash days typically occurred once or twice a month or less, depending on availability of good grass, water, fuel and time. Shaving was usually given up for the trip to save on water and bother. Tobacco was popular, both for personal use and for trading with Indians and other pioneers. Some alcohol was typically taken for "medicinal" purposes--and used up along the way. A thin fold-up mattress, blankets, buffalo robes, pillows, canvas or rubber gutta percha ground covers were used for sleeping (usually on the ground) at night. Sometimes an unfolded feather bed mattress was brought for riding in the wagon if there were pregnant women or young children along. The wagons had no springs of any kind, and the ride along the trail was very rough—rough enough to churn butter if a cow was brought along. Despite modern depictions, almost nobody unless a small child or pregnant wife actually rode long in the wagons; it was too dusty, too rough and too hard on the livestock.

Travelers also brought books, Bibles, trail guides, and writing quills, ink and paper (about one in 200 initially kept a diary) or writing a letter.[9]

Goods, supplies and equipment were often shared by fellow travelers.[10] Other goods that were forgotten, broke or wore out could often be found discarded by someone else, bought from a fellow traveler, post or fort along the way. Equipment repairs and other goods could often be procured from blacksmith shops established at some forts and some ferries along the way—most did a thriving business. New iron shoes for horses, mules and oxen were often put on by blacksmiths. Emergency supplies, repairs and livestock were often provided by local residents in Oregon, California and Utah for late travelers on the trail who were hurrying to beat the snow and had run out of supplies, broken down or needed fresh animals.

Along the way, non-essential items were often abandoned to lighten the load, or in case of emergency. Many travelers would salvage discarded items, picking up essentials or trading their lower quality items for better ones found along the road. In the early years the Mormons sent scavenging parties back along the trail to salvage as much iron and other supplies as possible and haul it to Salt Lake City where supplies of all kinds were needed. Blacksmiths could then reuse the salvaged iron to make almost any iron/steel object needed.[11] Others would use discarded wagons, wheels and furniture as firewood. During the 1849 gold rush, Fort Laramie was known as "Camp Sacrifice" because of the large amounts merchandise discarded nearby.[12] Travelers had pushed along the relatively easy path to Fort Laramie with their luxury items but discarded them before the difficult mountain crossing ahead and after discovering that many items could be purchased at the forts or located for free along the way. Many of the smarter travelers carried their "excess" goods to Salt Lake City where they could trade them for new supplies or money.

Some professional tools used by surgeons, blacksmiths, carpenters, farmers, etc. were carried by nearly all. Shovels, crow bars, picks, hoes, mattocks, saws, hammers, axes and hatchets were used to clear or make a road through trees or brush, cut down the banks to cross a wash or steep banked stream, build a raft or bridge, or repair the wagon where necessary. In general as little road work as possible was done. Travel was often along the top of ridges to avoid the brush and washes common in many valleys. Because the wagons tipped over easily on a side hill they were often dragged straight up a steep hill with multiple teams if necessary and then skidded straight down the opposite side with chained up wheels if required.

California Trail Routes



The Oregon, California, Mormon and later the Bozeman trails all went west along much of the same network of trails crossing the western half the North American Continent. The exact route of the trail to get to California depended on the starting point of the trip, the final destination in California, the whims of the pioneers, the water and grass available on the trail, the state of Indian attacks on the trail, the information they had or acquired along the way as well as the time of year. The essentials of the trip for four to six persons were enough food and a few miscellaneous supplies for six months, a wagon to carry them in and provide shelter, a team of four to six animals to pull it, water, grass and 'wood' (often buffalo 'chips', willow or sagebrush) at each campsite to keep themselves and their livestock watered and fed and the travelers meals cooked. Most walked nearly the entire distance with very few riding long in the wagons unless they were pregnant or a small child. Some of the men had horses or mules which they rode most of the way. A few walked or used pack animals over much the same route. The trail(s) nearly always followed river valleys across the continent until about 1859 when the Central Overland Route across Utah and Nevada was developed. To be able to finish the four to six month trip in one season most trips were started in early April or May--as soon as the grass was growing and the trails were dry enough to support the wagons. The trips hopefully terminated in early September or October before snow started falling again.

Branches of the trail(s) crossed the states of Missouri and Iowa before reaching and crossing the Missouri River. The Missouri river was crossed on ferries and steam boats to get to the western side. Many traveled down the Ohio River on flatboats or steamboats and up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers by steamboat from other points in the United States and Europe before they reached their jumping off points. Many bought most of their supplies, wagons and teams in St. Louis, Missouri and traveled by steamboat up the Missouri River before they arrived at their departure point. The main branch(s) of the trail started at one of several towns on the Missouri River--Independence, Missouri, Kansas City, Kansas, Topeka, Kansas, Council Bluffs, Iowa (called Kanesville until 1852) and Omaha, Nebraska plus others. Those starting in either Independence Missouri or Kansas City Kansas typically ferried across the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers and then followed either the Little Blue River or Republican River across Kansas and into Nebraska. If they started above the Kansas and Missouri River junction from the future town sites of Atchison, Kansas, Leavenworth, Kansas etc. they typically traversed across the plains generally northwest till they encountered the Little Blue River. The only general restriction on traveling the rolling hills of Kansas was the need to cross several large creeks and their sharp banks which required either a lot of work to dig a usable wagon ford or using a previously established ford. If they started in Nebraska most followed the northern side of the Platte River from near its junction on the Missouri River. As the 1850s progressed and the armed hostilities escalated in "bleeding" Kansas more and more travelers traveled up the Missouri river to leave from or near Omaha Nebraska. After 1847 there were also two or more ferries (or steamboats) active during the start of emigration season to facilitate crossing the Missouri and getting to Omaha Nebraska. When the Union Pacific Railroad started west in 1865 with their tracks, Omaha was their eastern terminus. [13] Emigrants traveling on the North side of the Platte would have to ferry across the Elkhorn and Loup Rivers on their way west. Nearly all routes joined up at the Platte River near new Fort Kearny (est. 1848) in Nebraska. Those on the north side of the Platte would have to cross the Platte river to use the services available at Fort Kearny.

Great Platte River Road

The Platte River in the future states of Nebraska and Wyoming typically had many channels and islands and was too shallow, crooked, muddy and unpredictable for even a canoe to travel very far on as it pursued its braided paths to the Missouri River. But the Platte's river valley provided an easily passable wagon corridor sloping easily up as it went almost due west with access to water, grass, buffalo and buffalo 'chips' for fire 'wood'.[14] There were trails on both sides of the muddy, about 1 mile (1.6 km) wide and shallow (2 inches (5.1 cm) to 60 inches (150 cm)) Platte River. In all the trail(s) traveled about 450 miles (720 km) in the present state of Nebraska in the Platte river valley. The Platte's water was silty and bad tasting but it could be used if no other water was available. Letting it sit in a bucket for an hour or so allowed most of the silt to settle out. The preferred camping spots were along one of the many fresh water streams draining into the Platte or the occasional fresh water spring found along the way. These preferred camping sports unfortunately became sources of cholera in the cholera epidemic years (1849-1855) as many thousands of people used the same camping spots with very limited sewage facilities. The cause (ingesting cholera germs from contaminated water)[15] and cure for cholera were unknown in this era. Those traveling south of the Platte crossed the South Platte with its muddy and treacherous crossings using one of about three ferries (in dry years it could sometimes be forded without a ferry) before continuing up the North Platte River into present-day Wyoming to Fort Laramie. After crossing over the South Platte the travelers encountered Ash Hollow with its steep descent down windlass hill. Several days further on on they would encounter huge rock formations sticking out of the prairie called Courthouse rock and twenty miles further on the startling Chimney rock, then Castle Rock and finally Scotts Bluff. [16] Before 1852 those on the North side ferried across the North Platte to the south side at Fort Laramie. After 1852 they used Child's Cutoff to stay on the north side to about the present day town of Casper, Wyoming where they crossed over to the south side. The road west of Fort Laramie became much rougher as the terrain was cut by many hills and ravines as streams cut their way to the North Platte which was now often deep in a canyon and the road had to veer away from the river. Sallie Hester, an immigrant of 1850, described the terrain as if it was something clawed by a gigantic bear--"sixty miles of the worst road in the world".[17] In all from Omaha, Nebraska (1,050 feet (320 m)) the Platte and North Platte were followed for about 650 miles (1,050 km) to Casper Wyoming (5,050 feet (1,540 m)). Fortunately the swifter flowing waters after Fort Laramie seemed to minimize the chance for cholera germ transmission and its fatal attacks diminished significantly. At the junction of the North Platte and Sweetwater River near the present town of Casper, Wyoming where the North Platte swings south west the trail crossed over the North Platte by ferry and followed the Sweetwater across Wyoming to the continental divide at (7,550 feet (2,300 m)) South Pass Wyoming. They forded the Sweetwater up to nine times before reaching South Pass. From South Pass the main trail followed Big Sandy creek(s) till it hit and crossed the Green river--three to five ferries were in use there during peak travel periods. The swift and treacherous Green river was usually 100 to 300 feet (30 to 100 m) wide and 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 m) deep at high water in July and August and it was a dangerous crossing. The wait to cross was often several days long even with several ferries in operation. The main trail then went down across the Green River (Wyoming) on to Fort Bridger on the Black fork of the Green River where it diverged from the Mormon Trail.

South Pass to Humbolt River

The Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff (established 1844) cut about 50 miles (80 km) off the main route through Fort Bridger. It left the main immigrant trail about 20 miles (32 km) from South Pass at Parting of the Ways junction and then headed almost due west. About ten miles further they encountered Big Sandy River--about ten feet wide and one foot deep. This was the last water before crossing about 45 miles (72 km) of desert consisting of soft dry soil which rose in suffocating clouds [18]before reaching the next water at the Green River about 4 miles (6.4 km) below the present town of La Barge, Wyoming. Here the Green had cut a steep 400 feet (120 m) channel through the Green River Desert which had to be descended by a steep rocky path to reach the Green and its life giving water. Here the often very thirsty teams sometimes stampeded to get to the water with terrible results. The descent was soon scattered with fragments of many wagons and dead animals. The Sublette cutoff saved about 50 miles but the typical price was numerous dead oxen and the wrecks of many wagons. After crossing the Green they then had to continue crossing a mountain range to connect with the main trail near Cokeville, Wyoming in the Bear River (Utah) valley. [19]

California Trail
Green River watershed
California Trail
Map of the Bear River

The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado River and is a large, deep and powerful river. It ranges from 100 to 300 feet (30 to 100 m) wide in the upper course where it typically was forded and ranges from 3 to 50 feet (1 to 15 m) in depth. After the opening of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails were opened several ferries were set up to cross it but during peak travel seasons in July the wait to cross was often several days. At the Green River on the main trail after crossing the river many took the Slate Creek Cutoff (also called the Kinney Cutoff) which turned north up the Green river for about ten miles (16 km) before turning almost due west to connect up to the Sublette Cutoff road. This cutoff eliminated most of the waterless desert crossing of the Sublette cutoff.

After 1848 those needing repairs, new livestock, fresh vegetables, fruit or other supplies could stay on the Mormon trail from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City, Utah and other Utah towns. Salt Lake City, located at about half way, 1,000 miles (1,600 km) on the trip, was the only significant settlement along the route. From Salt Lake City they could easily get back to the California (or Oregon) Trail by following the Salt Lake Cutoff northwest around the north end of Great Salt Lake and rejoin the main trail at the City of Rocks near the present Idaho-Utah border.

The Lander Road (established and built by government contractors in 1858) also bypassed Fort Bridger and was about 85 miles (137 km) shorter than going by way of Fort Bridger. It stayed with the Sweetwater river longer, crossing the continental divide north of South Pass and crossing the Green River near the present town of Big Piney, Wyoming and then passing over 8,800 feet (2,700 m) Thompson Pass in the Salt River Mountains (Wyoming) before entering Star Valley Wyoming near the present town of Smoot, Wyoming. The Lander Road had good grass, fishing, water and wood but was rough and steep in many places. From Smoot the road then continued north about 20 miles (32 km) down Star Valley west of the Salt River (Wyoming) before turning almost due west at Stump Creek near the present town of Auburn, Wyoming and passing into the present state of Idaho and following the Stump Creek valley about ten miles northwest before turning almost ninety degrees and progressing southwest to Soda Springs, Idaho or alternately heading almost due west to Fort Hall Idaho. [20][21]

South Pass to the Central Overland Route

An alternative route that bypassed both Fort Hall and the Humboldt River trails was developed in 1859. The route followed the Mormon Trail from South Pass to Salt Lake City, Utah and passed south of the Great Salt Lake across central Utah and Nevada. Many California travelers took the 250 miles (400 km) and over two weeks shorter Central Overland Route to Salt Lake City and across central Nevada (very roughly where U.S. Highway 50 in Nevada and Utah runs today).[22] This route was discovered, surveyed and developed by a team of U.S. Army workers lead by Captain James H. Simpson of the U.S. Corp of Topographical Engineers,[23] and went from individual streams and springs across the Great Basin desert in central Utah and Nevada—avoiding the Humboldt and its often combative Indians. The Nevada end of the route was Carson City. Initially the springs and trail were maintained by the army as a western supply route to Camp Floyd, which was set up after the Utah War of 1856–57. By 1860 Camp Floyd was abandoned as the army left to fight the U.S. Civil War and the Central Overland Route was their only long term legacy. The Pony Express in 1860–61 shared the many stage stations already built up by stage lines taking the Central Route. These combined stage and Pony Express stations along the Central Route across Utah and Nevada were joined by the first transcontinental telegraph stations which followed much the same route in 1861 from Carson City to Salt Lake City. This combination wagon-stagecoach-pony express-telegraph line route is labeled the Pony Express National Historic Trail on the National Trail Map.[24] From Salt Lake City, the telegraph line followed much of the Mormon-California-Oregon trail(s) to Omaha, Nebraska. After the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the telegraph lines along the railroad tracks became the main line, since the required relay stations and lines were much easier to supply and maintain along the railroad. The telegraph lines that diverged from the railroad lines were largely abandoned.

Main Trail through Fort Bridger to the Humboldt River

The main trail went almost due north from Fort Bridger to the Little Muddy Creek where it passed over the Bear River Mountains to the Bear River (Utah) valley which it followed northwest into the Thomas Fork area, where the emigrants encountered Big Hill near present day Montpelier, Idaho (site of a Oregon-California Trail interpretive Center)[25]. Big Hill had a tough ascent often requiring doubling up of teams and a very steep and dangerous descent. [26] They followed the Bear River to present day Soda Springs, Idaho where the Bear river turned southwest and the main trail turned northwest to follow the Portneuf River valley to Fort Hall (Idaho) in the Oregon Country along the Snake River. The route from Fort Bridger to Fort Hall was about 210 miles (340 km) taking nine to twelve days. About 5 miles (8.0 km) west of Soda Springs Hudspeth's Cutoff (est. 1849) took off from the main trail heading almost due west and by-passed Fort Hall. Hudspeth's Cutoff had five mountain ranges to cross and took about the same amount of time as the main route to Fort Hall but many took it thinking it was shorter. Its main advantage was that it did spread out the traffic on busy years and made more grass available. (For Oregon-California trail map up to junction in Idaho see: Oregon National Historic Trail Map NPS [27])

West of Fort Hall the trail traveled about 40 miles (64 km) on the south side of the Snake River southwest till near present day Lake Walcott (reservoir) on the Snake River. At the junction of the Raft River and Snake River (Idaho) the trail diverged from the Oregon Trail by leaving the Snake River and following the small and short Raft River about 65 miles (105 km) southwest past present day Almo, Idaho and the City of Rocks. Hudspeth's Cutoff rejoined the California trail at Cassia Creek on the Raft River about 20 miles (32 km) northeast of the City of Rocks. [28] Nearly all were impressed by the City of Rocks--now a national reserve and Idaho State Park. [29] [30] Near the City of Rocks is where the Salt Lake Cutoff rejoined the California Trail.

Across the Great Basin on the Humboldt River

The Humboldt River is fed by melting snow flowing from the Ruby Mountains and other mountains in north central Nevada and runs over 300 miles (480 km) mostly westward across the Great Basin to the Humboldt Sink in western Nevada where it disappears into the ground. The Great Basin covers essentially all of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California and has no outlet to the sea. The Great Basin lives in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and what little rainfall occurs there--stays there. The Humboldt provided an easily followed pathway across the Great Basin desert as it headed mostly west. The Humboldt was praised for having water, fishing and feed along its banks and also cursed for its barely adequate grass, meandering often muddy channel, and hot weather. Its water quality got progressively worse the further the river went west. Oh, how the diarists cursed the alkali laden dust and the terrible water, persistent mosquitoes and the often combative Indians who apparently delighted in putting an arrow in their livestock so it would have to be left behind! The fire 'wood' consisted of occasional junipers and cedars and ever present sagebrush and willows.

The trail from Idaho from the head of the Raft River and City of Rocks continued west over 7,100 feet (2,200 m) Granite Pass which had a steep treacherous descent. Once over Granite Pass they were in the Great Basin drainage. The trail then jogs northwest back into the future state of Idaho until hitting Goose Creek where it heads southwest, ”nicking” the far northwest corner of Utah and on into the future state of Nevada. The trail then heads southwest down Goose Creek for about 34 miles (55 km) until hitting Thousand Springs Valley and its creeks and springs. The trail followed Thousand Springs Valley until it intercepted West Brush Creek, and Willow Creek that run into the Humboldt River. The trail hit the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada near present day Wells, Nevada. Another branch of the trail went through Bishops Canyon and intercepted the trail about 10 miles (16 km) west of Wells.([31]) Humboldt Wells had good water and grass. The distance from City of Rocks to Wells Nevada was about 100 miles (160 km). [32] The trail followed the north banks of the Humboldt west for about 60 miles (97 km) until it encountered the narrow 5 miles (8.0 km) long Carlin Canyon on the Humboldt. Here the meandering river passed through a steep section of mountains and its valley became very narrow or nonexistent. Various trail guides said you would have to ford the Humboldt from four to nine times to get through the canyon. [33] Carlin canyon became nearly impassable during periods of high water and a cutoff—the Greenhorn Cutoff was developed to bypass the canyon when flooded. West of Carlin Canyon the trail climbed through Emigrant Gap (Nevada) and then descended again to rejoin the Humboldt at Gravelly Ford (near today’s Beowawe, Nevada). At Gravelly Ford the often muddy Humboldt had a good gravel bottom and was easily forded and there was usually plenty of grass and fresh water springs. Many stayed here a while to rest and recuperate their teams and themselves. After the Ford the trail divided into two branches, following the north and south banks of the river. The trail on the north side of the river was much better allowing an easy miss of the Reese River sink. Those who took the south side would have to travel around a big bend in the Humboldt then cross the usually dry alkali laden Reese River sink. The two branches of the Trail rejoined at Humboldt Bar (sink).

At the Humboldt Sink (about 50 miles (80 km) northeast of present day Reno, Nevada) where the Humboldt River disappeared into a marshy alkali laden lake one of the worst sections of the California Trail showed up--Forty Mile Desert. [34] [35] The Truckee River (which drains the Lake Tahoe basin and Donner Lake), and the Carson River are two major rivers that flow eastward out of the Sierra Nevada and are only about 40 miles (64 km) from the end of the Humboldt. The Truckee terminates in Pyramid Lake with a salinity approximately 1/6th that of sea water and supports several species of fish. The Carson river disappears into another alkali laden marsh called the Carson Sink. [36] Unfortunately, they would have to cross the Forty Mile Desert to get to either river. Before crossing the Forty Mile Desert, the California main trail splits with one branch going towards the Truckee River Route (or Truckee Trail) (est. 1844) going roughly almost due west where Interstate 80 goes today towards the site of modern-day Wadsworth, Nevada. The Truckee is called the Salmon-Trout River on Fremont’s 1848 map of the area. The Carson Trail branch (est. 1848) went roughly from today's I-80 and U.S. Highway 95 junction to modern day Fallon, Nevada (near Rag Town) southwest across Forty Mile Desert to the Carson River.

The Forty Mile Desert was a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland that stretched from Humboldt Bar to both the Carson and Truckee rivers and beyond. The desert covered an area of over 70 miles (110 km) by 150 miles (240 km), forming a fire box in which its loose white salt covered sands and baked alkali clay wastes reflected the sun's heat onto the stumbling travelers and animals. Even what few plants that do grow here are typically covered with thorns and living low to the ground. The annual rainfall in the Forty mile desert is only 5 inches (13 cm)[37] It was one of the most dreaded sections of the California Trail as it showed up just as the emigrants were nearly out of food supplies, very weak and tired, often suffering from the effects of scurvy, with very worn out animals and equipment. They were about 150 miles (240 km) before the end of the 2,000 miles (3,200 km) trail and for many it was the end of their trail. Most emigrants got there in late August through early October--one of the hottest, driest times of the year. If possible, the desert was traveled by night because of the great heat; but it often took over a day and a night to traverse the desert. About half-way across the desert on the Truckee Trail, they came to a foul tasting hot springs (now a thermal power plant [38]), but its water, was usually too hot for even very thirsty animals to consume. Many dead animals were concentrated at and in these "bad" water springs--often preventing access to them. Water had to be pooled off and allowed to cool before it could be used.[39] The trail on the last 8 miles (13 km) the alkali flats gave way to soft alkali laden sand, six to ten inches (15-25 cm) deep and very hard for the animals to pull the wagons through. The ground was littered with the debris of goods, wagons and dead and dying animals that had all been discarded in a desperate attempt by the pioneers to make it all the way across. Often a wagon would be abandoned and the team would be unhooked and taken on alone to get water. After recuperating on the other side, they would have to go back and retrieve their wagon. Many animals (and people) died on this crossing. A count made in 1850 showed these appalling statistics for Forty Mile Desert: 1,061 dead mules, about 5,000 dead horses, 3,750 dead cattle and 953 graves.[40] [41]

The main route of the California Trail till 1848 is approximated by modern State Route 233 in eastern Nevada and Interstate 80 in central and western Nevada.The section of the trail from Wells Nevada to City of Rocks can be approximated by starting at Wells, going north on US Route 93 to Wilkins, Nevada and then turning onto a gravel county road 765 (Wilkins Montello Rd), from Wilkins to the Goose Creek Road that goes through Nevada and back into Idaho—not advised for winter or spring use. (Use Google Maps: Wilkins NV to Almo ID walking option to get approximate route of trail.)

Crossing the Sierra Nevada

The high, rugged Sierra Nevada mountains on the eastern California border were the final obstacle that had to be overcome before west bound travelers could proceed. The Sierras comprise a large block of weather worn granite tilted towards the west. The western slopes are scarred by glacier and river carved canyons but slope much more gradually west taking about 70 miles (110 km) to fall from their crest to the floor of the Central Valley. The even more rugged glacier and river scarred eastern slopes are typically much more precipitous, rising to the crest from their base in the Great Basin in many places in less than 10 miles (16 km). A second smaller but yet a significant block of weather worn granite formed the Carson Range of mountains located east of today's Lake Tahoe which is located between the two ranges. Both ranges would have to be passed to get to western California. Even today there are only about nine roads that go over the Sierras [42] and about half of these may be closed in winter.

Truckee Trail

The Truckee Trail (established 1844 by the Stephens-Murphy wagon train) over the Sierra Nevada took about 50 miles (80 km) to cross Forty Mile Desert but it did have a hot springs in about the middle that could be used for water if you pooled it off and waited for the 'bad' water to cool. After hitting the Truckee River just as it turned almost due north towards Pyramid Lake near today's Wadsworth, Nevada the emigrants were across the dreaded Forty Mile Desert. The emigrants blessed the Truckee's cool and sweet tasting water, fresh grass and the cool shade from the first trees (cottonwoods) the emigrants had seen in hundreds of miles. The travelers often rested themselves and their animals for a few days before proceeding. Real shade, grass for their animals and no more bitter, soapy tasting Humboldt river water were much appreciated. The Truckee Trail followed the Truckee River past present day Reno, Nevada (then called Big Meadows) and went west till near the present Nevada-California border they encountered Truckee Canyon. This canyon was one of the paths across the Carson Range of mountains. This steep, narrow, rock filled canyon could be traversed by wagons but required about 27 crossings of the cold Truckee river and much prying and shoving to get wagons and teams over the rocks to proceed up the canyon.

In 1845 Caleb Greenwood and his three sons developed a new route that by-passed Truckee River Canyon by leaving the river near the present town of Verdi, Nevada and following a ravine northwest over a 6,200 feet (1,900 m) pass across the Carson Range (followed today by the Henness Pass Road) and down to Dog Valley and from there southwest down through the present Stampede and Prosser Creek Reservoirs before rejoining the Truckee trail near today's Truckee, California.[43] This was about ten mile (16 km) longer route but it avoided most of the continual crossings of the rock filled Truckee river and became the main route for the "Truckee Trail". Initially, the trail passed to the north of Lake Tahoe and then followed Donner Creek to Donner Lake before ascending the precipitous climb north of the lake to Donner Pass.

Donner Pass in the 1870s showing Dutch Flat wagon route improvements--made by Central Pacific Railroad.

Initially, on some routes (there were several routes over the Sierras here over time) the wagons were disassembled and hoisted straight up various cliffs using multiple teams to get the wagon parts and goods to the top. Some cliffs were ascended by tilting tall fallen trees against the cliffs and using multiple teams to pull the wagons up the improvised steep ramps. All routes required using multiple teams to get the wagons to the top and differing amounts of wagon dis-assembly. The trail initially crossed the Sierra crest through 7,000 feet (2,100 m) Donner Pass.

Roller Pass

Starting in about 1846 the Joseph Aram party found an alternate route on the south side of Donner Lake. Their route ran past the future town of Truckee, California up Coldstream Canyon south of Donner Lake to a 7,800 feet (2,400 m) saddle between Mt. Judah and Mt. Lincoln, about two miles south of Donner's pass. Here the final climb was up over the somewhat higher but less precipitous Roller Pass. The oxen were taken to the top where they could pull on more or less level ground and about 400 feet (120 m) of chain was let down to a wagon and twelve or more yoke of oxen then pulled the wagon up the final steep (about 30 degree) slope. To minimize friction on the chain it ran over round logs (rollers) put at the top.(Roller Pass Truckee Trail Map [44]) By not requiring dis-assembly and allowing the wagon to stay packed this was a much faster way to the top but was still tortuously slow taking two to three days or longer to get to the top with wagon, people, animals and goods.[45] In about 1848 or 1849 a large group of pioneers cut a switchback trail over the final steep section eliminating the need for rollers and chains to get over Roller Pass. From the top of the pass all the pioneers could see was a rugged mountain slope headed west that would require almost 80 miles (130 km) more of strenuous and dangerous effort to get to their goal.

From the top, the Trail then proceeded by a rugged rock strewn path down the South Fork of the Yuba River--fed by an alpine lake. The first resting spot, after hitting the top, for many was beautiful Summit Valley (now mostly covered by Lake Van Norden reservoir) a few miles from the summit.

A view of the South Fork of the Yuba River from the North Bloomfield Road bridge.
A waterfall on the South Fork Yuba River in South Yuba River State Park

The trail down the western slope of the Sierras passed enormous granite boulders and numerous rocky out crops and steep slopes before passing through Emigrant Gap (California). Here a Historical marker on Interstate 80 reads: "The spring of 1845 saw the first covered wagons surmount the Sierra Nevada. They left the valley, ascended to the ridge, and turned westward to old Emigrant Gap, where they were lowered by ropes to the floor of Bear Valley. Hundreds followed before, during, and after the gold rush. This was a hazardous portion of the overland emigrant trail." Most emigrants stayed at Bear Valley to rest and recover before traveling the approximate 70 miles (110 km) remaining to Sutter's Fort. The original Lincoln Highway built in about 1925 climbed the eastern Sierras to Donner Pass with multiple steep switchbacks. Today, the part of Interstate 80 in California and Nevada from 40 Mile Desert, Truckee River, Donner Pass, Sacramento very roughly approximates the Truckee Trail route.

Eventually several branches of the Truckee Trail developed for freight wagons and emigrants going both ways on the California trail. Parts of the trail were significantly improved when the Central Pacific Railroad started their construction over much of the Truckee route in 1864. In 1864 they started the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Toll Wagon Road (DFDLWR) to earn money hauling freight to Nevada while also supplying their workers from Dutch Flat California to Verdi, Nevada. [46]

Nevada City Road

Branching off the Truckee Trail was the Nevada City Road (est 1850) to Nevada City. This 25 miles (40 km) cutoff is closely followed today by California State Route 20 from Emigrant Gap on Highway 80 to Nevada City, California.

Auburn Emigrant Road

The Auburn Emigrant Road (1852) from the Truckee trail to Auburn was established to bring emigrants to the new gold diggings at Auburn, California. Its thought to have extended from roughly present day Nevada City, California, roughly the end of the Truckee Trail, to Auburn. California State Route 49 from Auburn to Nevada City approximates this path. Later toll roads would be built along the rough pack trail from Auburn to Emigrant Gap (California) where Interstate 80 and the Central Pacific Railroad would later go. In 1852 Auburn was reachable by wagons from Sacramento.

Henness Pass Road

The Henness Pass Road (est. 1850)[47] was a 80 miles (130 km) trail over the Sierras from today's Verdi, Nevada (Dog Valley) to Camptonville and Marysville, California. The route was developed as a wagon toll route by Patrick Henness starting in about 1850. The Henness Pass Road was located about 15 miles (24 km) north of the Truckee trail. The route went from The Truckee Trail in Dog Valley (near today's Verdi Nevada) up the Little Truckee River to Webber Lake[48] to the summit, through 6,920 feet (2,110 m) Henness Pass, along the ridge dividing the North and Middle Yuba Rivers and into Camptonville and Marysville. Freight could be shipped by steamboat to Marysville and picked up there for shipment over the Sierras. After 1860 extensions went southward to Carson City, Nevada and on to the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevada. Commencing in 1860 and continuing for some nine years the road under went major improvements becoming one of the busiest trans-Sierra trails being favored by teamsters and stage drivers over the Placerville Route (Johnson Cutoff) because of its lower elevations and easier grades and access to ship cargo. Many summer camps and relay stations were created along the route at roughly seven to ten miles intervals to accommodate oxen, horse and mule powered wagons. In busy times the wagons traveled all day, filling the road, and the six or so stages traveled at night. The route was given up by most teamsters when the Central Pacific Railroad and Virginia and Truckee Railroad [49]was completed in 1869 and it became cheaper and easier to ship freight by the railroad(s). People in Virginia City reported a 20-50% lower cost for supplies when the railroads were put in. Today the Henness wagon road is a mostly gravel U.S. Forest Service road called the Henness Pass Road from Verdi Nevada to Camptonville California.

Beckwourth Trail

The Beckwourth Trail (est. 1850) [50] left the Truckee River Route at Truckee Meadows (now the site of Sparks, Nevada), proceeded north along roughly the route of U.S. Route 395 in California before crossing the Sierras on what is now California State Route 70 at 5,200 feet (1,600 m) Beckwourth Pass. After crossing the pass the trail passed west along the ridge tops (avoiding Feather River Canyon) through present day Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties into California's central valley finally terminating at Marysville, California. The Oroville-Quincy Highway (California State Route 162), [51] (partially gravel road ) and California State Route 70 from Quincy to Highway 395 in general follow the path of the original Beckwourth Trail. The Feather River Railroad built down the Feather River canyon between 1906 and 1909 by the Western Pacific Railroad parallels much of the route. This road was only intermittently used by miners headed for the Northern California mines.

Carson Trail

The Carson Trail (est. 1848) (also called Mormon Emigrant Trail) [52] took about 40 miles (64 km) to cross Forty Mile Desert by leaving the Humboldt Sink and skirting the western edge of the Carson Sink and hit the Carson River near modern-day Fallon, Nevada. The Carson Trail was named after Kit Carson, scout for John Charles Fremont who had guided the Fremont party over the Sierras on what became called Carson Pass in February 1844. The trail across the desert had the usual 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) of loose sand on the west end that is blown west from where it is deposited by the Carson River. This loose sand made traversing the desert very hard on their often very tired and worn out draft animals. The Carson Trail crossing of Forty Mile Desert also had water in about the middle, Salt Creek, unfortunately, it was poisonous if drank. The trail across the desert was soon cluttered with the usual discarded supplies, thousands of dead and dying animals and abandoned wagons and hundreds of emigrant graves typical of Forty Mile Desert. Some estimated that only about half the wagons that started the trip across Forty Mile Desert got to the other side. The Argonauts had abandoned everything except their life. [53]

The emigrant wagon route normally used through Carson Pass was initially developed by about 45 discharged members, including one woman, of the Mormon Battalion. They were driving 17 wagons and about 300 cattle east to Salt Lake City in 1848. The wagons were veterans of the 1846 or 1847 emigration as California had at that time no facilities for building any thing besides simple solid wheeled ox carts.[54] They followed Iron Mountain ridge on the Sierras east of what is now Placerville, California (there were essentially no settlements east of Sutter's Fort in 1848) before hitting Tragedy Spring near Silver Lake. Here they found three of their scouts murdered by what appeared to be Indians.[55] From there they ascended to 9,050 feet (2,760 m) West Pass and then dropped down from this summit to Caples Lake and a few miles further was 8,650 feet (2,640 m) Carson's pass. Here the only way down to the beautiful valley below was very steep ridge requiring many changes in direction with ropes and chain before they reached Red Lake at the head of Hope Valley. [56] To get across the Carson Range of mountains the trail then followed the Carson River, traveling about six miles (10 km) in a very rough stretch of the Carson River canyon. The canyon was filled with boulders and rocks that had often fallen over a thousand feet into the canyon carved by the river through the Carson Range. In some places the canyon had to be widened enough for wagons to pass and impassable boulders removed by the Mormons headed east. They found that if they started a fire (driftwood was easily available) on boulders or impassably narrow canyon walls the hot rocks became easily breakable when doused with cold water and hit by picks and shovels. After several applications of fire, water and industrious pick use the parts of the trail that were formerly impassable were made passable.[57] In about 1853 the road through the canyon was converted intermittently to a toll road and made much easier to use when even more large boulders were removed and two bridges were constructed. Today California State Route 88 and California State Route 89 both go through Carson River Canyon where the route has been smoothed and straightened by liberal use of explosives and bulldozers.

Travelers headed west in 1848 followed the trail blazed and carved by the Mormons in 1848 from what is now Fallon, Nevada. It was still a very rough road through Carson River Canyon where the wagons had to be wrestled over the boulders by ropes, pry bars and levers and a few improvised bridges before they finally entered beautiful 7,100 feet (2,200 m) Hope Valley.[58] Westward travelers from Hope Valley had to climb a steep, rocky and tortuous paths over the back wall of a glacier carved cirque to get over the Sierras south of Lake Tahoe. The section of trail at the end of Hope Valley near Red Lake is called "The Devil's Ladder" where the trail has to climb over 700 feet (210 m) of very steep mountain in the final half mile (1 km). Today a hiker's careful eye can still find notches, grooves and rust marks left by iron rimmed wagon wheels, and trees scarred by ropes, chains and pulleys used to haul the heavy wagons up the precipitous slope. Travelers could get to the top of the pass in about one day of hard work--an acceptable trade off for many emigrants. The trail crossed the Sierra Crest through 8,700 feet (2,700 m) Carson Pass [59]. At that time the trail forward was blocked by the Carson Spur--a sharp ridge passable for wagons only by going over it on West Pass (now part of Kirkwood ski resort). To proceed the Carson trail had to follow the path blazed by the Mormons and make a sharp turn South at what's now Caples Lake (reservoir) and ascend 9,500 feet (2,900 m) West Pass before finally making it over the Sierras. The half day path up over West Pass was easy compared to the climb to Carson Pass and was used by thousands of wagons from 1848 to 1863. The Carson trail was a straight forward push to Placerville and the heart of the gold country and was the main route for many emigrants for many years. A better route was finally blasted out of the face of the cliffs at Carson Spur in 1863 by the Amador and Nevada Wagon Road--a toll road around Carson Spur. [60] The present highway route--California State Highway 88 has bulldozed and blasted many of the difficult sections of the trail to straighten it out and make it passable by today's cars; but roughly follows the route of much of the Carson Trail till it joins the road called Mormon Immigrant Trail/Iron Mountain Road which goes to Pollock Pines, California and from there on to Placerville, California.

As the Carson Trail developed many branches and toll roads were developed for freight wagons, emigrants and miners going both ways over the Sierras.

Johnson Cutoff (Placerville Route)

The Johnson Cutoff (1850-51) road (also called: Placerville Route, Lake Tahoe Route and Day's Route) from Carson City, Nevada to Placerville, California (then called Hangtown) used part of the Carson Trail to about present day Carson City. This cutoff was developed by John Calhoun Johnson of Placerville in about 1850-51. Leaving the future site of Carson City, Nevada the cutoff passed over the Carson Range by following Cold Creek (via Kings Canyon Road) and passing over 7,150 feet (2,180 m) Spooner Summit. Once near Lake Tahoe it was forced to climb some further steep ridges by rocky spurs jutting into the lake and swampy ground (modern U.S. Highway 50 corrects both these problems). After getting to the southern end of the lake the trail veered west near Echo Lake and climbing steeply made it over the Sierras on 7,400 feet (2,300 m) Echo Summit (Johnson's Pass). The steep descent from Johnson's Pass brought the trail down to Slippery Ford on the South Fork American River. From there Johnson's Cutoff headed westward following the river from Strawberry to today's Kyburz, California, before crossing to its north side and ascending about 1,400 feet (430 m) to Peavine Ridge and following its crest to get around a rocky stretch of the river. After descending Peavine ridge the trail forded the South Fork of the American River near Pacific House. From about today's Pollock Pines, California it followed the ridge line on the south side of the river to Placerville. Johnson's route became a serious competitor as the main route over the Sierras. This route, with considerable up grades and modifications, eventually became one of the main all season routes over the Sierras since it could be kept open at least intermittently in the winter.

In 1855 The California Legislature passed An Act to Construct a Wagon Road over the Sierra Nevada Mountains[61] and appropriated $100,005 dollars to do it. Sherman Day (he worked part time as a California State Senator) was appointed to survey the possible routes. After extensive searches he recommended the Placerville route (Johnson's Cutoff) as the best prospect and surveyed an improved route. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1856 that the law was unconstitutional since it violated the state Constitution's allowable $300,000 debt limit without public vote. Discouraged but not defeated, road proponents got El-Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties to kick in $50,000 for road construction. Contracts were let and they got a new bridge across the South Fork American River ($11,300); a new sidehill road along Peavine ridge that was only 100 feet (30 m) to 500 feet (150 m) above the river and avoided the sharp ascents and descents there and extensive work on a new road up to Johnson's Summit (Echo Summit) and another less precipitous road down to Lake Valley. The new route was christened the Day Route. Winter and its attendant runoffs raised havoc with the road and in spring 1860, when the mobs were trying to get to Virginia City, Nevada it was reported as a barely passably trail in places (April 1860). After 1860 the road was extensively improved as a toll road to the mines in Virginia City Nevada. It is now followed roughly by U.S. Highway 50. [62]

In 1860-61 the Pony Express used Daggetts Pass and Johnson's cutoff route to deliver their mail--even in the winter.

Luther Pass Trail

The Luther Pass Trail (1854) was established to connect the Carson River Canyon road with the Johnson Cutoff (Placerville Road). Luther Pass (present CA SR 89) joined the older emigrant route northeast of Carson Pass through Carson River Canyon rather than following the trails along Lake Tahoe. [63] Going East after descending from Echo Summit and getting to the south end of Lake Valley, it headed southeast over 7,740 feet (2.36 km) Luther Pass into Hope Valley where it connected up with the main Carson Trail through Carson River canyon to get over the Carson Range.

Daggett Pass

Branching off the Johnson's Cutoff (Placerville Road) was about 10 miles (16 km) Daggett Pass toll road (Georgetown Pack Trail) (est. abt 1850). This route was developed as a toll road to get across the Carson Range of mountains. Going east it leaves The Placerville Route near what is now Stateline, Nevada (near South Lake Tahoe) and progresses up Kingsbury Grade to 7,330 feet (2.23 km) Daggett Pass and on down the Kingsbury Grade to Carson Valley. After 1859 and the discovery of gold and silver in the Comstock Lode this road was extensively improved and used by teamsters going to Virginia City, Nevada as it cut about 15 miles (24 km) off the usual road through Carson River Canyon. Today Nevada State Route 207 closely approximates this road.

Grizzly Flat Road

The Grizzly Flat Road (1852) to Grizzly Flat & Placerville was an extension of the Carson trail that went down the middle fork of the Consumes river to what was then a busy gold diggings at Grizzly Flat--located about 35 miles (56 km) east of Placerville.

Volcano Road

The Volcano Road (1852) off the Carson Trail was to made in 1852 when Amador county and Stockton merchants paid a contractor to construct a road from Corral Flat on what is now the Carson Trail (California State Route 88) to Volcano, California. Today the cutoff is approximately followed off SR 88 by the Fiddletown Silver Lake Road, Shake Ridge Road And Ram's Horn Grade.

Big Tree Road (Ebbetts Pass)

Big Tree Road & Ebbetts Pass Road (est. about 1851-1862) from the gold mining towns of Murphys, California & Stockton, California to gold and silver mining towns/mines near Markleeville in eastern California and western Nevada. It approximates the present California State Highway 4 route over 8,730 feet (2,660 m) Ebbetts Pass. Descriptions of the pass match those used by Jedediah Smith in the late spring of 1827 when leaving California, as well as the pass used by John Bidwell and the Bartleson-Bidwell Party on their emigration to California in 1841.

Originally a free pack trail route when first used in about 1851 by "Major" John Ebbetts, it was improved to a wagon road and became a toll road to silver mining towns in eastern California and western Nevada from 1864 through 1910, and then a free county road in 1911. It was used by very few emigrants to California.

The road reverted back to a free county road in 1911 and was accepted into the California State Highway system in 1926 as California State Highway 4. It was not until the early 1950s that the road over Monitor Pass to U.S. Route 395 was completed, connecting the eastern terminus of State Route 4 to U.S. Route 395 via California State Route 89 near the community of Topaz, California.[64] Today's Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway is a very scenic drive but one of the least traveled highways across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is anchored at either end by two State Parks--Calaveras Big Trees State Park and Grover Hot Springs State Park. It passes through the Stanislaus and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests. Today's Ebbetts Pass road, SR 4, has an extensive section of highway that is less than two lanes wide with no dividing line. It also has some very steep sections, particularly on the eastern Sierra slopes, with several sharp hairpin corners. [65] It is not recommended for vehicles towing long trailers or commercial truck traffic. Watch out for bicyclists and motorcyclists.

Both the Carson River and Truckee River trails eventually ended up at Sutter's Fort in Sacramento, California. In 1848 most emigrants developed and used this route. In 1849 about one-third of all emigrants used the Carson Trail with later years many more using it. Starting in 1848, many left the main trail to stay in a mining district(s) or town(s) that developed along or off the trail(s).

Sonora Road

In 1852 the Sonora Road was opened from the Carson Trail to Sonora, California by the Clark-Skidmore Company. From the Humboldt Sink it crossed Forty Mile Desert to the Carson River and then went almost due south to the Walker River which it followed to the Sierras before making the very steep (about 26 degrees in parts) and rugged ascent to 9,625 feet (2,934 m) Sonora Pass.

View of the Sierra Nevada range and Sonora Peak looking northward from Sonora Pass.

From there the road drops down twisting forested mountain ridges to Sonora. This was the highest road developed across the Sierras--and still a very scenic drive. (modern Tioga Pass out of Yosemite National Park is slightly higher) California State Route 108 between Sonora and U.S. Highway 395 roughly approximates the route of the Sonora Road over the Sierras. This route was little used after about 1854.

Applegate-Lassen Cutoff

The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff or Applegate Trail (est. 1846-48) left the California Trail near the modern-day Rye Patch Reservoir in what's called now Lassen's meadow on the Humboldt River in Nevada.[66] The trail headed northwest till it could get North of the worst of the California Sierra Nevada mountains. [67]The trail passed through Rabbithole springs, crossed the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon before finally (after nearly 100 miles (160 km) of desert travel) arriving at Surprise Valley and climbing steeply to go over 6,300 feet (1,900 m) Fandango Pass. From there they faced a steep descent down a very steep hill to Fandango Valley on the shores of Goose Lake on the Oregon-California border. Just south of Goose Lake the combined Oregon-California trail split at Davis Creek. The Applegate Trail branch proceeded northwest into southeastern Oregon along the Lost River before turning almost due north roughly along the route of today's Interstate 5 to go the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

The California branch, the Lassen Cutoff (established in 1848 with a lot of help from eager Oregon gold seekers), proceeded southwest through the Devil's Garden along the Pit River and passing east of Mt. Lassen till at present day Lake Almanor (reservoir) it eventually swung west and arrived at Lassen's rancho near the Sacramento River. From there it followed the river south in the Central Valley (California) about 110 miles (180 km) to Sutter's Fort and the gold diggings. This road was so rough in places that today in many places it can only be traveled by the occasional forest trail and hiking paths.

The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff was almost 150 miles (240 km) further than other routes and took roughly fifteen to thirty days additional travel to get to Sutter's Fort (unknown to nearly all who initially took it) but avoided Forty Mile Desert, many of the high passes and difficult climbs of other routes, but introduced some very nasty desert crossings and had very limited grass and barely enough water. For most it was a very bad choice of routes. Much of the traffic on this alternate route in the early days was pure bad luck as enough travelers turned off on this route to make many of those following think (wrongly) that it was the main (best) route. Most had dispensed with hiring guides who actually knew the trail by then and almost none had any written guides about the Applegate-Lassen Trail (most weren't written yet). Most did not realize for several days or even weeks they had made a very bad wrong turn. Its estimated that in 1849 about 7,000 to 8,000 (about one-third of California trail travelers that year) inadvertently took this much longer trail and found that the earlier travelers and their animals had stripped the desert bare and set fires that had burned most available grazing. There was nearly no forage left for their animals and they lost many hundreds of animals and suffered severe hardships and several deaths as many ran out of supplies before rescue parties sent out from Sutter's Fort could reach them. They were still dribbling in, many barely alive, into Sutter's Fort late in November. By 1853 other, faster, easier and shorter, routes had been worked out and traffic on the Applegate-Lassen cutoff declined to a trickle.

Nobles Road

In 1851 William Nobles surveyed a shorter variation of the Applegate-Lassen trail. It was developed to make it easier to get to Shasta, California (which paid him $2,000) in the Central Valley and first used in 1852. The route, called Noble's Road, left the main trail near Lasson's meadow (now Rye Patch Reservoir) in Nevada, bypassed most of the large Applegate-Lassen loop north almost to Goose Lake (Oregon-California) on the Oregon California border. This reasonably easy wagon route followed the Applegate-Lassen Trail to the Boiling Spring at Black Rock in Black Rock Desert and then went almost due west from there going on to Shasta, California in the Central Valley via Smoke Creek Desert to present day Honey Lake and present day Susanville, California before passing North of Mt. Lassen and on to Shasta (near present day Redding). The route today can be approximated by taking Nevada State Route 49 (Jungo Rd.) from Winnemucca, Nevada to Gerlach, Nevada and from there to Susanville, California via Smoke Creek Road. From there take California State Route 44 through Lassen Volcanic National Park to Redding, California. It depended upon springs for water, there being no dependable creeks along most of the route. East of Mt. Lassen, over a distance of about 20 miles (32 km) it used part of Lassen's road in reverse. In that section of trail a traveler going to Shasta City might travel north passing another traveler going south to Sutter's Fort California.

In 1857 Congress established the Fort Kearny, South Pass and Honey Lake Wagon Road for building a wagon road to California and appropriated $300,000. Exactly why the road was to terminate at Honey Lake near Susanville is a legislative mystery since very few went that way in 1857 or later. The first part of the route was surveyed by Frederick W. Lander working under William Magraw. In 1858 Lander, now in charge, guided several hundred workers who built the Landers Cutoff passing the Green River well north of the established ferries, over Thompson Pass into Star Valley Wyoming and from there up Stump Creek and on to Fort Hall in Idaho. In 1860 Landers was instructed to find a new route north of the Humboldt--there wasn't one. To help the emigrants leaving the main trail at Lassen's meadow and going to Honey Lake Lander had two large reservoir tanks built at Rabbit Hole and Antelope Springs.[68] These reservoirs helped Nobles Road keep its status as a emigrant trail but only the few emigrants interested in going to Northern California used it.

California Toll Roads Over the Sierras

The main initial attraction for toll roads across the Sierras was Virginia City, Nevada and the Comstock Lode strike there in the Washoe district in 1859. This rapidly developed, after about 1860 and they found out they how massive the gold and silver strike there was, that they would require millions of dollars of investment to buy thousands of tons of mining supplies to supply the mines, thousands of miners and all their support they required. Almost nothing existed in Nevada then. In addition, until the mills could be built, high grade ore was shipped to California for processing. The gold and silver ore there required developing a new massive industrial scale mining operation by multiple mines to get it out. New techniques would have to be developed to get the silver out--the Washoe process. New techniques would have to be developed to support the mines which were often in weak ground--the square set timber process that ultimately used millions of board feet of lumber. Millions of gallons of water per day would have to be pumped out of the mines usually by massive steam powered Cornish pumps which ultimately had over 3,000 feet (910 m) long pumping rods that weighed over 1,500,000 pounds (680,000 kg) and used over 33 cords of wood per day, each, to keep their engine pumps going. In addition the mine hoists and up to 75 mills were all run with steam engines all using copious amounts of wood. Winter heating was done by more thousands of cords of wood. All these thousands of cords of firewood would have to be freighted in. The gold and silver found would more than pay for any development and shipping costs. In the next twenty years over $300,000,000 (in 1880 dollars) worth of gold and silver would ultimately be extracted. Starting in 1860 many emigrant trails over difficult terrain and streams were improved and replaced by toll roads and bridges--built and financed by entrepreneurs and some cities.[69][70] Later other strikes in western Nevada and eastern California would give impetus to new toll roads to a new mining town.

Initially, the two main toll roads over the Sierras that developed were the Henness Pass Route from Nevada City, California to Virgina City Nevada and the Placerville Route, (also called Johnsons's Cutoff and the Tahoe Wagon Road) from Placerville to Lake Tahoe and over the Carson range to Virginia City. The Henness Pass route was partially built by a $25,000 grant from Marysville and Nevada City. The Placerville route was somewhat shorter at about 100 miles (160 km) and had the additional advantage that freight could be shipped to Folsom, California about 23 miles (37 km) out of Sacramento on the Sacramento Valley Railroad--built in 1856. This freight could then be transferred onto wagons that had good roads to Placerville and later clear to Virginia City. In their heyday from about 1861-1866 these roads had major improvements made at many thousands of dollars per road and paid the salaries of a small army of employees that worked on building and maintaining different sections of the road and the service centers located roughly every ten miles. A typical wage then was from $1.00 to $2.00/day for laborers, teamsters etc., with higher wages when men were scarce. The miners in Virginia City were paid the very high wage of $4.00/day. A team could be hired for a few dollars/day. The storm induced and spring run-off gullies and ruts in the roads would have to be filled in, culverts installed, streams and canyons bridged, gravel hauled in to fill the soft spots in the road, rough spots evened out and road cuts made in the side hills to get around the hills. The only tools available to build and maintain roads then were hand tools: picks, shovels, crow bars, hoes, axes, wheelbarrows, hand saws, etc. used with a lot of human sweat. This was aided by judicious use of black powder to eliminate really bad spots. The only power available was human, ox or mule pulled plows, wagons and mule powered dump carts. The railroads would be built with essentially the same tools. Every spring extensive repairs costing additional thousands would be needed to repair the ravages of winter and the gully washing spring thaws.

During summer daylight hours the roads were often packed for miles in busy spots with heavily laden wagons headed east and west usually pulled by up to ten mules. Wagons headed west were mostly empty but some carried the literally tons of silver mined in the Washoe district (Virginia City) back to San Francisco. Passing spots were located frequently along the roads to allow two way traffic. The roughly 200 miles (320 km) round trip over the Henness Pass road or the Placerville Route could be done by freight wagons in about 16-18 days.

Mail and passenger stages usually went at night to avoid most of the slower (~3 mph) wagon traffic. As counted in 1862, the average number of passengers carried each day on the Placerville Route's Pioneer Stage Company line with 12 coaches and 600 horses averaged about 37 passengers/day. Horses were changed at roughly every 10-20 mile intervals and the drivers often vied to make the fastest time. A typical stage trip took approximately 18 hours from Placerville to Virginia City with a 18 hour return. Holdups, stage wrecks and other accidents were an occasional occurrence on both routes. In 1864 stage receipts were estimated, by newspapers of the time, totaled about $527,000 at $27.00 per passenger on the Placerville route. The Henness Pass road's California Stage Company and Nevada Stage Line carried somewhat fewer passengers. Both stage coach routes together were estimated by newspapers of the day to have gross receipts, including mail subsidies, of over $1,000,000 total in 1864. The typical freight charges were about $120.00 to $160.00/ton (6-8 cents/pound) with a $20.00 to $30.00 toll charges/wagon. A Central Pacific Railroad agent's (J. R. Atkins) estimated, after counting all Placerville toll road traffic in August and September 1862, that the freight charges to Virginia City over the Placerville route would have been about $5,000,000 which delivered roughly 20,000,000 pounds of freight in eight weeks. Similar amounts presumable were shipped over the Henness pass route. In a given month during the busy season over 2,000 wagons (sometimes up to three wagons were pulled by one team) and over 10,000 draft animals (mostly mules) per month were counted on the Placerville road alone in 1862. [71] The Placerville Route and Henness Pass route even had sprinkler wagons that wetted down the road during daylight hours about every three hours to minimize dust and wear and tear on the road. There were 93 hotels, stage relay stations and lodging stations located along the Placerville Route with similar stations along the Henness Pass route located at roughly ten mile (16km) intervals. The teamsters stayed at these locations at the end of each day's travel. The Placerville Route tried to stay open in winter to at least horse traffic and was only closed temporarily by winter storms. The Pony Express used this route in the summer and winter of 1860-61. The net profit per year from these toll roads was probably over $100,000/yr in 1862 and increasing every year.

Competition arrived in July 1864 when the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR) [72] was opened over much of the route the new Central Pacific railroad would use over Donner Summit. This route followed much of the original Truckee Trail route with the major exception that its large work force could smooth and straighten the route and make major side hill cuts that built around many of the steep grades and over or through major obstacles. Below Dutch Flat where the original Truckee Trail diverged from modern roads to descend into a steep canyon and use the Bear River ridge to get around impassable terrain the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (and the Central Pacific track) was cut around many of the sharp ridges that had prevented a wagon road there. Despite the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road name the railhead would not actually reach Dutch Flat (about 60 miles (97 km) east of Sacramento) till July 4, 1866 as it built over difficult terrain and required several extensive cuts and two tunnels to reach Dutch Flat. Their toll road was built with a reported $200,000 (1864 dollars) investment and involved about 350 men and many teams of animals working for over ten months. Initially, the road extended from the railhead (then Newcastle, about 30 miles (48 km) east of Sacramento) over Donner summit to Verdi, Nevada where it joined the road developed by the Henness Pass road to Virginia City, Nevada. This route was advertised by the California Stage Company to reach Virginia City in three hours less time (about 17 hours) than the Sacramento-Placerville Route and have lower grades and wider roads, (20 feet (6.1 m)), than the other routes. This new toll road was developed so the new railroad could earn money even as it was being built as well as supplying their own hefty transportation needs. As the railroad construction progressed over the Sierras, freight could be shipped to near the railhead then transferred to wagons that could use the new toll road to complete their journey. It slowly took over much of the shipping to Virginia City and the Washoe district as the railroad progressed over Donner Summit (December 1868) and into Truckee and beyond. Today's Interstate 80 goes over much of the same route and is the main transportation artery over the Sierras in northern California.

Tolls existed on nearly all Sierra trail crossings as improvements were made; but most other roads after the two (later three) main toll roads were developed, were relatively lightly used. A typical toll from Sacramento to Virginia City Nevada was about $25.00 to $30.00 round trip for a freight wagon carrying at least 2,000 pounds (910 kg) up to 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg) of cargo with additional tolls possible for additional animals over six (usually $1.50/animal) and some additional bridge tolls were also needed. Some teams had up to ten animals pulling up to three wagons trailered behind each other. Neither the state nor federal governments helped build any "good" roads over the Sierras. Some counties and cities did help build some roads but mainly granted franchises so toll road operators could build and maintain good roads and/or bridges with assurances of minimum competition and compensation. Some resented the toll charges but the users of the road paid for the improvements and maintenance on the roads and taxpayers of this era in general were very hesitant to pick up the very hefty cost of building and maintaining good "free" roads.

Nearly all of the heavy wagon freighting and stage use over the Sierras ceased after the completion of the Central Pacific and Virginia Truckee railroads in 1869. The on going massive needs for millions of board feet of Sierra timber and thousands of cords of firewood in the Comstock Lode mines and towns would be the single major exception, although they even built narrow gauge railroads to haul much of this. Stages and wagons were still needed and used for the many cities not serviced by the railroads and the stage and freight lines continued in business. The first "highway" established by the counties was the Placerville toll route that was bought by the counties and made a "free" road in 1886.[73] The first "highway" established by the state government was this same Placerville wagon road over the Sierras after it was bought by the state in 1896. This road eventually became U.S. Highway 50. [74]

Due to lack of use after 1869, most of the wagon roads across the Sierras were allowed to deteriorate until by the early 1900s many were again next to impassable to wagons. The railroad serving nearly all trans-Sierra passenger and freight needs. The arrival of the automobile in the early 1900s revived the need for good Sierra roads. By 1910 only the Placerville route (now a state highway) was maintained well enough for car and truck traffic to get over the Sierras. [75] The Truckee Trail that was modified and upgraded to the Dutch Flat and Donner Wagon Road over Donner summit had deteriorated so bad the road had to be extensively rebuilt and relocated to become passable for cars or trucks. [76] After extensive upgrades and modifications this road would become U.S. Highway 40 and later Interstate 80.

Other Traffic

Others besides emigrants were also using parts of the trail(s) for freighting, extensive livestock herds of cows, sheep and horses, stage lines and briefly in 1860-61 the Pony Express. Traffic in the California-Nevada area was often two ways as the fabulously rich mines like the Comstock Lode (found in 1859) in Nevada and other gold and silver discoveries in eastern California, Nevada, Idaho and Montana needed supplies freighted out of California. The completion of the Panama Railroad in 1855 along with fast steamboats traveling to both the Pacific and Atlantic ports in Panama made shipping people and supplies from Europe and the east coast into California and from there to new gold and silver mining towns reasonably inexpensive. New ranches and settlements located along the trail(s) also needed supplies freighted in. Gold and silver discoveries in Colorado often had their supplies shipped in from the east coast and midwest along parts of the various emigrant trails. Steamboats delivered supplies to Missouri river ports from both sites in the eastern United States but also from Europe as New Orleans, Louisiana and others allowed cheap and reasonably fast ship connections to Europe. Before the railroads came in, horse, mule or oxen pulled freight wagons from either California or the midwest were the only way new supplies from the east, midwest and Europe could get to several states. Gold, silver, livestock etc. were shipped back to Europe and the east coast to pay for these supplies.

Toll bridges and ferries were active at nearly all previously dangerous river crossings as the trail became not only safer but quicker. Stage coaches by changing teams at newly established stage stations about every ten to (16km) twenty miles (32Km) and traveling day and night, could make a transit from the Missouri River to California in 25 to 28 days. After 1861 telegraph relay stations and their crews joined these stage stations along much of the route. Forts and army patrols helped protect these various stations from Indian attacks throughout the U.S. Civil War period and later. Regular wagon trains that only had one team per wagon and stopped at night cut their transit time from about 160 days in 1849 to 120 days in 1860. The tolls on the various bridges, ferries and toll roads typically averaged about $30.00 per wagon by 1860. All these toll bridges, roads and ferries shortened the journey west by about 40 days and made it much safer as bad parts of the trail were improved and dangerous river crossings were done now by ferries and toll bridges that cost money but were much safer and faster. Nearly all improvements were financed by tolls on the various roads, bridges and ferries.

The Central Pacific and Virginia and Truckee Railroads

The ultimate competitor to the California Trail showed up 1869 when the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The railroads in California were The Central Pacific Railroad and in Nevada the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The trip from Omaha Nebraska to California became faster, cheaper, and safer with a typical trip taking only 7 days and a $65 (economy) fare. Even before completion, sections of the railroad were used to haul freight and people around Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. The price of many goods imported from the east dropped by 20-50% as the much cheaper transportation costs were mostly passed on to the consumers. The California trail was used after 1869 by a few intrepid travelers but it basically reverted to mostly local traffic traveling to towns or locations along the trail.

See also

Early History and Maps of the California Trail

The exploration of the West by Jedediah Smith

The Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada mountains through which the trail passed and "claimed" by both Spanish and later Mexican authorities was not explored by any known Spanish or Mexican explorer. British and American fur trappers were the first to explore this area. U.S. trapper, explorer and fur trader Jedediah Smith led two expeditions into California and over the Sierra Nevada mountains and back from 1826-1829. Its believed that on his first trip he used the Mojave River route (later part of the Old Spanish Trail) to get into California and 8,730 feet (2,660 m) Ebbetts Pass when leaving California in the spring 1827. On Smith's second trip he entered California the same way and left through Oregon. Unfortunately, Smith was killed in 1831 before he could publish his explorations--his explorations were only known by word of mouth.

In 1828-29 Peter Skene Ogden, leading expeditions for the British Hudson's Bay Company, explored much of the Humboldt River area--named by him the Mary's River. The results of these explorations were held as proprietary secrets for many decades by the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1834 Benjamin Bonneville, a United States Army officer on leave to pursue an expedition to the west financed by John Jacob Astor, sent Joseph R. Walker and a small horse mounted party westward from the Green River in present-day Wyoming. They were charged with the mission of finding a route to California. Walker confirmed that the Humboldt River furnished a natural artery across the Great Basin to the Sierra Nevada mountains. He eventually got across the Sierra Nevada mountains in southern California over Walker Pass. Bonneville had the account of his and Walker's explorations in the west written up by Washington Irving in 1838. (See: "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville" [82]).

A few hundred mountain men and their families had been filtering into California for several decades prior to 1841 over various paths from Oregon and Santa Fe. The first known emigrants to use parts of the California Trail was the 1841 Bartleson-Bidwell Party.

John Bidwell

They followed the Humboldt River across Nevada and eventually made it into northern California. Other parts of this party split off and were one of the first sets of emigrants to use the Oregon Trail to get to Oregon. The California bound travelers, striking out from the Snake River and passing into Nevada, missed the head of the Humboldt river there. They abandoned their wagons in eastern Nevada and finished the trip by pack train. After an arduous transit of the Sierras (its believed over Ebbetts Pass), members of this group later founded Chico, California in the Sacramento Valley. In 1842 (a year without any known California Trail emigration), Joseph Chiles, a member of the Bartleson-Bidwell Party of 1841, returned with several others back east. In 1843 Chiles led a party (of seven he eventually would lead) back to California. At Fort Hall he met Joseph Reddeford Walker who he convinced to lead half the settlers with him traveling in wagons back to California down the Humboldt. Chiles led the rest in a pack train party down the Malheur River to California. Walker's party in 1843 also abandoned their wagons and finished getting to California by pack train. In 1844, Caleb Greenwood and the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party became the first settlers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada and into California over what became the Truckee Trail. They finished retrieving their wagons from the mountains in the spring of 1845. In 1845, John C. Frémont and Lansford Hastings guided parties totaling several hundred settlers along the Humboldt River portion of the California Trail to California. They were the first to make the entire trip by wagon in one traveling season. In 1846 it is believed that about 1,500 settlers made their way to California over the Truckee branch of the California Trail--just in time to join the war for independence there. Many of the 1845 and 1846 emigrants were recruited into the California Battalion to assist the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron with its sailors and marines in the fight for independence from Mexican miss-rule in California. The present day states of Utah, Nevada, and most of Arizona and parts of Wyoming and Colorado, despite being claimed by Spain and Mexico, were unsettled by any Spanish or Mexican settlers.

The last immigrant party in 1846 was the Donner Party, who were persuaded by Lansford Hastings (who had never actually traveled over the route he recommended) to take what would be called the Hastings Cutoff around the south end of the Great Salt Lake. Unknown to Hastings and the Donner party his 'cutoff' led not only over the rugged Wasatch mountains with no wagon trails but also across over 80 miles (130 km) of waterless salt flats. The Donner party spent over a weeks worth of hard work scratching a barely usable path across the Wasatch mountains. When the Mormons tried using this same trail in 1848 they were forced to abandon most of the Donner's party trail and cut (with many more settlers available to clear trees and brush) a new and much easier to use trail to Salt Lake valley. While crossing the Salt Flats the Donner party lost several wagons and many animals. They spent almost a week at Donner Springs near the base of Pilot Mountain in Box Elder County, Utah [83] after they crossed the salt flats trying to recover themselves and their animals. They wasted even more time skirting around the Ruby Mountains in Nevada before hitting the Humboldt River and the regular trail. Altogether, crossing the mountains and salt flats cost them three weeks time over what staying on the main trail would have taken. They and their surviving wagons and teams were in poor shape. They were the last emigrants of 1846 to arrive in California--unfortunately east of the Sierras and just as it started to snow. They were stranded by early snowfall in the eastern Sierras near Donner Lake and suffered severely including starvation, death and cannibalism (See: Donner Party).

The first “decent” map [84] of California and Oregon were drawn by Captain John C. Frémont of the U. S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, and his topographers and cartogaphers in about 1848. Fremont and his men, led by his guide and former trapper Kit Carson, made extensive expeditions starting in 1844 over parts of California and Oregon including the important Humboldt River and Old Spanish Trail routes. They made numerous topographical measurements of Longitude, Latitude and elevation as well as cartographic sketches of the observable surroundings. His map, although in error in minor ways, was the best map available in 1848. John C. Frémont gave the Great Salt Lake, Humboldt River, Pyramid Lake, Carson River, Walker River, Old Spanish Trail etc. their current names. The Truckee River was mapped although called the Salmon Trout River by Fremont. Lake Tahoe is shown but left unnamed. The major rivers in California are shown, presumably given the names used by the trappers and Mexican and foreign settlers there. The Humboldt was named (after the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt). Fremont and his topographers/cartographers did not have time (it would take literally decades of work to do this) to make extensive explorations of the entire Sierra Nevada range or Great Basin. Details of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin concerning the best passes or possible emigrant routes for wagons would be explored and used from about 1846 to 1859 by numerous other explorers.

Fremont in 1846-1847 was one of the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolution and the California Battalion as well as the first Governor of California. Fremont, together with his wife Jessie Benton Fremont, wrote an extensive account of his explorations and published the first “accurate” map of California and Oregon making them much more widely known. The U.S. Senate had 10,000 copies of Fremont’s map and exploration write-up printed. How many of the these maps were actually in the hands of early immigrants is unknown.

The trickle of emigrants before 1848 would become a flood after the discovery of gold in California in January 1848, the same year that the U.S. acquired and paid for possession of the New Mexico Territory and California Territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which terminated the Mexican American War. The gold rush to northern California started in 1848 as settlers in Oregon, southern California and Mexico headed for the gold fields even before the gold discovery was widely known about in the east. Within several months of the public announcement of the gold discovery by President Polk in late 1848 and the display of several hundred ounces of gold in Washington induced thousands of gold seekers in the east to begin making plans to go to California. By the spring of 1849 tens of thousands of gold seekers headed westward for California. The California Trail was one of three main ways used as Argonauts went by the California Trail, across the Isthmus of Panama and around Cape Horn between South America and Antarctica to get to California. The 1848 and 1849 gold rushers were just the first of many more as many more sought to seek their fortunes during the California Gold Rush which continued for several years as about $50,000,000 dollars worth of gold (at $21/troy oz) was found each year. [85]

Unfortunately, 1849 was also the first year of large scale cholera epidemics in the United States and the rest of the world and thousands are thought to have died along the trail on their way to California--most buried in unmarked graves in Kansas and Nebraska. The 1850 census showed this rush was overwhelmingly male as the ratio of women to men in California over 16 was about 1:18.[86]

Combined with the settlers that came by sea, the California settlers that came over the California Trail by 1850 were sufficient (at about 93,000) for California to choose a boundary, write a Constitution and apply for and receive statehood, which it did as a free state.

Despite the popular image of Hollywood movies of horse drawn wagons from 60 to over 70% traveled West with teams of oxen with mule teams second and almost no horses. These ox teams were guided by teamsters walking along side the team and using whip and voice commands to guide them-- “Whoa,” to stop, and “Get Up,” to go forward, or come, “Gee,” to turn right, and “Haw, to turn left toward the walking driver. The ox team was chosen for many reasons. An ox team was slower (about 2–3 miles/hour for ox team vs. about 10% faster for horses or mules) but: cheaper to buy ($70 to $250 for six oxen vs. $300 to $1000 for six mules or horses), three yoke of oxen (6 oxen total) could pull more, survive better on the sparse grass often found along the trail and was often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. Oxen were fairly easy to train usually taking only a few weeks training before they could do good work. As a bonus, oxen seldom needed grain or oats like horses or mules and if an oxen ran off at night it was usually easier to find and catch them and the Indians were less interested in stealing them. In an emergency the ox could and was used as a pack animal or killed for food. Mules, the next hardiest animal, were hard to purchase trained and most that were available were untrained and it took a determined mule skinner two to three months to train them. Mules were often guided by riding one of the mules next to the wheels and using reins to the rest of the team. Many wagons had no seats in them. Horses were used in later years by more teams as settlements along the way made it possible to buy the grain they often needed to stay healthy for daily work. Losing your team to theft, stampede, lost animals or exhaustion on the trail was a major disaster and even if you could find or buy replacements (not a sure thing) it wouldn't be cheap or easy. Near the end of trail as wagons started breaking down more often and teams became depleted, the much smaller loads were often consolidated into fewer wagons using fewer total animals.

The busy times on the trail were from late April to early October with almost no winter traffic (several parts of the trail were impassable in winter). In busy years the trail was more like a large immigrating village hundreds of miles long as thousands used the same parts of the trail in the same short traveling season. Many signed up to wagon trains that traveled the whole route together. Many large trains broke up into several smaller trains to take better advantage of available camping spots, traveling schedules, conditions of teams, etc.. Others, usually traveling as family groups of various sizes, joined and left various trains as their own schedule and traveling conditions dictated. Because of the numerous scrabbles often present in a given wagon train, a typical train may have several different leaders elected at various times to lead the train. Possible Indian troubles was about the only condition that kept large trains together for mutual protection. (See: Oregon Trail for more information on supplies needed etc..)

Goods, supplies and equipment were often shared by fellow travelers [87]. Other goods that were forgotten, broken or wore out could often be found discarded by others or bought from a fellow traveler, post or fort along the way. New iron shoes for horses mules and oxen, equipment repairs and other goods could often be procured from blacksmith shops established at some forts and some ferries along the way. A good blacksmith shop established along the trail could often do several thousand dollars worth of business in a few months time. Most blacksmith shops closed up shop and moved to local towns for the winter.

Emergency supplies, repairs and livestock were often provided by local residents in Oregon, California and Utah for late travelers on the trail who were hurrying to beat the snow and had run out of supplies, broken down or needed fresh animals.



Estimated California Oregon Mormon Trail Emigrants [88]
Year Oregon California Utah Total
1834-39 20 - - 20
1840 13 - - 13
1841 24 34 - 58
1842 125 - - 125
1843 875 38 - 913
1844 1,475 53 - 1,528
1845 2,500 260 - 2,760
1846 1,200 1,500 - 2,700
1847 4,000 450 2,200 6,650
1848 1,300 400 2,400 4,100
Tot to '49 11,512 2,735 4,600 18,847
1849 450 25,000 1,500 26,950
1850 6,000 44,000 2,500 52,500
1851 3,600 1,100 1,500 6,200
1852 10,000 50,000 10,000 70,000
1853 7,500 20,000 8,000 35,500
1854 6,000 12,000 3,200 21,200
1855 500 1,500 4,700 6,700
1856 1,000 8,000 2,400 11,400
1857 1,500 4,000 1,300 6,800
1858 1,500 6,000 150 7,650
1859 2,000 17,000 1,400 20,400
1860 1,500 9,000 1,600 12,100
Total 53,000 200,300 43,000 296,300
1834-60 Oregon California Utah[89] Total[90]
1861 - - 3,148 5,000
1862 - - 5,244 5,000
1863 - - 4,760 10,000
1864 - - 2,626 10,000
1865 - - 690 20,000
1866 - - 3,299 25,000
1867 - - 700 25,000
1868 - - 4,285 25,000
Total 80,000 250,000 70,000 400,000
1834-67 Oregon California Utah Total

Some of the trail statistics for the early years were recorded by the U.S. Army at Fort Laramie, Wyoming from about 1849 to 1855. Unfortunately, none of these original statistical records have been found--the army lost them or destroyed them. We only have some diary references to these records and some partial written copies of the Army records as recorded in several diaries. Emigration to California spiked considerably due to the 1849 gold rush. Following the discovery of gold, California remained the destination of choice for most emigrants on the trail up to 1860, with almost 200,000 people traveling there between 1849 and 1860.

Travel after 1860 is even less well known as the U.S. Civil War caused considerable disruptions on the trail. Many of the people on the trail in 1861-1863 were fleeing the war and its attendant drafts in both the south and the north. Trail Historian Merrill J. Mattes[91] has estimated the number of emigrants for 1861-1867 given in the total column of the above table. But, these estimates may well be low since they only amount to an extra 125,000 people and we know from the 1870 census numbers that over 200,000 additional people (ignoring most of California's population increase which had an excellent sea and rail connections across Panama by then) showed up in all the states served by the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman Trail(s) and its offshoots. Mormon emigration records after 1860 are a reasonably well known as newspaper and other accounts in Salt Lake City give most of the names of emigrants arriving each year from 1847 to 1868.[92] Gold and silver strikes in Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Montana also caused a considerable increase in people using the trail(s) often in directions different than the original trail users.

Though the numbers are significant in the context of the times, far more people chose to remain at home in the 31 states. Between 1840 and 1860, the population of the United States rose by 14 million, yet only about 300,000 decided to make the trip. Between 1860 and 1870 the U.S. population increased by seven million with about 350,000 of this increase being in the Western states. Many were discouraged by the cost, effort and danger of the trip. Western scout Kit Carson reputedly said, "The cowards never started and the weak died on the way." According to several sources 3-10% of the emigrants are estimated to have perished on the way west.[93].

Western Census Data

Census Population of western States [94]
State 1870 1860 Difference
California 560,247 379,994 180,253
Nevada 42,491 6,857 35,634
Oregon 90,923 52,465 38,458
Colorado* 39,684 34,277 5,407
Idaho* 14,990 - 14,990
Montana* 20,595 - 20,595
Utah* 86,789 40,273 46,516
Washington* 23,955 11,594 12,361
Wyoming* 9,118 - 9,118
Totals 888,792 525,460 363,332

These census numbers show a 363,000 population increase in the western states and territories between 1860 and 1870. Some of this increase is due to a high birth rate in the western states and territories but most is due to emigrants moving from the east to the west and new immigration from Europe. Much of the increase in California and Oregon is due to emigration by ship as there were fast and reasonable "low" cost transportation via east and west coast steam ships and the Panama Railroad after 1855. The census numbers imply at least 200,000 emigrants (or more) used some variation of the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman trail(s) to get to their new homes in the 1860-1870 decade.


The cost of traveling over the California or Oregon trail and its extensions varied from nothing to a few hundred dollars per person. Women seldom went alone outside of family groups and were a distinct minority in the West for decades. The cheapest way to travel the trail was to hire on to help drive the wagons or herds, allowing one to make the trip for nearly nothing or even make a small profit. Those with capital could often buy livestock in the Midwest and drive the stock to California or Oregon and usually make good money doing it. About 60-80% of the travelers were farmers, and as such already owned a wagon, livestock team and many of the necessary supplies, this lowered the cost of the trip to about $50.00 per person for six months food and other items. Families often planned for a trip months in advance and made many of the extra clothing and other items needed. Individuals buying most of the needed items would end up spending between $150 to $300 per person.[95] Some who traveled in "grand" style with several wagons and servants could spend much more.

As the trail matured, additional costs for ferries and toll roads were thought to have been about $30.00 per wagon or about $10.00/persn.[96]


Oregon-California-Mormon Trail Deaths[97]
Cause Estimated deaths
Cholera1 6,000-12,500
Indian attacks2 500-1,000
Freezing3 300-500
Run overs4 200-500
Drownings5 200-500
Shootings6 200-500
Scurvy7 300-500
Miscellaneous8 200-500
Totals 8,000-16,500
See Notes

The route West was arduous and filled with many dangers but the number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision and there are only wildly varying estimates. The estimates are made even harder by the common practice then of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by their livestock to make them difficult to find. Diseases like cholera were the main killer of trail travelers with up to 3% (or more) of all travelers (6,000 to 12,000+ total) dying of cholera in the cholera years of 1849 to 1855. Indian attacks were probably the second leading cause of death with about 500 to 1,000 being killed from 1841 to 1870. Other common causes of death included: freezing to death (300-500), drowning in river crossings (200-500), getting run over by wagons (200-500), and accidental gun deaths (200-500).

A significant number of travelers were suffering from scurvy by the end of their trips. Their typical flour and salted pork/bacon diet had very little vitamin-C in it. Unfortunately, the diet in the mining camps was also typically very poor in fresh vegetables and fruit, etc. which indirectly led to early deaths of many of the Argonauts. Some believe that scurvy deaths due to poor nutrition may have rivaled cholera as a killer with most deaths occurring after they reached California. [98] Ironically, many understood the importance of a diet that included fresh vegetables and fruit and how to prevent scurvy was common knowledge in some circles but far from universally known or taught. The Chinese Argonauts with their insistence on many vegetables in their diet fared much better. Miscellaneous deaths included deaths by: homicides, lightning strikes, childbirths, stampedes, snake bites, flash floods, falling trees, kicks by animals, etc. probably numbered from 200 to 500 deaths or more along the trail. Travelers rarely made the entire trip with out one or more in their traveling group dying. According to an evaluation by John Unruh [99], a 4% death rate or 16,000 out of 400,000 total pioneers on all trails may have died on the trail.


One of the main enduring legacies of the Oregon and California Trails is the expansion of the United States territory to the West Coast. Without the many thousands of United States settlers in Oregon and California with their "boots on the ground" and more thousands on their way each year it is highly unlikely that this would have occurred. Surprising to some, the Oregon and California Trails were both established as known emigrant routes in 1841 by the same emigrant party. In 1841 the Bartleson-Bidwell Party group set out for California, but about half the party left the original group at Soda Springs, Idaho and proceeded to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the other half proceeded on to California. During pre-American Civil War "Bleeding Kansas" skirmishes between Kansas and Missouri raiders, the jumping off points for westward-bound wagon trains shifted northward towards Omaha, Nebraska. The trail branch John Fremont followed from Westport Landing to the Wakarusa Valley south of Lawrence, Kansas became regionally known as the "California Road."

Part of the same general route of the trail across Nevada was used for the Central Pacific portion of the first transcontinental railroad. In the 20th century, the route was used for modern highways, in particular U.S. Highway 40 and later Interstate 80. Ruts from the wagon wheels and names of emigrants, written with axle grease on rocks, can still be seen in the City of Rocks National Reserve in southern Idaho.

See also


  1. ^ Californios [1] Accessed 25 July 2009
  2. ^ Californios revolt 1845 [2] Accessed 25 July 2009
  3. ^ Oregon-California Trail Association [3]
  4. ^ National Trail Map [4]
  5. ^ National Park Service Trail Map [5]
  6. ^ "Provisions for the Trail". End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center. Retrieved December 23, 2007. 
  7. ^ Dary, David The Oregon Trail an American Saga; Alfred p. Knopf New York; 2004; pp 274;ISBN0-375-41399-5
  8. ^ India Rubber water bottles/mattresses Accessed 21 January 2009
  9. ^ Unruh:op. cit. pp 4–5
  10. ^ Unruh: pp 149–155
  11. ^ Unruh: pp 149–150
  12. ^ Unruh: p 150
  13. ^ Union Pacific Chronological History [6] Accessed 14 July 2009
  14. ^ Mattes, Merrill J.' "The Great Platte River Road"; Bison Books; 1987; ISBN 978-0-8032-8153-0
  15. ^ Causes of Cholera [7]
  16. ^ Meldahl, Keith Heyer;"Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail"; pp51-68; University Of Chicago Press; ;2008; ISBN 978-0-226-51962-3
  17. ^ Meldahl, Keith Heyer;p 78; op.cite.
  18. ^ Meldahl, Keith Heyer, p 143, op. cit.
  19. ^ Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff Map [8]
  20. ^ Lander Road Cutoff Map [9]
  21. ^ "Emigrant Trails of Southern Idaho"; Bureau of Land Management & Idaho State Historical Society;1993; pp 117-125 ASIN: B000KE2KTU
  22. ^ Petersen, Jesse G.; "Route for the Overland Stage: James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin"; Utah State University Press; 2008; ISBN 978-0-87421-693-6
  23. ^ United States Topographical Engineers Links [10] Accessed February 9, 2009
  24. ^ Pony Express Trail map [11] accessed January 28, 2009
  25. ^ Oregon-California Trail interpretive center [12] Accessed 4 Mar 2009
  26. ^ Big Hill Idaho (OCTA Idaho) [13] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  27. ^ Oregon National Historic Trail Map [14] accessed 28 Jan 2009
  28. ^ Hudspeth cutoff map (OCTA-Idaho) [15] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  29. ^ City of Rocks Park[16] Accessed 15 Mae 2010
  30. ^ City of Rocks [17] Accessed 15 Mar 2010
  31. ^ Northern Nevada and Utah, Southern Idaho Tail Map[18] Accessed 18 Mar 2010
  32. ^ Lander California trail guide [19] Accessed 15 Mar 2010>
  33. ^ Willis California Trail guide[20] Accessed 15 Mar 2010
  34. ^ Forty Mile Desert [21] accessed 5 Feb 2009.
  35. ^ Forty Mile Desert Pictures [22] Accessed 9 Feb 2009
  36. ^ Several Pictures of Forty Mile Desert and Brady's Hot Springs [23] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  37. ^ Meldahl, Keith Heyer; pp 229; op.cit.
  38. ^ Brady's (Emigrant) Hot Springs Power Plant [24] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  39. ^ Forty Mile Desert Spring, archived from the original on August 9, 2007,, retrieved March 15, 2010 
  40. ^ Forty Mile Desert Statistics [25] accessed 5 Feb 2009.
  41. ^ Forty Mile Desert OCTA [26] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  42. ^ Trans-Sierra roads [27] Accessed 16 July 2009
  43. ^ Gradydon, Charles; "Trail of the First Wagons Over the Sierra Nevada"; p 10; The Patrice Press; 1986; ISBN 978-0-935284-59-1
  44. ^ Roller Pass Truckee Trail Map [28]
  45. ^ Stewart, George R.; "The California Trail: An Epic with Many Heroes"; Bison Books; 1983; p 140; ISBN 978-0-8032-9143-0
  46. ^ Central Pacific toll road over Sierras [29] Accessed 17 July 2009
  47. ^ Henness Pass Road [30] Accessed 16 July 2009
  48. ^ Webber Lake Hotel [31] Accessed 17 July 2009
  49. ^ Virginia and Truckee Railroad [32] Accessed 21 July 2009
  50. ^ Beckworth Trail [33] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  51. ^ Oroville-Quincy Highway [34] Accessed 16 July 2009
  52. ^ Mormon-Carson Pass Emigrant Trail [35] Accessed 13 July 2009
  53. ^ Pictures and text Forty Mile Desert [36] Accessed 13 July 2009
  54. ^ Ox carts [37] accessed / July 2009
  55. ^ Tragedy Spring [38]
  56. ^ Hope Valley Pictures [39] Accessed 27 Mar 2009
  57. ^ Owens,Kenneth N.; "Gold Rush Saints: California Mormons And the Great Rush for Riches"; p 184; University of Oklahoma Press; 2005; ISBN-978-0806136813.
  58. ^ Pictures of Hope Valley CA [40] Accessed 8 Mar 2009
  59. ^ Carson Pass [41] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  60. ^ >Adams, Kenneth C., ed."From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p61
  61. ^ Howard, Thomas Frederick; "Sierra Cossings: First Roads to California"; University of California Press; 2000; p 84; ISBN-978-0520226869
  62. ^ Alternate trails over the Sierras [42] Accessed 6 Feb 2009
  63. ^ Adams, Kenneth C., ed. "From Trails to Freeways". Centennial ed. Sacramento, CA: California Highways and Public Works, 1950; pp. 61, 64, 66
  64. ^ "State Route 89". California Highways. Retrieved 2007-11-04. 
  65. ^ Ebbets Pass road picture [43]
  66. ^ Applegate-Lassen [44] Accessed 13 July 2009
  67. ^ Applegate-Lassen Trail Pictures text [45] Accessed 13 July 2009
  68. ^ Unruh,John D., pp236-37; op. cit.
  69. ^ -Hoover, Wilfred B., Rensch, Hero Eugene, Rensch, Ethel Grace; "Historic Spots in California": p77-81 (3rd ed.); Stanford University Press; 1966;ISBN 978-0-8047-4482-9 (5th Ed. 2002)
  70. ^ Ford, Eliot; "Comstock Mining and Miners"; pp 190-97; Orig published 1883, republished 1959 Howell-North Berkeley Calif.; ASIN: B000MYUMMK
  71. ^ Kraus, George; "High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific (Now the Southern Pacific) Across the High Sierra"; American West Publishing Co.; 1969; p307; ASIN: B000NPQ4PW
  72. ^ Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road [46] Accessed 23 July 2009
  73. ^ Howard, Thomas F.; p. 175; op.cite
  74. ^ First State Highway [47] Accessed 16 Feb 2009
  75. ^ Adams, Kenneth C., ed.; "From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p66
  76. ^ Adams, Kenneth C., ed.; "From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p66
  77. ^ National Park Service Oregon Trail Interactive Map [48]|Accessed 20 Jan. 2009)
  78. ^ Wyoming Immigrant Trail Maps [49] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  79. ^ Wyoming Trail Descriptions & Maps [50] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  80. ^ California Trail Maps NPS [51] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  81. ^ National Trail Maps [52] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  82. ^ The Adventures of Captain Bonneville s:The Adventures of Captain Bonneville accessed 5 Jan. 2009
  83. ^ [53] Donner Springs; accessed 23 Dec 2009
  84. ^ [54] Fremont’s Map of California and Oregon; Accessed 23 Dec 2009
  85. ^ Greeley, Horace; "An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859"; XXXIV; [55]
  86. ^ 1850 census Male female ratio California [56]
  87. ^ Unruh, John David (1993). The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60. University of Illinois Press. pp. 149–155. ISBN 9780252063602. 
  88. ^ Unruh: page 119-120
  89. ^ Mormon Pioneer Companies [57] Accessed 11 Apr 2009
  90. ^ Mattes, Merril J.; "The Great Platte River Road"; p23; Nebraska State Historical Society; 1979: ISBN 978-0-686-26254-1
  91. ^ Mattes, Merrill J.; op. cit.; p 23
  92. ^ Mormon Pioneer Companies [58] Accessed 11 Apr 2009
  93. ^ Lloyd W. Coffman, 1993, Blazing A Wagon Trail To Oregon
  94. ^ U.S. Census 1790-1870 [59]
  95. ^ Dary, David (2004). The Oregon Trail an American Saga. Alfred p. Knopf New York. pp. 272–275. ISBN 0-375-41399-5. 
  96. ^ Unruh: page 408
  97. ^ Unruh: pp 408-410, 516
  98. ^ Steele, Volney M.D.; "Bleed, Blister, And Purge: A History Of Medicine On The American Frontier"; Mountain Press Publishing Company"; 2005;pp 115, 116; ISBN 978-0-87842-505-1
  99. ^ Unruh, John David pp. 408-410, 516


^1 Cholera deaths includes deaths by other 'diseases' of the day like old age, small pox, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia, consumption (tuberculosis), measles, yellow fever, dysentery, whooping cough, scarlet fever, malaria, mumps etc. The trail people were already exposed to these diseases before they left and would have in all likelihood have caught them anyway and are not unique hazards of the trail. There was no effective treatment for many of these diseases then (the germ theory of disease was just gaining acceptance) and little that any Doctor of this era could do for those that got them except let them recover on their own or die.

^2 Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country often encroaching on Indian territory. Increased attacks along the Humboldt lead to most travelers taking the Central Nevada Route across Nevada.

^3 For examples of freezing deaths see: Donner Party and Willie and Martin handcart companies for three major disasters.

^4 Run overs were a major cause of death, despite the wagons only averaging 2–3 miles per hour. The wagons couldn't easily be stopped and people, particularly children, were often trying to get on and off the wagons while they were moving--not always successfully. Another hazard was walking alongside the wagon and your dress getting caught in the wheels and pulling you under it. The iron wheels on the wagons were not very forgiving.

^5 Drownings at river crossings probably peaked in 1849 and 1850 when young, impatient and pushy, men (who thought they knew it all and were immortal) were the predominant population on the trail. Later more family groups started traveling as well as many more ferries and bridges being put in--fording a dangerous river became much less common and dangerous. Surprisingly few people were taught to swim in this era.

^6 Accidental shootings declined significantly after Fort Laramie as people became more familiar with their weapons and often just left them in their wagons. Carrying around a ten pound rifle all day soon became tedious and usually unnecessary as the perceived Indian threat faded and hunting opportunities receded.

^7 Scurvy, as such, was not often listed as a cause of death; but reading the reason they died leads to the conclusion that scurvy was probably the major cause of death--particularly in the last month on the trail.

^8 Miscellaneous is a large catch all for deaths on the trail and may be too small--there were a lot of ways to die back then.

California Trail Bibliography

  • Adams, Kenneth C., ed. From Trails to Freeways. California Highways and Public Works. 1950. (Centennial Edition)
  • Andrews, Thomas F. Ho! For Oregon and California!: An Annotated Bibliography of Published Advice to the Emigrant, 1841-47. Princeton University Library Chronicle 33 (Autumn 1971): 41-64. ASIN: B000722E5U
  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of California 1825-1890 (vol . 18-24. index in vol. 24). San Francisco, The History Company Publishers. 1886-1890 (Google Books) [60]
  • Bryant, Edwin. What I Saw in California (1848). Reprinted, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0-217-90418-6. (eBook) [61]
  • Bruff, Joseph Goldsborough. Gold Rush: The Journals, Drawings, and other Papers of J. Goldsborough Bruff. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.
  • Cramer, Howard Ross. The California Trail in Idaho: The Salt Lake Cutoff. Burley, ID: Burley District, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, 1974. ASIN: B0006YD7E6
  • Fremont, John C., Col. U. S. Army. The Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, Oregon and California To Which Is Added a Description of the Physical Geography of California, with Recent Notices of the Gold Region from the Latest and Most Authentic Sources. (1848) (free eBook) [62]
  • Fremont, John C., Col. U. S. Army. Map of Oregon and Upper California. (1848). Wendell and Van Benthuysen Washington. reissued 1857. [63]
  • Greeley, Horace. An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859. XXXIV.(eBook) [64]
  • Hayes, Derek. Historical Atlas of California. University of California Press. (October 30, 2007). ISBN 978-0-520-25258-5
  • Hill, William. California Trail Yesterday and Today: A Pictorial Journey. Boise: Tamarack Books, 1986. ISBN 978-0-87108-712-6
  • Holliday, J. S., ed. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981. reissued by University of Oklahoma Press (November 2002). ISBN 978-0-8061-3464-2
  • Kerswill, Roy. A Pictorial Story of the Oregon - California Trail, Heritage Associates. 1st edition (February 1996). ISBN 978-0-9650703-0-0
  • Koeppel,Elliot H. The California Gold Country:Highway 49 Revisited. [65]
  • Landon, Michael N., ed. The Journals of George Q. Cannon, vol. 1: To California in ’49. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999. reissued by Shadow Mountain (January 1, 2000). ISBN 978-1-57345-465-0
  • Levy, Jo Ann. They Saw the Elephant. Women in the California Gold Rush. Hamden: Archon Press, 1990. reissued by University of Oklahoma Press (September 1992). ISBN 978-0-8061-2473-5
  • Lewis, Oscar. Sutter’s Fort: Gateway to the Gold Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966. ASIN B0026EDDW0
  • Mattes, Merrill. The Great Platte River Road. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1969. reissued by University of Nebraska Press. Revised edition (November 1, 1987). ISBN 978-0-8032-8153-0
  • McGlashan, Charles F. History of the Donner Party, A Tragedy of the Sierra. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft, 1880. Reprint, Fresno, CA: California History Books, 1973. reissued by Abdul Press (November 4, 2008). ISBN 978-1-4437-3839-2
  • MacGregor, Greg. Overland: The California emigrant trail of 1841-1870. Publisher: Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-8263-1704-9
  • Meldahl, Keith Heyer. Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail. University Of Chicago Press. Reprint edition (September 15, 2008) ISBN 978-0-226-51962-3
  • Meyers, Sandra L., ed. Ho For California--Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library. San Marino: Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1980. ISBN 978-0-87328-103-4
  • Moffat, Gwen. Hard Road West: Alone on the California Trail. Littlehampton Book Services Ltd (March 26, 1981) ISBN 978-0-575-02943-9
  • Morgan, Dale L. The Humboldt: Highroad of the West. The Rivers of America Series. New York: Rinehart, 1943. Reprint Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.
  • Morgan, Dale, ed. Overland in 1846: Diaries and Letters of the California-Oregon Trail. Georgetown, CA.: Talisman Press, 1963. reprint ed., Lincoln & London, University of Nebraska Press, 1993. 2 vol set ASIN: B001VO7J5I
  • Newell, Olive. Tail of the Elephant: The Emigrant Experience on the Truckee Route of the California Trail, 1844-1852. A California Sesquicentennial Publication. Nevada City, CA: Nevada County Historical Society, 1997. ISBN 978-0-915641-09-3
  • Nunis, Doyce B. Jr., ed. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party: 1841 California Emigrant Adventure: The Documents and Memoirs of the Overland Pioneers. Santa Cruz, CA: Western Tanager Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0-934136-32-7
  • Owens, Kenneth N. The Mormon-Carson Emigrant Trail in Western History. Montana, Magazine of Western History 42 (Winter 1992): 14-27.
  • Petersen, Jesse G. Route for the Overland Stage: James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin. # Utah State University Press. 2008.ISBN 978-0-87421-693-6
  • Pritchard, James A. The Overland Diary of James A. Pritchard from Kentucky to California in 1849. Denver: Fred A. Rosenstock Co., 1959. ASIN: B002VRK100
  • Rieck, Richard L. Geography of the California Trails: Part I. Overland Journal 11 (Winter 1993): 12-22.
  • Smedley, William (1836-1926). Across the plains in ‘62. diary [66]
  • Stewart, George. The California Trail: An Epic With Many Heroes. New York: McGraw Hill, 1962. reprint ed., Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. reissued by Bison Books (August 1, 1983). ISBN 978-0-8032-9143-0
  • Unruh, John David (1993). The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60. University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06360-2.
  • Ward, D. B., (1838- ). Across the plains in 1853. diary. [67]
  • White, Richard. It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own. A New History of the American West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. reissued by University of Oklahoma Press (September 1993). ISBN 978-0-8061-2567-1

External links


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