The California Trail - Rush to Gold
never see each other again, do the best you can, God will take care of
- Patty Reed of the Donner-Reed Party 1846
The California Trail
carried over 250,000 gold-seekers and farmers to the gold fields and
rich farmlands of the Golden State during the 1840s and 1850s, the greatest mass migration in
American history. The general route began at various jumping off
points along the
and stretched to various points in
and the Sierra
Nevada. The specific route that emigrants and forty-niners used depended on
their starting point in Missouri,
their final destination in California,
the condition of their wagons and livestock, and yearly changes in
water and forage along the different routes. The trail passes through
the states of
Before the trail was blazed, the Great
Basin region had only been partially explored during the days of
Spanish and Mexican rule. However, that changed in 1832 when Benjamin
Bonneville, a United States Army officer, requested a leave of absence
to pursue an expedition to the west. The expedition was financed
by John Jacob Astor, a rival of the Hudson Bay company. While
Bonneville was exploring the Snake River in Wyoming,
he sent a party of men under Joseph Walker to explore the Great Salt
Lake and find an overland route to California.
Early settlers began to use the trail
in the 1840's, the first of which was John Bidwell, who led the 1841
Bidwell-Bartleson Party. In 1842, a member of the Bidwell-Bartleson
Party returned to Missouri on the Humboldt River Route.
Among them was a man named Joseph
Chiles, who would lead another party to California
in 1843 and play an important part in the subsequent opening of more
segments of the California Trail.
Throughout the 1840's settlers would develop short cuts on the route
to California. One such short cut, called the Hastings Route,
ran south of the main route. This "new" route would spell the
death of many of those in the infamous
The main branch of the trail across the
Great Plains generally followed the same path as the Oregon
and Mormon Trails, but extended to California
from various points in southern
and Idaho. The trail followed the
River before crossing the great plains of Nebraska along the Platte and North Platte
Rivers to present-day Wyoming.
It then followed the Sweetwater River across Wyoming, then northwest along the Snake River to Fort Hall in present-day southeastern
Idaho. Fort Hall was the Hudson Bay Company's post on the Snake River. From
here, the primary route followed the Snake River south to American Falls, past Massacre
Rocks, and Register Rock to cross the Raft River. After the crossing
of the river, the trail split with the
with the California bound emigrants turning south through the Raft River
Valley to the City of Rocks.
The trail then climbed through the
Pinnacle and Granite Passes, before dropping down to Goose Creek
and meandering south through the northwest corner of
At the headwaters of the Humboldt River in
present-day northwestern Nevada the
California Trail followed the north bank of the Humboldt River southwest through present
Nevada and the narrow Carlin Canyon, where, during periods of high water, the
route was almost impassable.
West of Carlin, the California Trail
climbed Emigrant Pass, descending into Emigrant Canyon to rejoin the
Humboldt River at Gravelly Ford. Here, the route divided to follow
the north and south sides of the river, before rejoining at Humboldt Bar. Various routes branched out across the Sierra
as the emigrants made there way to
various destinations in California.
Early emigrants once called the
California Trail an elephant, due to the difficult journey. If
you wanted to get to California
in pre-railroad times, you were guaranteed an arduous trek. California
emigrants faced the greatest challenges of all the pioneer emigrants of
the mid-19th century. In addition to the Rockies, these emigrants faced
the barren deserts of
Nevada and the imposing Sierra
"I think that I
may without vanity affirm that I have seen
- Louisa Clapp
travelers of the California Trail often quipped that if you had "seen the elephant,"
then you had hit some hard traveling.
When gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in Coloma,
California, the trickle of
emigrants became a flood as thousands of prospectors and families made
their way to the Golden State in hopes of finding their fortunes. According to some statistics, over 70,000 emigrants used the California Trail
in 1849 and 1850 alone.
the two decades of the 1840's and 1850's, the California Trail carried over 250,000 gold-seekers and farmers to
the state's gold fields and rich farmlands. It was the greatest mass
migration in American history.
Eventually, the portions of the railroad followed
parts of the California Trail
and as the automobile was introduced and began to be used by the masses,
highways replaced the trail. Today, U.S. Highways 40 and 80 follow
the path of the California Trail.
California Trail system, which now includes approximately 5,665 miles
of trails, was developed over a period of years. Numerous cutoffs
and alternate routes were tried along the
California Trail to see which was the "best" in terms of
terrain, length and sufficient water and grass for livestock.
Today, more than 1,000 miles of trail ruts and traces can
still be seen in the vast undeveloped lands between Casper, Wyoming
and the West Coast, reminders of the sacrifices, struggles, and triumphs
of early American travelers and settlers.
About 2,171 miles of this system cross public
lands, where most of the physical evidence that still exists today is
located, including the names of emigrants written with axle grease on the
rocks at the
City of Rocks National
Reserve in southern Idaho. More than 300
historic sites along the trail will eventually be available for public use
of America, updated March, 2017.
Poster print available
approaching the Sierra
courtesy National Park Service.