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The California Trail

The California Trail is most notably associated with the goldrush of 1949, however, many pioneers traveled to California before the rush. The Donner-Reed Party was one such group who traveled from Illinois April 12, 1846 with 87 travelers en route to California. The group, having started west late in the year, were enticed by Lansford Hastings to take an alternate and supposedly more timely route to California. Hastings' haphazard cutoff cost the settlers more time, livestock, supplies, and lives than popular routes would have taken. The wearied Donner-Reed Party reached the Sierra Nevada's in October, just in time for the first severe snowfall of the year. The settlers were trapped in mountains for four months. After eating all of the livestock and hides by mid-December, some resorted to eating the deceased. Forty of the eighty-seven settlers died that winter due to the extreme cold and starvation. A rescue party did not reach the survivors until the spring of 1847 (National Park Service). Despite the tragic episode of the Donner-Reed Party, approximately 1,400 emigrants successfully arrived in California in 1846 (Dary 2004:167). In 1845, California's governor, Pio Pico, stated, "We find ourselves threatened by hordes of Yankee emigrants. Already have the wagons of that perfidious people scaled the almost inaccessible summits of the Sierra Nevada, crossed the entire continent and penetrated the fruitful valley of the Sacramento. What that astonishing people will next undertake, I cannot say" (Ward 88). Governor Pico had no idea of the hordes of gold-seekers that would yet flood into California in the ensuing years.

John Sutter, a Swiss businessman, immigrated to California in 1839 to become an agricultural success. In 1848, Sutter assigned James Marshall to build a saw mill. Marshall chose a location on the south fork of the American River, only 40 miles from Sutter's home. To his surprise, Marshall discovered a gold nugget on January 24, 1848, while at the saw mill. Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery quiet, but the news leaked out within weeks of the discovery (National Park Service). The first printed notice of the discovery was made in the Californian on March 15, 1848. However, the article received little attention until the paper's publisher, Samuel Brannan walked down the streets of San Francisco, waving a bottle of gold in the air and shouting "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" (Dary 2004:188). Some received news of the discovery early on in 1848 and started the journey west; however, many did not receive the confirmatory witness until it was too late in the year to cross the plains.

Some traveled by ship around the tip of South America or traversed the Isthmus of Panama, but most gold-seekers found passage on the Oregon Trail the safest, most cost effective, and timely means of getting to the goldfields in California (Dary 2004:203). 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 Nevada Range. Unlike other pioneers of the day, many of the forty-niners scarcely prepared for the journey. While heavily traveled, the California Trail proved to be extremely difficult and even fatal for many travelers to cross.

Fort Laramie was the last stop for many forty-niners before ascending the Rocky Mountains. Due to the necessity of lightening the load, gold-seekers discarded goods along the trail. In July 1849, John D. Lee set out from Salt Lake City going east on the California Trail. He returned within a month in awe at what he had witnessed. "The road was so lined with wagons. . . That one would be scarcely ever out of sight of some train. Dust very disagreeable, but not to compare with the stench from dead carcasses which lie along the road, having died from fatigue and hunger. Destruction of property along the road was beyond description, consisting of wagons, harness, tools of every description, provisions, clothing, stoves, cooking vessels, powder, lead, and almost everything, etc. that could be mentioned" (Ward and Duncan 1996:129).

William Swain of Youngstown, New York wrote to his brother and wife Sabrina along his journey to the gold fields in 1849. "There is some talk between us of your coming to this country" Swain wrote to his brother. "For God's sake think not of it. Stay at home. Tell all whom you know that are thinking of coming that they have to sacrifice everything and face danger in all forms, for George, thousands have laid and will lay their bones along the routes to and in this country" (Ward and Duncan 1996:134).

Cholera was a ravaging epidemic on the trail during the gold rush years. The illness killed many on steamers before ever reaching Missouri, while many others died on the journey to Fort Laramie. Strangely, few outbreaks ever occurred past this point. The exact number of deaths caused by cholera is unknown, but the St. Louis Republican estimated that one death transpired every mile and a half of the trip from the Missouri River to Fort Laramie (Dary 2004:205).

Many California immigrants joked about having "seen the elephant." This was a common metaphor used to suggest that one had experienced a very difficult journey along the California Trail. The expression came from a story about a farmer on his way to town to sell his produce and to see the circus elephant. On the way, the excited farmer encountered the traveling circus and the elephant. However, the farmer's horse became spooked by the elephant and ran away in fright, ruining the vegetables. The farmer replied, "But I don't give a hang, for I have seen the elephant" (Levy and Mace 2004).

Despite such depredations and setbacks, some 40,000 men swarmed into California in 1849. More than half of them in their twenties—"a grey beard was almost as rare as a petticoat," one man remembered and most quickly settled in the small boom towns like Jimtown and Jesus Maria, Coyote Diggings, Grizzly Flats, Mad Mule Gulch, Angels Camp, Murderer's Bar, Whiskey Diggings, Delirium Tremens, Shirt Tail Canyon, Bedbug, and You Bet. They were mostly males from all social and ethnic backgrounds with greater interest in getting rich than settling the west. A pioneer woman in Westport in 1849, remarked, "It would astonish you to see of the number of people going to California. It would be the greatest sight you ever saw. The people are of all kinds, some of the first people in the United States are a-going and some of the meanest are also along" (Olson 1966:61). Most of the miners came from New England, whites, free blacks, African-American slaves, and Indians. Many Mexican miners also flooded into the United States the southernmost gold fields. Germans, Frenchmen, Russians, Italians, West Indians, Chinese, and ex-convicts from Australia all found their way to the gold fields in 1849 (Ward and Duncan 1996:146).

After the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848, thousands rushed to California. Gold-seekers traveled the already forged Oregon Trail through the Platte River Valley and then took the South Pass Trail to reach California. The California Trail began at various jumping-off points in Missouri such as St. Joseph and Independence (History of Nebraska). 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 Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, and California (http://www.nps.gov/cali/). Many new routes were opened into California as a result of the Gold Rush. With an estimated 140,000 emigrants arriving in California via the California Trail between 1849 and 1854, routes were continually modified, tested or even abandoned.

Central cutoffs and alternate routes include:
1844 Sublette Cutoff
1846 Hastings Cutoff
1848 Salt Lake Cutoff
1849 Hudspeth Cutoff
1850 Childs Cutoff
1850 Kinney Cutoff
1850 Seminoe Cutoff
1850 Slate Creek Cutoff
1852 Baker-Davis Road
1856 Dempsey-Hockadsy Cutoff
1858 Lander Road
1859 Julesburg Cutoff
1859 Western routes include:
1844 Truckee Route
1846 Applegate Trail
1848 Carson Route
1848 Lassen Route
1851 Beckwourth Trail
1852 Nobles Road
1852 Sonora Road
(National Park Service)

By 1853, the Gold Rush came to a close. However, home seekers continued steady use of the California Trail. With an estimated 250,000 travelers, the California Trail was the most frequented trail in the west. (Olson 1966:62)

Dary, David
2004 The Oregon Trail: An American Saga. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Levy, JoAnn and Henry Mace
2004 Women in the Goldrush. Electronic document. http://www.goldrush.com/~joann/elephant.htm, accessed March 6, 2006.

National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. California National Historic Trail, Electronic document. http://www.nps.gov/cali/cali/cali%20home.htm, accessed March 6, 2006.

Olson, James C.
1966 History of Nebraska. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Ward, Geoffrey C. and Dayton Duncan
1996 The West: An Illustrated History. Little, Brown, Boston.