California Trail

California Trail

The California Trail was a major overland emigrant route across the Western United States from Missouri to California in the middle 19th century. It was used by 250,000 farmers and gold-seekers to reach the California gold fields and farm homesteads in California from the early 1840s until the introduction of the railroads in the late 1860s. The original route had many branches and encompassed over 5,000 miles (8000 km) of trails. Over 1,000 miles (1600 km) of the rutted traces of the trail remain throughout the Great Basin as historical evidence of the great mass migration westward. Portions of the trail are now preserved by the National Park Service as the California National Historical Trail.


The exact route of the trail depended on the starting point of the voyage, the final destination in California, as well as the condition of livestock and vehicles. The main branch of the trail across the Great Plains was identical to the Oregon and Mormon trails, going up the Missouri River then crossing Nebraska along the Platte and North Platte to present-day Wyoming. The trail then followed the Sweetwater River across Wyoming, crossing the continental divide at South Pass (where it diverged from the Mormon Trail). From South Pass it went northwest to Fort Hall in the Oregon Country in present-day southeastern Idaho along the Snake River.

West of Fort Hall (near present day Pocatello, Idaho) at the junction of the Raft River and Snake River, the trail diverged from the Oregon Trail. The trail followed the Raft river southwest to near present day Almo, Idaho. It then passed through the City of Rocks and over Granite Pass where it followed southwest along Goose Creek, Little Goose Creek, and Rock Spring Creek. It passed through Thousand Springs Valley, and then along West Brush Creek to Willow Creek, then to the headwaters of the Humboldt River in present-day northeastern Nevada. The trail followed the north bank of the Humboldt across Nevada, passing through the narrow Carlin Canyon, which became nearly impassable during periods of high water. West of Carlin Canyon the trail climbed through Emigrant Gap then descended through Emigrant Canyon to rejoin the Humboldt at Gravelly Ford. At Gravelly Ford the trail divided into two branches, following the north and south banks of the river. The two branches rejoined at Humboldt Bar.

At the Humboldt Sink the trail again diverged, with the "Truckee River Route" proceeding west across the Forty Mile Desert and reaching the Truckee River at the site of modern-day Wadsworth, Nevada. This trail then followed the Truckee River to Donner Lake, crossed the Sierra crest through Donner Pass, and then proceeded down the Sierra through Emigrant Gap.

The Carson Trail (also known as the Carson River Route) proceeded south through the Forty Mile Desert, skirting the western edge of the Carson Sink and striking the Carson River near modern-day Fallon, Nevada. The trail then followed the Carson River and crossed the Sierra Crest through Carson Pass. Both trails ended up at Sutter's Fort, which is located in modern-day Sacramento, California.

The "Beckwourth Trail" (also known as the "Beckwourth Cutoff") left the "Truckee River Route" at Truckee Meadows (now the site of Sparks, Nevada), proceeded north to Beckwourth Pass, and then west through Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties into California's great central valley terminating at Marysville, California.

The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff left the California Trail near the modern-day Rye Patch Reservoir, and passed through the Black Rock Desert and High Rock Canyon to Goose Lake. There the trails split, with the Lassen Cutoff proceeding south into the Sacramento Valley along the Pit River; the Applegate Trail proceeded west into southeastern Oregon along the Lost River, and eventually up into Oregon's Willamette Valley, by following the track of the Siskiyou Trail from south-central Oregon to Portland, Oregon.


The area of the Great Basin through which the trail had passed had been only partially explored during the days of Spanish and Mexican rule. In 1828-29 Peter Skene Ogden, leading expeditions for the Hudson's Bay Company, explored much of the Humboldt River Valley. 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 Walker westward from the Green River in present-day Wyoming with the mission of finding a route to California. Walker confirmed that the Humboldt River furnished a natural artery across the Great Basin.

Throughout the 1840s the trail began to be used sporadically by early settlers. The first recorded emigrant to use the trail was John Bidwell, who led the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party and later founded Chico in the Sacramento Valley. Two years later in 1843, Joseph Chiles followed the same route. In 1844, Caleb Greenwood and the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party became the first settlers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada. In 1845, John C. Frémont and Lansford Hastings guided parties totaling several hundred settlers along the trail to California. The following year Hastings persuaded another party of emigrants to follow his "shortcut" that ran to the south of the main route. One such, the Donner Party, became the most infamous group of emigrants to follow the mountainous trail through the rough terrain later named Hastings Cutoff.

The trickle of emigrants would become a flood after the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the same year that the U.S. acquired the Southwest in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Within several months of the public announcement of the discovery by President Polk in late 1848, tens of thousands of gold seekers headed westward into California to seek their fortunes during the California Gold Rush.

The route West was arduous and filled with potential dangers for the unequipped. Native Americans were not as much of a problem in the early years as they became following the discovery of Gold in California when an influx of travellers increased tensions between the emigrants and the Native American population. River crossing drownings, disease and starvation were more common causes of death along the trail and travellers had to come prepared. Despite the popular image of Hollywood movies the majority of travellers travelled West with Oxen rather than horses for two simple reasons. The first, an ox was slower so if it ran off at night it was easier to catch; secondly, when food supplies ran low - as was often the case in the latter stages - the Ox offered a better alternative food source than the horse.


During pre-American Civil War "Bleeding Kansas" skirmishes between Kansas and Missouri raiders, the jumping off points for westward-bound wagon trains shifted northward. 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 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.

ee also

* Landmarks of the Nebraska Territory
* Oregon-California Trails Association
* Beckwourth Pass
* Central Route

External links

* [ NPS: California National Historical Trail]
* [ Detailed history of the Humboldt River Valley (PDF)]
* [,M1|A A Journey to Great-Salt-Lake City] by Jules Remy and Julius Lucius Brenchley (excerpt from an 1861 book about a trip along the trail, courtesy of Google Book Search).

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