The California Trail was an emigrant 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. After it was established, the first half of the California Trail followed the same corridor of networked river valley trails as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail, namely the valleys of the Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers to Wyoming.
By 1847, two former fur trading frontier forts marked trailheads for major alternative routes in Utah and Wyoming to Northern California.
The main Oregon and California Trails crossed the Green River on several different ferries and trails (cutoffs) that led to or bypassed Fort Bridger and then crossed over a range of hills to the Great Basin drainage of the Bear River (Utah).
From Fort Hall the Oregon and California trails went about 50 miles (80 km) southwest along the Snake River valley to another “parting of the ways” trail junction at the junction of the Raft and Snake river.
At the end of the Humboldt River where it disappeared into the alkaline Humboldt Sink they had to cross the deadly Forty Mile Desert before finding either the Truckee River or Carson River that led to the Carson Range and Sierra Nevada that were the last major obstacles before entering Northern California.
An alternative route across the present states of Utah and Nevada that bypassed both Fort Hall and the Humboldt River trails was developed in 1859. This route, the Central Overland Route, which was about 280 miles (450 km) shorter and over ten days quicker went south of the Great Salt Lake and across the middle of present day Utah and Nevada through a series of springs and small streams.
The route went south from Salt Lake City across the Jordan River to Fairfield, Utah, then west-southwest past Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, Callao, Utah, Ibapah, Utah, to Ely, Nevada, then (roughly following today’s U.S. Route 50) across Nevada to Carson City, Nevada. (See: Pony Express Map) In addition to immigrants after 1859 the Pony Express, Overland stages and the First Transcontinental Telegraph (1861) all followed this route with minor deviations.
The California Trail was heavily used from 1845 to 1869 when several rugged wagon routes across the Carson Range and Sierra Nevada mountains to different parts of northern California were established. After about 1848 the most popular route was the Carson Route which, while rugged, was still easier than most others and entered California in the middle of the gold fields. The trail was heavily used in the summers until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad by the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads in 1869. Trail traffic then rapidly fell off as the cross-country trip was much quicker by train—only about seven days. The economy class fare of about $69 was affordable by most potential travelers.
The trail was used by about 2,700 settlers up 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. 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 years these settlers, combined with those coming by wagon from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, California in winter, the travelers down the Gila River trail in Arizona and those traveling by sea routes around Cape Horn and the Magellan Strait or by sea and then across the Isthmus of Panama, Nicaragua or Mexico and then by sea to California, had expanded California’s population enough by 1850 (about 120,000 by corrected 1850 U.S. Census data) to make it eligible to become the 31st state.
The beginnings of the California and Oregon Trails were laid out by mountain men and fur traders from about 1811 to 1840 and were only passable initially on foot or by horseback.
A rendezvous typically only lasted a few weeks and was known to be a lively, joyous place, where nearly all were allowed—free trappers, Indians, native trapper wives and children, travelers and later on, even tourists who would venture from even as far as Europe to observe the games and festivities. Trapper Jim Beckwourth describes: “Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of drinking and gambling extravagances that white men or Indians could invent.” Initially from about 1825 to 1834 the fur traders used pack trains to carry their supplies in and the traded furs out.
A few U.S. and British fur trappers and traders had explored what is now called the Humboldt River (named Mary’s River by Ogden) that crosses most of the present state of Nevada and provides a natural corridor to western Nevada and eastern California. The Humboldt River was of little interest to the trappers as it was hard to get to, dead ended in an alkali sink and had few beavers.
The Humboldt River valley was key to forming a usable California Trail. The Humboldt river with its water and grass needed by the livestock (oxen, mules horses and later cattle) and emigrants provided a key link west to northern California. One of several “parting of the ways” that split the Oregon Trail and California trails was eventually established at the Snake River and Raft River junctions in what is now Idaho. The Raft River, Junction Creek in the future states of Idaho and Utah and Thousand Springs creek in the future states of Nevada and Utah provided the usable trail link between the Snake and Humboldt rivers.
The Mormon Trail over the Wasatch Mountains followed roughly the same path as the Donner Party trail of 1846 but they built a much better trail with many more workers in 1847 to get to the Salt Lake valley with much less hassle—this was their main route to and from their Salt Lake communities. The Weber Canyon trail was judged too rugged for regular use without a lot of work—later done by Mormon workers on the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1868-69. All of the Hastings Cutoffs to California were found to be very hard on the wagons, livestock and travelers as well as being longer, harder, and slower to traverse than the regular trail and was largely abandoned after 1846. It was discovered by some hurrying travelers in 1849 (before the experience of the 1846 travelers was widely known) that during a wet year, wagons could not be pulled across the Great Salt Lake Desert; it was too soft.
The first decision to make was what route to take to California—the California Trail or the various sea routes to California. Initially about half of the Argonauts going to California went by sea and half overland by trail. Most of those going by sea, which was quicker but more costly, lived on or near the East Coast of the United States and were familiar with ships and shipping. Most of those going overland already lived in the mid-west or near the Ohio, Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. Nearly all reached their jumping off place by using a steamboat to get there with their animals and supplies. Of the about 20% of the Argonauts who returned from California they usually returned by sea across the Isthmus of Panama particularly after 1855 when the paddle steamer shipping lines and the Panama Railroad across Panama cut the return trip to about 40 days versus about 140 days by wagon.
Accompanying nearly all wagon trains was a herd of horses, cows, oxen and/or mules. In many years it is estimated that there were more animals than people using the trail. A thriving trade consisted of herds of cows and sheep bought in the mid-west, herded over the trail and sold in California, Oregon etc.. The usually much cheaper animals in the mid-west could be herded to California etc. and sold for usually a substantial profit. Large herds were typically separated from the regular wagon trains because of their different speeds and herding requirements. These animals were usually the daytime responsibility of one or more herder(s) and the nighttime responsibility of the three or more wagon train guards. Each adult male, on a rotating schedule, was usually required to spend part of a night on guard duty.
Food for the trip had to be compact, lightweight, and nonperishable.
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. Portions of the Nevada City Trail are evident at the top of Coyote Street, and North Bloomfield Road, just north of Nevada City. Plaques can be found where these roads meet the top of Harmony Ridge, as this was the ridge used to descend from the high sierra, to the foothills of California.
Henness Pass Road
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 were 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.
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
The Central Pacific, Union Pacific, and Virginia and Truckee Railroads
The ultimate competitor to the California Trail showed up in 1869 when the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The combined Central Pacific Railroad and Union Pacific Railroad carried traffic from the East into California, and the Virginia and Truckee Railroad carried traffic from Reno to Virginia City. The trip from Omaha Nebraska to California became faster, cheaper, and safer, with a typical trip taking only seven 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 mostly reverted to local traffic traveling to towns or locations along the trail.
The gold rush to northern California started in 1848 as settlers in Oregon, southern California, South America and Mexico headed for the gold fields even before the gold discovery was widely known about in the east. The public announcement of the gold discovery by President Polk in late 1848 and the display of an impressive amount 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 disease ridden Isthmus of Panama and around the storm tossed 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 miners found about $50,000,000 dollars worth of gold (at $21/troy oz) each year.
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 its state boundary, write a Constitution, and apply for and receive statehood, which it did as a free state.
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, inclinations, altercations 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. The 1849 travelers went in a wet year and found good grass almost the entire way and that most had taken too many supplies. The 1850 migration was in a dry year and with roughly double the amount of travelers on the trail it suffered seriously from lack of grass and good water. To make things worse many had cut down on the amount of supplies they carried and began running out of food as they traveled down the Humboldt. Emergency relief expeditions led by the U.S. Army and others from California managed to save most of these late 1850 travelers.
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 and $300 per person. 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/person.
A significant number of travelers were suffering from scurvy by the end of their trips.
Accidents with Animals serious enough to cause death include: kicks by animals, (getting hit by a shod hoof could be deadly), falling off the horse or mule and hitting your head, getting hit by a falling horse or mule, stampedes, bear attacks, wounded animal attacks, etc.. Deaths probably numbered from 100 to 200 or more along the trail from 1847 to 1869. Because of the large number of animals on the trail and their close interaction with people accidents with animals that only resulted in minor injury were many times higher.
Miscellaneous deaths included deaths by: homicides, lightning strikes, childbirths, snake bites, flash floods, falling trees, wagon wrecks etc. probably numbered from 200 to 500 deaths or more along the trail.
Travelers rarely made the entire trip without one or more in their traveling group dying. According to an evaluation by Trail Authority John Unruh, a 4% death rate or 16,000 out of 400,000 total pioneers on all trails may have died on the trail while making the trip.