California Trail

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The California Trail went from western Missouri across the Great Plains into the Rocky Mountains to the gold fields of northern California. It was most heavily used in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. The length of the wagon trail from the Missouri River to Sacramento, California was about 1,950 miles (3,138 km). It normally took four to six months to traverse the length of the California Trail with covered wagons pulled by oxen. About 250,000 pioneers, the most of any American emigration trail, used it to reach California before the transcontinental railroad in 1869.[1]

The main California Trail overlapped the Oregon Trail from western Missouri to the Raft River crossing in Idaho. This route passed the City of Rocks, Idaho and followed the Humboldt River in Nevada toward California. An alternate California Trail route overlapped the Mormon Trail all the way

California Trail camp on the Humboldt River in Nevada, United States Genealogy, 1859 drawing.

to Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah Genealogy and then to the City of Rocks in Idaho. The trail ended at several destination places mostly in the gold fields in the mountains of northern California.[2]

Records and Lists of Settlers[edit | edit source]

Pioneers who used the California Trail were mostly Americans from the Midwest or Mid-South. Most settled in California. A few moved on to Oregon. A few may have settled along the trail before reaching California.

No complete list of pioneer settlers who traveled the California Trail is known to exist. However, a variety of sources exist which can be used to identify most of them. Some of these sources may reveal their place of origin.

Pioneer lists[edit | edit source]

Online Databases[edit | edit source]

Books Online[edit | edit source]

Books[edit | edit source]

Additional Resources and History[edit | edit source]

California Land Records[edit | edit source]

Deeds, mining claims, and other land records from any time period are clues to when a pioneer arrived. See California Land and Property. After 1862 some California land was eligible for homesteading.

Censuses[edit | edit source]

These can be used to identify pioneers who traveled the California Trail:

Also, California took a California State Census, 1852 which lists each person's state of birth and last residence.[3]

Great Registers (voter lists)[edit | edit source]

Began in some California counties as early as 1866. The Great Registers prior to 1870 showed males over age 21 who arrived before the transcontinental railroad. Great Registers often showed places of origin. Counties with early Great Registers on microfilm included:

Alameda 1867 · Alpine 1866 · Amador 1867, 1868 · Butte 1866 · Calaveras 1867 · Colusa 1866 · Contra Costa 1867 · El Dorado 1867, 1868 · Fresno 1867 · Humboldt 1866-1875 · Kern 1867 · Klamath (Del Norte and Siskiyou) 1869 · Lake 1867 · Lassen 1866, 1868 · Marin 1867-1868 · Mendocino 1866-1873 · Merced 1867, 1869 · Monterey 1867, 1869 · Napa 1867 · Nevada 1867-1868 · Placer 1867-1868 · Plumas 1857-1898 · Sacramento 1866, 1867, 1867-1868 · San Diego 1867 · San Francisco 1866 · San Joaquin 1867-1869 · San Luis Obispo 1867-1868 · San Mateo 1867-1869 · Santa Barbara 1866-1869 · Santa Clara 1867-1869 · Santa Cruz · Shasta 1867-1869 · Siskiyou 1867-1868 · Solano 1867 · Sonoma 1867 · Stanislaus 1867, 1869 · Sutter 1867, 1869 · Trinity 1867-1868 · Tulare 1869 · Tuolumne 1867 · Yolo 1867 · Yuba 1867-1869

Local and county histories and biographies[edit | edit source]

These may help identify additional pioneers. For example:

Society of California Pioneers[edit | edit source]

Related Publications

Some California Trail pioneers also settled in Oregon, Nevada, or Idaho. Local histories and biographies from those places may also include some pioneers who traveled the California Trail.

Background History[edit | edit source]

Footpaths, wagons, and stagecoaches[edit | edit source]

The overland route over South Pass was discovered by fur trappers in 1811. By the 1830s that pass was used as part of the Oregon Trail. Between 1829 and 1840 other mountain men explored possible additional routes extending through northern Utah and Nevada toward California. At first these were footpaths or pack train trails. The earliest wagon road was pioneered through South Pass to a mountain man rendezvous on the Green River in Wyoming in 1830. By 1836 a wagon road reached as far as Fort Hall, Idaho.[1] In 1841 and 1843 wagon trains started for California but abandoned their wagons in Nevada and went on by foot. The first overland wagon train to reach California arrived in 1844 by leaving the Oregon Trail after crossing the Raft River in Idaho. From there they followed Nevada's Humboldt River west to the Sierra Nevada mountains, up the Truckee River and over Donner Pass to Sacramento, California. This became the most popular route, but other pioneers also came via Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Utah Genealogy to the City of Rocks. From 1857 to 1861 the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route near the Mexican border opened to Calfornia. That mail route was closed in favor of the Pony Express (Central Overland) route through central Nevada farther south than the Humboldt River. In time these various paths to California were followed by wagon roads, railroads, and modern highways.[2]

Reasons for migrating[edit | edit source]

Mountain men fur trappers were the earliest to use the California Trail. Larger groups of American settlers began arriving in 1846. The outbreak of the Mexican-American War 1846-1848 resulted in American soldiers invading California to help secure it for the United States. Once California was officially United States territory it immediately began to attract more immigrants. Several western gold and silver strikes, productive farm land, lumber, and ranching all increased traffic on the California Trail.[1] The California gold rush attracted adventurers and gold seekers from around the world after gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill. An estimated 90,000 arrived in 1849, about half of them Americans. Americans usually took the California Trail to reach the gold fields. Some came by ship. Others used the Oregon Trail and then came south to California on the Siskiyou Trail, or Applegate Trail-Lassen Cutoff.[4]

Preparations[edit | edit source]

Many emigrants were farmers who already had their own wagons and most of their own supplies. Other travelers usually purchased supplies at "jumping off points" in Missouri, Iowa, or Kansas. Supplies cost as much as $200 per person including a covered wagon, teams of oxen, 150 pounds of food per person, tobacco, cooking gear, extra shoes, two sets of clothes, 25 pounds of soap, washboard and wash tub, tent, a canvas or rubber groundcloth with blankets for sleeping, tools, guns and ammunition. Some also bought a trail guide book.[1]

Trail life[edit | edit source]

Non-essentials were often abandoned on the trail to lighten the load. Forts and trading posts (Ft. Kearny, Ft. Laramie, Ft. Fetterman, Ft. Bridger, Ft. Hall, and Sutter's Fort along the way usually provided supplies, fresh animal teams, repairs, spare parts, and news of trail conditions. Hunting (including bison), fishing, and trading were also common along the route. Emigrants usually formed into wagon trains for security. Almost everyone preferred to walk rather than ride in dusty, bumpy wagons. They had to average 11 miles (18 km) to 17 miles (27 km) per day to reach California in four to six months. To leave too early risked muddy trails and too little grass for livestock. To arrive late risked traveling in winter weather. Thunderstorms and fierce winds were common. In good weather they often slept under the stars. On the prairie buffalo chips were gathered for use as cooking fuel. Wash day was about every two weeks. Many travelers enjoyed side trips climbing over trail landmarks like Chimney Rock, Scott's Bluff, and Independence Rock. Some entrepreneurs drove herds of cattle over the trail to sell and help pay for the trip.[1]

Deaths[edit | edit source]

About five percent of pioneers died on the Oregon-California-Mormon trails. The most common killer was cholera along the Platte River in Nebraska. This disease killed as much as three percent between 1849 and 1855 (6,000 to 12,500 individuals). About 3,000 to 4,500 deaths happened because of Indian attacks especially in Idaho and Nevada after U.S. Army troops were withdrawn in 1860 in the run up to the Civil War. Other causes of death included freezing, scurvy, being run over, drownings (especially in the 1850s before many ferries), and accidental shootings.[1]

California Trail Immigrants[5]
Year Settlers
1841 34
1842 none
1843 38
1844 53
1845 260
1846 1,500
1847 450
1848 400
1849 25,000
1850 44,000
1851 1,100
1852 50,000
1853 20,000
1854 12,000
1855 1,500
1856 8,000
1857 4,000
1858 6,000
1859 17,000
1860 9,000
1861 5,000?
1862 5,000?
1863 5,000?
1864 5,000?
1865 7,200?
1866 7,500?
1867 7,500?
1868 7,500?
Total 250,000

Decline of trail use[edit | edit source]

In 1855 the California Trail (and Oregon Trail) traffic declined dramatically. First, the bloom was off the California gold rush. Second, the Panama Railroad was completed with steamship links that made transportation from the east coast to the west coast of America more practical than using an overland wagon trail.[1] From 1857 to 1861 the Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach route took some traffic from the California Trail. In 1869 the transcontinental Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads completed to Sacramento, California made that route faster, safer, and less expensive than traveling the California Trail.[2]

Main Route[edit | edit source]

The California Trail was miles wide with many variations. Emigrants started on their journey from many sundry "jumping off points" in three states. Some took a variety of shortcuts, and others traveled on different sides of the rivers from other emigrants. Travelers often completed their journey in Idaho, Nevada or places other than northern California. The California Trail was a branch of the Oregon trunk trail.[1]

Two of the most popular early outfitting or "jumping off points" were Independence and St. Joseph in western Missouri. Once the river was dredged and steamboats could reach it in the early 1850s, Council Bluffs, Iowa became the most popular California Trail starting place.[6] Kansas City, Lawrence, and Topeka in Kansas were also used. From their starting point emigrants often followed the Missouri River up to the Platte River. Another option was to follow the Kansas River and then the Little Blue River toward the Platte River.[1]

Livestock needed watering so the California Trail followed rivers across the dry prairies. The California Trail usually followed the south side of the North Platte River west through Nebraska into Wyoming. Near Casper, Wyoming California Trail emigrants followed the Sweetwater River farther west. An important goal was to reach Independence Rock on the Sweetwater River by Independence Day. The trail went over South Pass then worked its way through the mountains. One shortcut went from South Pass due west toward Fort Hall. The main trail from South Pass headed southwest to cross the Green River at Lombard Ferry, headed for Fort Bridger. At Fort Bridger the Mormon Trail branched southwest toward Salt Lake City.[7] The main California Trail went northwest from Bridger to Fort Hall, Idaho. From the Raft River southwest of Fort Hall most California Trail emigrants forked southwest past the City of Rocks, Idaho toward Nevada,[2] while Oregon Trail followers continued along the Snake River to Fort Boise and the Oregon border. The California Trail followers who opted to go through Salt Lake City often rejoined the main trail at the City of Rocks. In Nevada the trail followed the Humboldt River westward to its end. The next stage of the journey was usually considered the worst--southwest across the Forty Mile Desert to the Truckee River or Carson River in the Sierra Nevada.[2]

Trails over the mountains to the gold fields [2][edit | edit source]

Truckee (River) Trail 1844[edit | edit source]

Crossed the Forty Mile Desert to the Truckee River to follow it west past Reno, Nevada to Donner Pass to Emigrant Gap to Sutter's Fort (Sacramento, California). The exact route varied over the years, the most used being the Nevada City Road and Auburn Emigrant Road combination.

Roller Pass 1846[edit | edit source]

Alternate to the Truckee Trail two miles south of Donner Pass through Emigrant Gap to Placerville, California

Nevada City Road 1850[edit | edit source]

Branched off the Truckee Trail through Emigrant Gap to Nevada City, California the most important mining area 1850-1851

Auburn Emigrant Road 1850[edit | edit source]

Believed to be from Nevada City to Auburn to Sacramento, California

Henness Pass Road 1850[edit | edit source]

Branched off the Truckee Trail at Verdi, Nevada headed for Camptonville and steamboat service at Marysville, California. In 1860 it became a major route to the Comstock Lode silver mines in Nevada.

Beckwourth Trail 1850[edit | edit source]

Left the Truckee Trail near present-day Sparks, Nevada going to Marysville, California

Applegate Trail 1846[edit | edit source]

Avoided the Forty Mile Desert) by leaving the Humboldt River in Nevada early at present-day Rye Reservoir, Nevada and passing through the Black Rock Desert to Fandango Pass past Goose Lake on to the Lost River and eventually the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

The Lassen Cutoff 1848[edit | edit source]

Was established by gold rushers from Oregon going to California. It branched off the Applegate Trail at Davis Creek, went through Devil's Garden to the Pit River passing east of Mt. Lassen, and turning west to Lassen Rancho, California, and from there to Sacramento. In some years as much as 1/3 of emigrants mistakenly took the Applegate Trail-Lassen Cutoff, a much longer and more difficult trail than the Truckee or Carson routes.

Yreka Trail 1851[edit | edit source]

From the Applegate Trail to Yreka, California

Nobles Road 1851[edit | edit source]

From the Applegate Trail at Rabbithole Springs in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada to Shasta City, California

Carson (River) Trail 1848[edit | edit source]

aka Mormon Emigrant Trail crossed the Forty Mile Desert past the west side of the Carson Sink to pick up the Carson River near Fallon, Nevada up to Hope Valley and Red Lake. The Devil's Ladder then climbed 700 feet (210 m) in half a mile so ropes, chains, and pulleys were required to lift the wagons. Carson Pass was followed by the relatively easy West Pass (Kirkwood, California) and then on to Pollock Pines, Placerville, and Sutter's Fort, California

Johnson's Cutoff 1850-1851[edit | edit source]

aka Placerville Route, Lake Tahoe Route and Day's Route from Carson City, Nevada past the south end of Lake Tahoe going south and then west to Placerville, California and Sacramento

Daggett Pass 1850[edit | edit source]

aka Georgetown Pack Trail, Carson Valley, Nevada to Johnson's Cutoff near South Lake Tahoe, California

Big Tree Road (Ebbetts Pass) 1851[edit | edit source]

From western Nevada to Markleeville, Murphys, Sonora, and Stockton, California

Grizzly Flat Road 1852[edit | edit source]

An extension of Carson Trail down the middle fork of the Consumnes River to Grizzly Flat and Placerville, California

Volcano Road 1852[edit | edit source]

From Coral Flat (Pioneer) on the Carson Trail to Volcano, California

Sonora Road 1852-1854[edit | edit source]

From the Carson Trail south to the Walker River along the base of the Sierra Nevada until it ascends to Sonora Pass and then down to Strawberry and Sonora, California

Luther Pass Trail 1854[edit | edit source]

Connected the Carson Trail and Johnson's Cutoff and allowed travelers to avoid Lake Tahoe. It became one of the routes to the Comstock Lode in Nevada

California Trail Map3.png

The exact route of the California Trail varied from group to group over the years. Most often it passed through:[1]

The Oregon-California Trails Association provides a Virtual Trail map with images, and brief histories of points along the trail.

Connecting migration routes[edit | edit source]

The California Trail linked to other migration routes at each end, and at junctions in the middle. The migration pathways connected near the east end included:

The migration pathways connected near the west end of the California Trail included:

Several migration pathways had junctions at various places along the middle of the California Trail:

Modern parallels[edit | edit source]

The modern roads that roughly match the California Trail from Independence, Missouri to Sacramento among other places in northern California are listed in an online edition of a National Park Service publication about the California Trail:

Other Wiki Pages[edit | edit source]

External Links[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 1.8 1.9 Wikipedia contributors, "Oregon Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 12 July 2012).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Wikipedia contributors, "California Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 24 July 2011).
  3. Ann S. Lainhart, State Census Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing, 1992), 21-26. Worldcat entry. FHL book 973 X2Lai .
  4. Wikipedia contributors, "California Gold Rush" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 24 July 2011).
  5. John D. Unruh, The Plains Across: the Overland Immigrants and Trans-Mississippi West 1840–1860 (University of Illinois Press, 1979), 119–20.
  6. Wikipedia contributors, "Emigrant trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 15 July 2012).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Wikipedia contributors, "Mormon Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 15 July 2012).
  8. Wikipedia contributors, "Cherokee Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 15 July 2012).
  9. Wikipedia contributors, "Bozeman Trail" in Wikipedia: the Free Encyclopedia at (accessed 15 July 2012).