If you’re driving to or from Northern California this summer, you may be following one of the great wagon trails left by our forefathers. Consider taking a little time along the way to learn about the route and the intrepid travelers that built this nation.
It wass the greatest mass migration in American history. Over 250,000 emigrants traveled to the gold fields and rich farmlands of California during the 1840s and 1850. The Trail and its various routes were the major land link to the Eastern states until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869.
Emigrants bound for the West Coast took a northern route from St. Louis to Sacramento on what would be called The California Trail. It ran over 3,000 miles long and covers portions of 10 modern-day states. Beginning in the 1820s, just a trickle of emigrants made the difficult journey. About half went north to Oregon, but traffic was light on the trail until the gold rush began in 1849.
Imagine these emigrants crossing the Great Plains, hiking over the continental divide at South Pass in Wyoming, then circling around the alkali flats of the Great Salt Lake, on through the basin and range country of Nevada – then to face down that wall of mountains, the Sierra Nevada west of Reno.
Most of them walked the entire way. Men, women and children, placed one foot in front of the other, for days that became weeks then months. Just think what courage and strength it took for our people to make this migration.
During the heyday of the California Trail – from 1841 to 1869 – those 250,000 emigrants followed the miles of dust and grit, often cooking dinner over fires made of buffalo excrement, sleeping on the ground then getting up and doing it all again, maybe 20 miles on a really good day, but more likely 10 or 15 miles. Even if they had a wagon and stock to pull it, those wagons were loaded with tools and goods to make a new life in a new land. The people walked, most of them barefooted, every one of those miles, crossing rivers and dry plains, through forests and canyons, a months-long journey to the promised land.
If you ever drive that route, especially in the long valleys and high desert and prairie of Nevada, you can see forever – and still, 150 years or more later, there just isn’t much of human manufacture around. It’s blue mountains and sagebrush, grassland, fence lines and dirt roads heading off in the distance as far as the eye can see. Imagine how those early settlers felt crossing this land on their own with only their wits and experience to guide them. Many died. No records were kept, but experts think about 50,000 of us died on the journey. However, the danger seldom was from hostile Indians; the emigrants were much more likely to die from disease or an accident.
Portions of the trail still exist. Marks of wagon wheels remain etched in the land, heralding the passage of these farmers and shop clerks. You can still find the bits and pieces lost along the way, the tobacco tins, broken wagon wheels, square nails and spent bullets.
Now we drive that same trail, passing in hours what took them weeks. Along that long empty freeway there’s a great place to stop which teaches about the emigrant’s experience. In Elko, Nevada, the US Bureau of Land Management has built an interpretive center with dioramas and interactive exhibits. Volunteers give live demonstrations of daily life on the trail, for both Native Americans and pioneers. There is a reconstructed Shoshone village and wagon encampment. Their website is also very informative – google the California Trail Interpretive Center.
Another great resource is the National Park Service which has documented this and other historically significant trails. They’ve created an interpretive center online. The California Trail website tells the story of the Trail amd provides an Interactive map which tells where you can still see the trail. This map is at: [https://www.nps.gov/cali/planyourvisit/places-to-go.htm]
Photo of Conestoga By Kevin Burkett from Philadelphia, Pa., USA – Used under Creative Commons license.