California Trail - Early History and Maps of The California Trail

Early History and Maps of The California Trail

The Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada mountains through which the trail passed were first explored by British and American fur trappers. U.S. trapper, explorer and fur trader Jedediah Smith led two expeditions into California and over the Sierra Nevada mountains and back from 1826–1829. It is believed that on his first trip he used the Mojave River route (later part of the Old Spanish Trail) to get into California and 8,730 feet (2,660 m) Ebbetts Pass when leaving California in the spring 1827. On Smith's second trip he entered California the same way and left through Oregon. Smith was killed in 1831 before he could publish his explorations, which were only known by word of mouth.

In 1828–29, Peter Skene Ogden, leading expeditions for the British Hudson's Bay Company, explored much of the Humboldt River area—named by him the Mary's River. The results of these explorations were held as proprietary secrets for many decades by the Hudson's Bay Company. 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 R. Walker and a small horse mounted party westward from the Green River in present-day Wyoming. They were charged with the mission of finding a route to California. Walker confirmed that the Humboldt River furnished a natural artery across the Great Basin to the Sierra Nevada mountains. He eventually got across the Sierra Nevada mountains in southern California over Walker Pass. Bonneville had the account of his and Walker's explorations in the west written up by Washington Irving in 1838. (See: "The Adventures of Captain Bonneville").

A few hundred mountain men and their families had been filtering into California for several decades prior to 1841 over various paths from Oregon and Santa Fe. The first known emigrants to use parts of the California Trail was the 1841 Bartleson-Bidwell Party.

They followed the Humboldt River across Nevada and eventually made it into northern California. Other parts of this party split off and were one of the first sets of emigrants to use the Oregon Trail to get to Oregon. The California-bound travelers, striking out from the Snake River and passing into Nevada, missed the head of the Humboldt river there. They abandoned their wagons in eastern Nevada and finished the trip by pack train. After an arduous transit of the Sierras (its believed over Ebbetts Pass), members of this group later founded Chico, California in the Sacramento Valley. In 1842 (a year without any known California Trail emigration), Joseph Chiles, a member of the Bartleson-Bidwell Party of 1841, returned with several others back east. In 1843, Chiles led a party (of seven he eventually would lead) back to California. At Fort Hall he met Joseph Reddeford Walker who he convinced to lead half the settlers with him traveling in wagons back to California down the Humboldt. Chiles led the rest in a pack train party down the Malheur River to California. Walker's party in 1843 also abandoned their wagons and finished getting to California by pack train.

In 1844, Caleb Greenwood and the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party became the first settlers to take wagons over the Sierra Nevada and into California over what became the Truckee Trail. They abandoned their wagons in the early snow in the winter of 1844/1845 and finished retrieving their wagons from the mountains in the spring of 1845. In 1845, John C. Frémont and Lansford Hastings guided parties totaling several hundred settlers along the Humboldt River portion of the California Trail to California. They were the first to make the entire trip by wagon in one traveling season. In 1846 it is believed that about 1,500 settlers made their way to California over the Truckee branch of the California Trail—just in time to join the war for independence there. Many of the 1845 and 1846 emigrants were recruited into the California Battalion to assist the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron with its sailors and marines in the fight for California's independence from Mexico.

The last immigrant party in 1846 was the Donner Party, who were persuaded by Lansford Hastings, who had only traveled over the route he recommended by pack train, to take what would be called the Hastings Cutoff around the south end of the Great Salt Lake. At the urging of Hastings, the Donner's were induced to make a new 'cutoff' over the rugged Wasatch mountains where there were no wagon trails. Hastings recommended this despite the fact that he had successfully led about 80 wagons in the Harlan-Young party who blazed a new trail down the rugged Weber River to the Utah valley—he thought the Weber River route was too rugged for general travel. The Donner party spent over a week's hard work scratching a barely usable path across the Wasatch mountains, getting ever further behind Hasting's Party. When the Mormons tried using the Donner blazed trail in 1847 they were forced to abandon most of it and cut (with many more settlers available to clear trees and brush) a new and much easier to use trail (part of the Mormon Trail) to Salt Lake valley—taking 10 days of hard work to get through the Wasatch mountains.

The Hastings Cutoff went across about 80 miles (130 km) waterless salt flats south of the Great Salt Lake. While crossing the Salt Flats the Donner party, even though following the tracks of the Harlan-Young party, lost several wagons and many animals. After crossing, they spent almost a week at Donner Springs near the base of Pilot Peak (Nevada) in Box Elder County, Utah trying to recover themselves and their animals. They had to use even more time skirting around the Ruby Mountains in Nevada before hitting the Humboldt River and the regular trail. Altogether, crossing the Wasatch mountains and salt flats and skirting the Rubys cost them about three weeks more time over what staying on the main trail would have taken. They and their surviving wagons and teams were in poor shape. To add insult to injury the Donner-Reed party encountered others that had left Ft. Bridger after them, stayed on the main trail to Ft. Hall, and were now ahead of them. They were the last emigrants of 1846 to arrive in California—east of the Sierras and just as it started to snow. They were stranded by early snowfall in the eastern Sierras near what is now called Donner Lake and suffered severely including starvation, death and cannibalism (See: Donner Party).

The first “decent” map of California and Oregon were drawn by Captain John C. Frémont of the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers, and his topographers and cartographers in about 1848. Fremont and his men, led by his guide and former trapper Kit Carson, made extensive expeditions starting in 1844 over parts of California and Oregon including the important Humboldt River and Old Spanish Trail routes. They made numerous topographical measurements of longitude, latitude and elevation as well as cartographic sketches of the observable surroundings. His map, although in error in minor ways, was the best map available in 1848. John C. Frémont gave the Great Salt Lake, Humboldt River, Pyramid Lake, Carson River, Walker River, Old Spanish Trail etc. their current names. The Truckee River (called the Salmon-Trout River by Fremont) in California and Nevada was mapped. Lake Tahoe is shown but left unnamed. The major rivers in California are shown, presumably given the names used by the trappers and Mexican and foreign settlers there. The Humboldt was named (after the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt). Fremont and his topographers/cartographers did not have time (it would take literally decades of work to do this) to make extensive explorations of the entire Sierra Nevada range or Great Basin. Details of the Sierra Nevada and Great Basin concerning the best passes or possible emigrant routes for wagons would be explored and discovered from about 1846 to 1859 by numerous other explorers.

Fremont, together with his wife Jessie Benton Fremont, wrote an extensive account of his explorations and published the first “accurate” map of California and Oregon making them much more widely known. The U.S. Senate had 10,000 copies of Fremont’s map and exploration write-up printed. How many of the these maps were actually in the hands of early immigrants is unknown.

The trickle of emigrants before 1848 became a flood after the discovery of gold in California in January 1848, the same year that the U.S. acquired and paid for possession of the New Mexico Territory and California Territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which terminated the Mexican American War. 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.

1849 was also the first year of large scale cholera epidemics in the United States and the rest of the world, and thousands are thought to have died along the trail on their way to California—most buried in unmarked graves in Kansas and Nebraska. The 1850 census showed this rush was overwhelmingly male as the ratio of women to men in California over 16 was about 5:95

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.

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