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Main route of California Trail (thick red line), including Applegate-Lassen and Beckwourth variations (thinner red lines)

The California Trail was a major overland immigrant trail ofabout across the western half of the North American continent from Missouri Rivermarker towns to what is now the state of Californiamarker. It was used primarily from 1841 to 1869. It followed the same corridor of trails, following different river valleys, as the Oregon Trail and the Mormon Trail till it turned off in Idahomarker, Wyomingmarker or Utahmarker to follow trails leading to the Humboldt River valley. Most of the trail across the Great Basin in Nevadamarker followed the Humboldt River valley to obtain the water, grass and 'wood' needed by all travelers. Once in western Nevada and eastern California the pioneers worked out several paths over the rugged Sierra Nevada mountains into the gold fields, settlements and cities of western California.

The trail was used by about 2,700 settlers prior to 1849. These settlers were instrumental in helping convert California to a U.S. possession as members of John C. Fremont's California Battalion in 1846 and 1847. By 1845, the province had a non-Native American population of about 1,500 Californio adult men (with about 6500 women and children), who lived mostly in the southern half of the state around Los Angeles. Most immigrants (nearly all adult males) lived mostly in the northern half of California. The minor armed resistance in California ceased when the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed on January 13, 1847 with the Californios who had wrested control of California from Mexico in 1845. California was bought and paid for from Mexico in February 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which terminated the war. 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 short years these settlers, combined with those coming by sea across the Isthmus of Panama and around Cape Hornmarker, had enough residents in California by 1850 to make it the 31st state.

The California Trail route was partially discovered by American fur traders like Kit Carson, Joseph Reddeford Walker, Jedediah Smith as well as Hudson Bay Company trappers led by Peter Skene Ogden from about 1829 to 1840. A usable but very rough wagon route was worked out along the Humboldt River (then called Mary's River) and over the Sierras by California bound settlers between 1841 and 1844. The trail was heavily used in the summers until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. The original route had many branches and cutoffs encompassing in all about total of different trails and cutoffs. About of the rutted traces of the these trail remain in Kansasmarker, Nebraskamarker, Wyomingmarker, Idahomarker, Utahmarker, Nevadamarker and Californiamarker as historical evidence of the great mass migration westward. Portions of the trail are now preserved by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the National Park Service (NPS) as the California National Historical Trail and marked by BLM, NPS and the many state organizations of the Oregon-California Trail Association (OCTA) .

See Also: National Trail Map

California Trail Routes


The Oregon, California, Mormon and later the Bozemanmarker trails all went west along much of the same network of trails crossing the western half the North American Continent. The exact route of the trail to get to California depended on the starting point of the trip, the final destination in California, the whims of the pioneers, the water and grass available on the trail, the state of Indian attacks on the trail, the information they had or acquired along the way as well as the time of year. The essentials of the trip for four to six persons were enough food and a few miscellaneous supplies for six months, a wagon to carry them in and provide shelter, a team of four to six animals to pull it, water, grass and 'wood' (often buffalo 'chips', willow or sagebrush) at each campsite to keep themselves and their livestock watered and fed and the travelers meals cooked. Most walked nearly the entire distance with very few riding long in the wagons unless they were pregnant or a small child. Some of the men had horses or mules which they rode most of the way. A few walked or used pack animals over much the same route. The trail(s) nearly always followed river valleys across the continent until about 1859 when the Central Overland Route across Utah and Nevada was developed. To be able to finish the four to six month trip in one season most trips were started in early April or May--as soon as the grass was growing and the trails were dry enough to support the wagons. The trips hopefully terminated in early September or October before snow started falling again.

Branches of the trail(s) crossed the states of Missouri and Iowa before reaching and crossing the Missouri Rivermarker. The Missouri river was crossed on ferries and steam boats to get to the western side. Many traveled down the Ohio River on flatboats or steamboats and up the Mississippi and Missouri Riversmarker by steamboat from other points in the United States and Europe before they reached their jumping off points. Many bought most of their supplies, wagons and teams in St. Louis, Missourimarker and traveled by steamboat up the Missouri River before they arrived at their departure point. The main branch(s) of the trail started at one of several towns on the Missouri Rivermarker--Independence, Missourimarker, Kansas City, Kansasmarker, Topeka, Kansasmarker, Council Bluffs, Iowamarker (called Kanesville until 1852) and Omaha, Nebraskamarker plus others. Those starting in either Independence Missouri or Kansas City Kansas typically ferried across the Kansasmarker and Wakarusa Rivers and then followed either the Little Blue River or Republican Rivermarker across Kansas and into Nebraskamarker. If they started above the Kansas and Missouri River junction from the future town sites of Atchison, Kansasmarker, Leavenworth, Kansasmarker etc. they typically traversed across the plains generally northwest till they encountered the Little Blue River. The only general restriction on traveling the rolling hills of Kansas was the need to cross several large creeks and their sharp banks which required either a lot of work to dig a usable wagon ford or using a previously established ford. If they started in Nebraskamarker most followed the northern side of the Platte River from near its junction on the Missouri Rivermarker. As the 1850s progressed and the armed hostilities escalated in "bleeding" Kansas more and more travelers traveled up the Missouri river to leave from or near Omaha Nebraska. After 1847 there were also two or more ferries (or steamboats) active during the start of emigration season to facilitate crossing the Missouri and getting to Omaha Nebraska. When the Union Pacific Railroad started west in 1865 with their tracks, Omaha was their eastern terminus. Emigrants traveling on the North side of the Platte would have to ferry across the Elkhorn and Loup Rivers on their way west. Nearly all routes joined up at the Platte River near new Fort Kearny (est. 1848) in Nebraska. Those on the north side of the Platte would have to cross the Platte river to use the services available at Fort Kearny.

Great Platte River Road

The Platte River in the future states of Nebraska and Wyoming typically had many channels and islands and was too shallow, crooked, muddy and unpredictable for even a canoe to travel very far on as it pursued its braided paths to the Missouri River. But the Platte's river valley provided an easily passable wagon corridor sloping easily up as it went almost due west with access to water, grass, buffalo and buffalo 'chips' for fire 'wood'. There were trails on both sides of the muddy, about wide and shallow ( to ) Platte River. In all the trail(s) traveled about in the present state of Nebraskamarker in the Platte river valley. The Platte's water was silty and bad tasting but it could be used if no other water was available. Letting it sit in a bucket for an hour or so allowed most of the silt to settle out. The preferred camping spots were along one of the many fresh water streams draining into the Platte or the occasional fresh water spring found along the way. These preferred camping sports unfortunately became sources of cholera in the cholera epidemic years (1849-1855) as many thousands of people used the same camping spots with very limited sewage facilities. The cause (ingesting cholera germs from contaminated water) and cure for cholera were unknown in this era. Those traveling south of the Platte crossed the South Platte with its muddy and treacherous crossings using one of about three ferries (in dry years it could sometimes be forded without a ferry) before continuing up the North Platte River into present-day Wyomingmarker to Fort Laramiemarker. After crossing over the South Platte the travelers encountered Ash Hollow with its steep descent down windlass hill. Several days further on on they would encounter huge rock formations sticking out of the prairie called Courthouse rock and twenty miles further on the startling Chimney rock, then Castle Rock and finally Scotts Bluff. Before 1852 those on the North side ferried across the North Platte to the south side at Fort Laramie. After 1852 they used Child's Cutoff to stay on the north side to about the present day town of Casper, Wyomingmarker where they crossed over to the south side. The road west of Fort Laramie became much rougher as the terrain was cut by many hills and ravines as streams cut their way to the North Platte which was now often deep in a canyon and the road had to veer away from the river. Sallie Hester, an immigrant of 1850, described the terrain as if it was something clawed by a gigantic bear--"sixty miles of the worst road in the world". In all from Omaha, Nebraskamarker ( ) the Platte and North Platte were followed for about to Casper Wyoming ( ). Fortunately the swifter flowing waters after Fort Laramie seemed to minimize the chance for cholera germ transmission and its fatal attacks diminished significantly. At the junction of the North Platte and Sweetwater River near the present town of Casper, Wyomingmarker where the North Platte swings south west the trail crossed over the North Platte by ferry and followed the Sweetwater across Wyoming to the continental divide at ( ) South Passmarker Wyoming. They forded the Sweetwater up to nine times before reaching South Pass. From South Pass the main trail followed Big Sandy creek(s) till it hit and crossed the Green river--three to five ferries were in use there during peak travel periods. The swift and treacherous Green river was usually 100 to 300 feet (30 to 100 m) wide and 10 to 50 feet (3 to 15 m) deep at high water in July and August and it was a dangerous crossing. The wait to cross was often several days long even with several ferries in operation. The main trail then went down across the Green River on to Fort Bridgermarker on the Black fork of the Green River where it diverged from the Mormon Trail.Image:P7170202 Chimney Rock.JPG|Chimney Rock, NebraskaImage:Scotts Bluff VC n entrance (Eagle Rock).JPG|Scotts Bluff, NebraskaImage:Trail ruts State Hist site Wyoming.jpg|Trail Rutsmarker, Wyoming

South Pass to Humbolt River

The Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff (established 1844) cut about off the main route through Fort Bridgermarker. It left the main immigrant trail about from South Passmarker at Parting of the Ways junction and then headed almost due west. About ten miles further they encountered Big Sandy River--about ten feet wide and one foot deep. This was the last water before crossing about of desert consisting of soft dry soil which rose in suffocating clouds before reaching the next water at the Green River about below the present town of La Barge, Wyomingmarker. Here the Green had cut a steep channel through the Green River Desert which had to be descended by a steep rocky path to reach the Green and its life giving water. Here the often very thirsty teams sometimes stampeded to get to the water with terrible results. The descent was soon scattered with fragments of many wagons and dead animals. The Sublette cutoff saved about 50 miles but the typical price was numerous dead oxen and the wrecks of many wagons. After crossing the Green they then had to continue crossing a mountain range to connect with the main trail near Cokeville, Wyomingmarker in the Bear River valley.

The Green River is a major tributary of the Colorado Rivermarker and is a large, deep and powerful river. It ranges from 100 to 300 feet (30 to 100 m) wide in the upper course where it typically was forded and ranges from 3 to 50 feet (1 to 15 m) in depth. After the opening of the Oregon, California and Mormon trails were opened several ferries were set up to cross it but during peak travel seasons in July the wait to cross was often several days. At the Green River on the main trail after crossing the river many took the Slate Creek Cutoff (also called the Kinney Cutoff) which turned north up the Green river for about ten miles (16 km) before turning almost due west to connect up to the Sublette Cutoff road. This cutoff eliminated most of the waterless desert crossing of the Sublette cutoff.

After 1848 those needing repairs, new livestock, fresh vegetables, fruit or other supplies could stay on the Mormon trail from Fort Bridgermarker to Salt Lake City, Utahmarker and other Utah towns. Salt Lake City, located at about half way, on the trip, was the only significant settlement along the route. From Salt Lake City they could easily get back to the California (or Oregon) Trail by following the Salt Lake Cutoff northwest around the north end of Great Salt Lakemarker and rejoin the main trail at the City of Rocksmarker near the present Idahomarker-Utahmarker border.

The Lander Road (established and built by government contractors in 1858) also bypassed Fort Bridgermarker and was about shorter than going by way of Fort Bridger. It stayed with the Sweetwater river longer, crossing the continental divide north of South Pass and crossing the Green River near the present town of Big Piney, Wyomingmarker and then passing over Thompson Pass in the Salt River Mountains (Wyoming) before entering Star Valley Wyoming near the present town of Smoot, Wyomingmarker. The Lander Road had good grass, fishing, water and wood but was rough and steep in many places. From Smoot the road then continued north about down Star Valley west of the Salt River before turning almost due west at Stump Creek near the present town of Auburn, Wyomingmarker and passing into the present state of Idaho and following the Stump Creek valley about ten miles northwest before turning almost ninety degrees and progressing southwest to Soda Springs, Idahomarker or alternately heading almost due west to Fort Hallmarker Idaho.

South Pass to the Central Overland Route

An alternative route that by passed both Fort Hall and the Humboldt River trails was developed in 1859. The route followed the Mormon Trail from South Pass to Salt Lake City, Utahmarker and passed south of the Great Salt Lakemarker across central Utah and Nevada. Many California travelers took the and over two weeks shorter Central Overland Route to Salt Lake City and across central Nevadamarker (very roughly where U.S. Highway 50 in Nevada and Utah goes today). This route was discovered, surveyed and developed by a team of U.S. Army workers lead by Captain James H. Simpson of the U. S. Corp of Topographical Engineers and went from individual streams and springs across the Great Basin desert in central Utah and Nevada--avoiding the Humboldt and its often combative Indians. The Nevada end of the route was Carson City, Nevadamarker. Initially the springs and trail were maintained by the army as a western supply route to their Camp Floyd which was set up after the phony Utah War of 1856-57. Ironically, the Central Overland Route induced many more California travelers to travel to Utah and helped their economy--just the opposite of what many wanted. By 1860 Camp Floyd was abandoned as the army left to fight the U.S. Civil War and the Central Overland Route was their only long term legacy. The Pony express in 1860-61 shared the many stage stations already built up by stage lines taking the Central Route. These combined stage and Pony Express stations along the Central Route across Utah and Nevada were joined by the First Transcontinental Telegraph stations which followed much the same route in 1861 from Carson City, Nevadamarker to Salt Lake City, Utahmarker. This combination wagon/stagecoach/pony express/telegraph line route is labeled the Pony Express National Historic Trail on the National Trail Map From Salt Lake City the telegraph line followed much of the Mormon/California/Oregon trail(s) to Omaha Nebraska. After the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 the telegraph lines along the railroad tracks became the main line since the required relay stations and lines were much easier to supply and maintain along the railroad. The telegraph lines that diverged from the railroad lines were largely abandoned.

Main Trail through Fort Bridger to the Humboldt River

The main trail went almost due north from Fort Bridger to the Little Muddy Creek where it passed over the Bear River Mountains to the Bear River valley which it followed northwest into the Thomas Fork area, where the emigrants encountered Big Hill near present day Montpelier, Idahomarker (site of a Oregon-California Trail interpretive Center). Big Hill had a tough ascent often requiring doubling up of teams and a very steep and dangerous descent. They followed the Bear River to present day Soda Springs, Idahomarker where the Bear river turned southwest and the main trail turned northwest to follow the Portneuf River valley to Fort Hallmarker (Idaho) in the Oregon Country along the Snake River. The route from Fort Bridger to Fort Hall was about taking nine to twelve days. About west of Soda Springs Hudspeth's Cutoff (est. 1849) took off from the main trail heading almost due west and by-passed Fort Hall. It rejoined the California trail at Cassia Creek near the City of Rocksmarker (now a national reserve and Idaho State park). Hudspeth's Cutoff had five mountain ranges to cross and took about the same amount of time as the main route to Fort Hall but many took it thinking it was shorter. Its main advantage was that it did spread out the traffic on busy years and made more grass available. (For Oregon-California trail map up to junction in Idaho see: Oregon National Historic Trail Map NPS )

West of Fort Hall the trail traveled about on the south side of the Snake River southwest till near present day Pocatello, Idahomarker. At the junction of the Raft Rivermarker and Snake River (Idaho) the trail diverged from the Oregon Trail by leaving the Snake River and following the small and short Raft River about southwest past present day Almo, Idahomarker. It then passed through the City of Rocksmarker and over Granite Pass where it went southwest along Goose Creek, Little Goose Creek, and Rock Spring Creek. It went about through Thousand Springs Valley, West Brush Creek, Willow Creek, before arriving at the Humboldt River in northeastern Nevada near present day Wells, Nevadamarker. (Northern Nevada and Utah, Southern Idaho Tail Map)

Across the Great Basin on the Humboldt River

The Humboldt River is fed by melting snow flowing from the Ruby Mountains in north central Nevada and runs over mostly westward across the Great Basin to the Humboldt Sinkmarker in western Nevadamarker where it disappears into the ground. The Great Basin covers essentially all of Nevada and parts of Utah, Idaho, Oregon and California and has no outlet to the sea. The Great Basin lives in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains and what little rainfall occurs there--stays there. The Humboldt provided an easily followed pathway across the Great Basin desert. The Humboldt was praised for having water and feed along its banks and also cursed for its poor quality water, pesky hungry mosquitoes, barely adequate grass, meandering channel, heat and alkali laden dust. Oh, how the diarists cursed the alkali laden dust and the terrible water, persistent mosquitoes and the often combative Indians who apparently delighted in putting an arrow in their livestock so it would have to be left behind! The fire 'wood' consisted of occasional junipers and cedars and ever present sagebrush and willows. The trail followed both the north and south banks of the Humboldt across Nevada, passing through the narrow Carlin Canyon on the Humboldt, which became nearly impassable during periods of high water. West of Carlin Canyon the trail climbed through Emigrant Gap (Nevada) and then descended again to rejoin the Humboldt at Gravelly Ford. At Gravelly Ford the often muddy Humboldt had a good gravel bottom and was easily forded and there was usually plenty of grass and fresh water springs. Many stayed here a while to rest and recuperate their teams and themselves. After the Ford the trail divided into two branches, following the north and south banks of the river. The trail on the north side of the river was much better allowing an easy miss of the Reese River sink. Those who took the south side would have to travel around a big bend in the Humboldt then cross the usually dry alkali laden Reese River sink. The two branches of the Trail rejoined at Humboldt Bar. The main route of the California Trail is approximated by modern State Route 233 in eastern Nevada and Interstate 80 in central and western Nevada.

At the Humboldt Sinkmarker (about northeast of present day Reno, Nevadamarker) where the Humboldt River disappeared into a marshy lake one of the worst sections of the California Trail showed up--Forty Mile Desert. The Truckee River (which drains the Lake Tahoemarker basin and Donner Lakemarker), and the Carson River are two major rivers that flow eastward out of the Sierra Nevada and are only about from the end of the Humboldt. The Truckee terminates in Pyramid Lakemarker with a salinity approximately 1/6th that of sea water and supports several species of fish. The Carson river disappears into another alkali laden marsh called the Carson Sink. Unfortunately, they would have to cross the Forty Mile Desert to get to either river. Before crossing the Forty Mile Desert, the California main trail splits with one branch going towards the Truckee River Route (or Truckee Trail) (est. 1844) going roughly almost due west where Interstate 80 goes today towards the site of modern-day Wadsworth, Nevadamarker. The Carson Trail branch (est. 1848) went roughly from today's I-80 and U.S. Highway 95 junction to modern day Fallon, Nevadamarker southwest across Forty Mile Desert to the Carson River

The Forty Mile Desert was a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland that stretched from Humboldt Bar to both the Carson and Truckee rivers and beyond. The desert covered an area of over by , forming a fire box in which its loose white salt covered sands and baked alkali clay wastes reflected the sun's heat onto the stumbling travelers and animals. Even what few plants that do grow here are typically covered with thorns and living low to the ground. The annual rainfall in the Forty mile desert is only It was one of the most dreaded sections of the California Trail as it showed up just as the emigrants were nearly out of food supplies, very weak and tired, often suffering from the effects of scurvy, with very worn out animals and equipment. They were about before the end of the trail and for many it was the end of their trail. Most emigrants got there in late August through early October--one of the hottest, driest times of the year. If possible, the desert was traveled by night because of the great heat; but it often took over a day and a night to traverse the desert. About half-way across the desert on the Truckee Trail, they came to a foul tasting hot springs (now a thermal power plant ), but its water, was usually too hot for even very thirsty animals to consume. Many dead animals were concentrated at and in these "bad" water springs--often preventing access to them. Water had to be pooled off and allowed to cool before it could be used. The trail on the last the alkali flats gave way to soft sand, six to ten inches (15-25 cm) deep and very hard for the animals to pull the wagons through. The ground was littered with the debris of goods, wagons and dead and dying animals that had all been discarded in a desperate attempt by the pioneers to make it all the way across. Often a wagon would be abandoned and the team would be unhooked and taken on alone to get water. After recuperating on the other side, they would have to go back and retrieve their wagon. Many animals (and people) died on this crossing. A count made in 1850 showed these appalling statistics for Forty Mile Desert: 1,061 dead mules, about 5,000 dead horses, 3,750 dead cattle and 953 graves.

Image:PalisadeCanyonNV.jpg|Humboldt River, NevadaImage:Carsonriversouth.jpg|West Fork of the Carson River, just east of Hope Valley in Alpine County, CaliforniaImage:Donner Pass Track 1 Grade.jpg|Donner Pass, CaliforniaImage:Carsonrivermap.png|Map of the Carson, Truckee, Humboldt River drainage system western Nevada

Crossing the Sierra Nevada

The high, rugged Sierra Nevada mountains on the eastern California border were the final obstacle that had to be overcome before west bound travelers could proceed. The Sierras comprise a large block of weather worn granite tilted towards the west. The western slopes are scarred by glacier and river carved canyons but slope much more gradually west taking about to fall from their crest to the floor of the Central Valley. The even more rugged glacier and river scarred eastern slopes are typically much more precipitous, rising to the crest from their base in the Great Basin in many places in less than . A second smaller but yet a significant block of weather worn granite formed the Carson Rangemarker of mountains located east of today's Lake Tahoemarker which is located between the two ranges. Both ranges would have to be passed to get to western California. Even today there are only about nine roads that go over the Sierras and about half of these may be closed in winter.

Truckee Trail

The Truckee Trail (established 1844 by the Stephens-Murphy wagon train) over the Sierra Nevada took about to cross Forty Mile Desert but it did have a hot springs in about the middle that could be used for water if you pooled it off and waited for the 'bad' water to cool. After hitting the Truckee River just as it turned almost due north towards Pyramid Lake near today's Wadsworth, Nevadamarker the emigrants were across the dreaded Forty Mile Desert. The emigrants blessed the Truckee's cool and sweet tasting water, fresh grass and the cool shade from the first trees (cottonwoods) the emigrants had seen in hundreds of miles. The travelers often rested themselves and their animals for a few days before proceeding. Real shade, grass for their animals and no more bitter, soapy tasting Humboldt river water were much appreciated. The Truckee Trail followed the Truckee River past present day Reno, Nevadamarker (then called Big Meadows) and went west till near the present Nevada-California border they encountered Truckee Canyon. This canyon was one of the paths across the Carson Range of mountains. This steep, narrow, rock filled canyon could be traversed by wagons but required about 27 crossings of the cold Truckee river and much prying and shoving to get wagons and teams over the rocks to proceed up the canyon.

In 1845 Caleb Greenwood and his three sons developed a new route that by-passed Truckee River Canyon by leaving the river near the present town of Verdi, Nevadamarker and following a ravine northwest over a pass across the Carson Rangemarker (followed today by the Henness Pass Road) and down to Dog Valley and from there southwest down through the present Stampede and Prosser Creek Reservoirs before rejoining the Truckee trail near today's Truckee, Californiamarker. This was about ten mile (16 km) longer route but it avoided most of the continual crossings of the rock filled Truckee river and became the main route for the "Truckee Trail". Initially, the trail passed to the north of Lake Tahoemarker and then followed Donner Creek to Donner Lakemarker before ascending the precipitous climb north of the lake to Donner Passmarker. Initially, on some routes (there were several routes over the Sierras here over time) the wagons were disassembled and hoisted straight up various cliffs using multiple teams to get the wagon parts and goods to the top. Some cliffs were ascended by tilting tall fallen trees against the cliffs and using multiple teams to pull the wagons up the improvised steep ramps. All routes required using multiple teams to get the wagons to the top and differing amounts of wagon dis-assembly. The trail initially crossed the Sierra crest through Donner Passmarker.

Roller Pass

Starting in about 1846 the Joseph Aram party found an alternate route on the south side of Donner Lake. Their route ran past the future town of Truckee, Californiamarker up Coldstream Canyon south of Donner Lake to a saddle between Mt. Judah and Mt. Lincoln, about two miles south of Donner's pass. Here the final climb was up over the somewhat higher but less precipitous Roller Pass. The oxen were taken to the top where they could pull on more or less level ground and about of chain was let down to a wagon and twelve or more yoke of oxen then pulled the wagon up the final steep (about 30 degree) slope. To minimize friction on the chain it ran over round logs (rollers) put at the top.(Roller Pass Truckee Trail Map ) By not requiring dis-assembly and allowing the wagon to stay packed this was a much faster way to the top but was still tortuously slow taking two to three days or longer to get to the top with wagon, people, animals and goods. In about 1848 or 1849 a large group of pioneers cut a switchback trail over the final steep section eliminating the need for rollers and chains to get over Roller Pass. From the top of the pass all the pioneers could see was a rugged mountain slope headed west that would require almost more of strenuous and dangerous effort to get to their goal.

From the top, the Trail then proceeded by a rugged rock strewn path down the South Fork of the Yuba River--fed by an alpine lake. The first resting spot, after hitting the top, for many was beautiful Summit Valley (now mostly covered by Lake Van Norden reservoir) a few miles from the summit.

A view of the South Fork of the Yuba River from the North Bloomfield Road bridge.

The trail down the western slope of the Sierras passed enormous granite boulders and numerous rocky out crops and steep slopes before passing through Emigrant Gapmarker (California). Here a Historical marker on Interstate 80 reads: "The spring of 1845 saw the first covered wagons surmount the Sierra Nevada. They left the valley, ascended to the ridge, and turned westward to old Emigrant Gap, where they were lowered by ropes to the floor of Bear Valley. Hundreds followed before, during, and after the gold rush. This was a hazardous portion of the overland emigrant trail." Most emigrants stayed at Bear Valley to rest and recover before traveling the approximate remaining to Sutter's Fort. The original Lincoln Highway built in about 1925 climbed the eastern Sierras to Donner Pass with multiple steep switchbacks. Today, the part of Interstate 80 in California and Nevada from 40 Mile Desert, Truckee River, Donner Pass, Sacramento very roughly approximates the Truckee Trail route.

Eventually several branches of the Truckee Trail developed for freight wagons and emigrants going both ways on the California trail. Parts of the trail were significantly improved when the Central Pacific Railroad started their construction over much of the Truckee route in 1864. In 1864 they started the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Toll Wagon Road (DFDLWR) to earn money hauling freight to Nevada while also supplying their workers from Dutch Flat California to Verdi, Nevadamarker.

Nevada City Road

Branching off the Truckee Trail was the Nevada City Road (est 1850) to Nevada City. This cutoff is closely followed today by California State Route 20 from Emigrant Gap on Highway 80 to Nevada City, Californiamarker.

Auburn Emigrant Road

The Auburn Emigrant Road (1852) from the Truckee trail to Auburn was established to bring emigrants to the new gold diggings at Auburn, Californiamarker. Its thought to have extended from roughly present day Nevada City, Californiamarker, roughly the end of the Truckee Trail, to Auburn. California State Route 49 from Auburn to Nevada City approximates this path. Later toll roads would be built along the rough pack trail from Auburn to Emigrant Gap (California) where Interstate 80 and the Central Pacific Railroad would later go. In 1852 Auburn was reachable by wagons from Sacramento.

Henness Pass Road

The Henness Pass Road (est. 1850) was a trail over the Sierras from today's Verdi, Nevadamarker (Dog Valley) to Camptonvillemarker and Marysville, Californiamarker. The route was developed as a wagon toll route by Patrick Henness starting in about 1850. The Henness Pass Road was located about north of the Truckee trail. The route went from The Truckee Trail in Dog Valley (near today's Verdi Nevada) up the Little Truckee River to Webber Lake to the summit, through Henness Pass, along the ridge dividing the North and Middle Yuba Rivers and into Camptonville and Marysville. Freight could be shipped by steamboat to Marysville and picked up there for shipment over the Sierras. After 1860 extensions went southward to Carson City, Nevadamarker and on to the Comstock Lode in Virginia City, Nevadamarker. Commencing in 1860 and continuing for some nine years the road under went major improvements becoming one of the busiest trans-Sierra trails being favored by teamsters and stage drivers over the Placerville Route (Johnson Cutoff) because of its lower elevations and easier grades and access to ship cargo. Many summer camps and relay stations were created along the route at roughly seven to ten miles intervals to accommodate oxen, horse and mule powered wagons. 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 was 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. Today the Henness wagon road is a mostly gravel U.S. Forest Service road called the Henness Pass Road from Verdi Nevada to Camptonville California.

Beckwourth Trail

The Beckwourth Trail (est. 1850) left the Truckee River Route at Truckee Meadows (now the site of Sparks, Nevadamarker), proceeded north along roughly the route of U.S. Route 395 in California before crossing the Sierras on what is now California State Route 70 at Beckwourth Passmarker. After crossing the pass the trail passed west along the ridge tops (avoiding Feather River Canyon) through present day Plumas, Butte and Yuba counties into California's central valley finally terminating at Marysville, Californiamarker. The Oroville-Quincy Highway (California State Route 162), (partially gravel road ) and California State Route 70 from Quincy to Highway 395 in general follow the path of the original Beckwourth Trail. The Feather River Railroad built down the Feather River canyon between 1906 and 1909 by the Western Pacific Railroad parallels much of the route. This road was only intermittently used by miners headed for the the Northern California mines.

Carson Trail

The Carson Trail (est. 1848) (also called Mormon Emigrant Trail) took about to cross Forty Mile Desert by leaving the Humboldt Sinkmarker and skirting the western edge of the Carson Sink and hit the Carson River near modern-day Fallon, Nevadamarker. The Carson Trail was named after Kit Carson, scout for John Charles Fremont who had guided the Fremont party over the Sierras on what became called Carson Passmarker in February 1844. The trail across the desert had the usual 6-12 inches (15-30 cm) of loose sand on the west end that is blown west from where it is deposited by the Carson River. This loose sand made traversing the desert very hard on their often very tired and worn out draft animals--many hundreds of which died here in 1849 and in other major emigrant years. The trail was soon cluttered with the usual discarded supplies, hundreds of dead and dying animals, abandoned wagons and emigrant graves typical of Forty Mile Desert.

The emigrant wagon route normally used through Carson's pass was initially developed by about 45 discharged members, including one woman, of the Mormon Battalion. They were driving 17 wagons and 300 cattle east to Salt Lake City in 1848. The wagons were veterans of the 1846 or 1847 emigration as California had at that time no facilities for building any thing besides simple solid wheeled ox carts. They followed Iron Mountain ridge on the Sierras east of what is now Placerville, Californiamarker (there were essentially no settlements east of Sutter's Fort in 1848) before hitting Tragedy Spring near Silver Lake. Here they found three of their scouts murdered by what appeared to be Indians. From there they ascended to West Pass and then dropped down from this summit to Caples Lake and a few miles further was Carson's pass. Here the only way down to the beautiful valley below was very steep ridge requiring many changes in direction with ropes and chain before they reached Red Lake at the head of Hope Valley. To get across the Carson Rangemarker of mountains the trail then followed the Carson River, traveling about six miles (10 km) in a very rough stretch of the Carson River canyon. The canyon was filled with boulders and rocks that had often fallen over a thousand feet into the canyon carved by the river through the Carson Range. In some places the canyon had to be widened enough for wagons to pass and impassable boulders removed by the Mormons headed east. They found that if they started a fire (driftwood was easily available) on boulders or impassably narrow canyon walls the hot rocks became easily breakable when doused with cold water and hit by picks and shovels. After several applications of fire, water and industrious pick use the parts of the trail that were formerly impassable were made passable. In about 1853 the road through the canyon was converted intermittently to a toll road and made much easier to use when even more large boulders were removed and two bridges were constructed. Today California State Route 88 and California State Route 89 both go through Carson River Canyon where the route has been smoothed and straightened by liberal use of explosives and bulldozers.

Travelers headed west in 1848 followed the trail blazed and carved by the Mormons in 1848 from what is now Fallon, Nevadamarker. It was still a very rough road through Carson River Canyon where the wagons had to be wrestled over the boulders by ropes, pry bars and levers and a few improvised bridges before they finally entered beautiful Hope Valley. Westward travelers from Hope Valley had to climb a steep, rocky and tortuous paths over the back wall of a glacier carved cirque to get over the Sierras south of Lake Tahoemarker. The section of trail at the end of Hope Valley near Red Lake is called "The Devil's Ladder" where the trail has to climb over of very steep mountain in the final half mile (1 km). Today a hiker's careful eye can still find notches, grooves and rust marks left by iron rimmed wagon wheels, and trees scarred by ropes, chains and pulleys used to haul the heavy wagons up the precipitous slope. Travelers could get to the top of the pass in about one day of hard work--an acceptable trade off for many emigrants. The trail crossed the Sierra Crest through Carson Passmarker . At that time the trail forward was blocked by the Carson Spur--a sharp ridge passable for wagons only by going over it on West Pass (now part of Kirkwoodmarker ski resort). To proceed the Carson trail had to follow the path blazed by the Mormons and make a sharp turn South at what's now Caples Lake (reservoir) and ascend West Pass before finally making it over the Sierras. The half day path up over West Pass was easy compared to the climb to Carson Pass and was used by thousands of wagons from 1848 to 1863. The Carson trail was a straight forward push to Placerville and the heart of the gold country and was the main route for many emigrants for many years. A better route was finally blasted out of the face of the cliffs at Carson Spur in 1863 by the Amador and Nevada Wagon Road--a toll road around Carson Spur. The present highway route--California State Highway 88 has bulldozed and blasted many of the difficult sections of the trail to straighten it out and make it passable by today's cars; but roughly follows the route of much of the Carson Trail till it joins the road called Mormon Immigrant Trail/Iron Mountain Road which goes to Pollock Pines, Californiamarker and from there on to Placerville, Californiamarker.

As the Carson Trail developed many branches and toll roads were developed for freight wagons, emigrants and miners going both ways over the Sierras.

Johnson Cutoff (Placerville Route)

The Johnson Cutoff (1850-51) road (also called Placerville Route) from Carson City, Nevadamarker to Placerville, Californiamarker (then called Hangtown) used part of the Carson Trail to about present day Carson City. This cutoff was developed by John Calhoun Johnson of Placerville in about 1850-51. Leaving the future site of Carson City, Nevadamarker the cutoff passed over the Carson Range by following Cold Creek (via Kings Canyon Road) and passing over Spooner Summit. Once near Lake Tahoemarker it was forced to climb some further steep ridges by rocky spurs jutting into the lake and swampy ground (modern U.S. Highway 50 corrects both these problems). After getting to the southern end of the lake the trail veered west near Echo Lake and climbing steeply made it over the Sierras on Echo Summit (Johnson's Pass). The steep descent from Johnson's Pass brought the trail down to Slippery Ford on the South Fork American River. From there Johnson's Cutoff headed westward following the river from Strawberry to today's Kyburz, Californiamarker, before crossing to its north side and ascending about to Peavine Ridge and following its crest to get around a rocky stretch of the river. After descending Peavine ridge the trail forded the South Fork of the American River near Pacific House. From about today's Pollock Pines, Californiamarker it followed the ridge line on the south side of the river to Placerville. Johnson's route became a serious competitor as the main route over the Sierras. This route, with considerable up grades and modifications, eventually became one of the main all season routes over the Sierras since it could be kept open at least intermittently in the winter.

In 1855 The California Legislature passed An Act to Construct a Wagon Road over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and appropriated $100,005 dollars to do it. Sherman Day (he worked part time as a California State Senator) was appointed to survey the possible routes. After extensive searches he recommended the Placerville route (Johnson's Cutoff) as the best prospect and surveyed an improved route. Unfortunately, the California Supreme Court ruled in 1856 that the law was unconstitutional since it violated the state Constitution's allowable $300,000 debt limit without public vote. Discouraged but not defeated, road proponents got El-Dorado, Sacramento and Yolo counties to kick in $50,000 for road construction. Contracts were let and they got a new bridge across the South Fork American River ($11,300); a new sidehill road along Peavine ridge that was only to above the river and avoided the sharp ascents and descents there and extensive work on a new road up to Johnson's Summit (Echo Summit) and another less precipitous road down to Lake Valley. The new route was christened the Day Route. Winter and its attendant runoffs raised havoc with the road and in spring 1860, when the mobs were trying to get to Virginia City, Nevadamarker it was reported as a barely passably trail in places (April 1860). After 1860 the road was extensively improved as a toll road to the mines in Virginia City Nevada. It is now followed roughly by U.S. Highway 50.

In 1860-61 the pony express used Daggetts Pass and Johnson's cutoff route to deliver their mail--even in the winter.

Luther Pass Trail

The Luther Pass Trail (1854) was established to connect the Carson River Canyon road with the Johnson Cutoff (Placerville Road). Luther Passmarker (present CA SR 89) joined the older emigrant route northeast of Carson Pass through Carson River Canyon rather than following the trails along Lake Tahoe. Going East after descending from Echo Summit and getting to the south end of Lake Valley, it headed southeast over Luther Passmarker into Hope Valley where it connected up with the main Carson Trail through Carson River canyon to get over the Carson Range.

Daggett Pass

Branching off the Johnson's Cutoff (Placerville Road) was about Daggett Pass toll road (Georgetown Pack Trail) (est. abt 1850). This route was developed as a toll road to get across the Carson Range of mountains. Going east it leaves The Placerville Route near what is now Stateline, Nevadamarker (near South Lake Tahoemarker) and progresses up Kingsbury Grade to Daggett Pass and on down the Kingsbury Grade to Carson Valley. After 1859 and the discovery of gold and silver in the Comstock Lode this road was extensively improved and used by teamsters going to Virginia City, Nevadamarker as it cut about off the usual road through Carson River Canyon. Today Nevada State Route 207 closely approximates this road.

Grizzly Flat Road

The Grizzly Flat Road (1852) to Grizzly Flat & Placerville was an extension of the Carson trail that went down the middle fork of the Consumes river to what was then a busy gold diggings at Grizzly Flat--located about east of Placerville.

Volcano Road

The Volcano Road (1852) off the Carson Trail was to made in 1852 when Amador county and Stockton merchants paid a contractor to construct a road from Corral Flat on what is now the Carson Trail (California State Route 88) to Volcano, Californiamarker. Today the cutoff is approximately followed off SR 88 by the Fiddletown Silver Lake Road, Shake Ridge Road And Ram's Horn Grade.

Big Tree Road

Big Tree Road (1856) to Murphys & Stockton approximates the present California State Highway 4 route over Ebbetts Passmarker. Today's Ebbetts Pass National Scenic Byway is a scenic drive across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is anchored at either end by two State Parks--Calaveras Big Trees State Parkmarker and Grover Hot Springs State Parkmarker. It passes through the Stanislaus marker and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests. Originally a free trail when first used in about 1856, it became a toll road from 1864 through 1910, and then a free county road in 1911. Today, Ebbetts Pass road (SR 4) is very scenic but one of the least traveled passes in the Sierra Nevada. An extensive section of highway over the pass is less than two lanes with no dividing line. It has some very steep sections, particularly on the eastern Sierra slopes, with several sharp hairpin corners. It is not recommended for vehicles towing long trailers or commercial traffic. Watch out for motorcyclists.

Both the Carson River and Truckee River trails eventually ended up at Sutter's Fortmarker in Sacramento, Californiamarker. In 1848 most emigrants developed and used this route. In 1849 about one-third of all emigrants used the Carson Trail with later years many more using it. Starting in 1848, many left the main trail to stay in a mining district(s) or town(s) that developed along or off the trail(s).

Sonora Road

In 1852 the Sonora Road was opened from the Carson Trail to Sonora, Californiamarker by the Clark-Skidmore Company. From the Humboldt Sink it crossed Forty Mile Desert to the Carson River and then went almost due south to the Walker River which it followed to the Sierras before making the very steep (about 26 degrees in parts) and rugged ascent to Sonora Passmarker.
From there the road drops down twisting forested mountain ridges to Sonora. This was the highest road developed across the Sierras--and still a very scenic drive. (modern Tioga Passmarker out of Yosemite National Parkmarker is slightly higher) California State Route 108 between Sonora and U.S. Highway 395 roughly approximates the route of the Sonora Road over the Sierras. This route was little used after about 1854.

Applegate-Lassen Cutoff

The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff or Applegate Trail (est. 1846-48) left the California Trail near the modern-day Rye Patch Reservoirmarker in what's called now Lassen's meadow On the Humboldt River in Nevada. The trail headed northwest till it could get North of the worst of the California Sierra Nevada mountains. The trail passed through Rabbithole springs, crossed the Black Rock Desertmarker and High Rock Canyon before finally (after nearly of desert travel) arriving at Surprise Valley and climbing steeply to go over Fandango Pass. From there they faced a steep descend down a very steep hill to Fandango Valley on the shores of Goose Lakemarker on the Oregon-California border. Just South of Goose Lake the combined Oregon-California trail splits at Davis Creek. The Applegate Trail branch proceeded northwest into southeastern Oregon along the Lost River before turning almost due north roughly along the route of today's Interstate 5 to go the Willamette Valley in Oregon.

The California branch, the Lassen Cutoff (established in 1848 with a lot of help from eager Oregon gold seekers), proceeded southwest through the Devil's Garden along the Pit Riverandmarker passing east of Mt. Lassen till at present day Lake Almanor (reservoir) it eventually swung west and arrived at Lassen's ranchomarker near the Sacramento River. From there it followed the river south in the Central Valley marker about to Sutter's Fort and the gold diggings. This road was so rough in places that today in many places it can only be traveled by the occasional forest trail and hiking paths.

The Applegate-Lassen Cutoff was almost further than other routes and took roughly fifteen to thirty days additional travel to get to Sutter's Fort (unknown to nearly all who initially took it) but avoided Forty Mile Desert, many of the high passes and difficult climbs of other routes, but introduced some very nasty desert crossings and had very limited grass and barely enough water. For most it was a very bad choice of routes. Much of the traffic on this alternate route in the early days was pure bad luck as enough travelers turned off on this route to make many of those following think (wrongly) that it was the main (best) route. Most had dispensed with hiring guides who actually knew the trail by then and almost none had any written guides about the Applegate-Lassen Trail (most weren't written yet). Most did not realize for several days or even weeks they had made a very bad wrong turn. Its estimated that in 1849 about 7,000 to 8,000 (about one-third of California trail travelers that year) inadvertently took this much longer trail and found that the earlier travelers and their animals had stripped the desert bare and set fires that had burned most available grazing. There was nearly no forage left for their animals and they lost many hundreds of animals and suffered severe hardships and several deaths as many ran out of supplies before rescue parties sent out from Sutter's Fortmarker could reach them. They were still dribbling in, many barely alive, into Sutter's Fort late in November. By 1853 other, faster, easier and shorter, routes had been worked out and traffic on the Applegate-Lassen cutoff declined to a trickle.

Nobles Road

In 1851 William Nobles surveyed a shorter variation of the Applegate-Lassen trail. It was developed to make it easier to get to Shasta, Californiamarker (which paid him $2,000) in the Central Valley and first used in 1852. The route, called Noble's Road, left the main trail near Lasson's meadow (now Rye Patch Reservoirmarker) in Nevada, bypassed most of the the large Applegate-Lassen loop north almost to Goose Lake marker on the Oregon California border. This reasonably easy wagon route followed the Applegate-Lassen Trail to the Boiling Spring at Black Rock in Black Rock Desert and then went almost due west from there going on to Shasta, Californiamarker in the Central Valley via Smoke Creek Desert to present day Honey Lakemarker and present day Susanville, Californiamarker before passing North of Mt. Lassen and on to Shasta (near present day Redding). The route today can be approximated by taking Nevada State Route 49 (Jungo Rd.) from Winnemucca, Nevadamarker to Gerlach, Nevadamarker and from there to Susanville, Californiamarker via Smoke Creek Road. From there take California State Route 44 through Lassen Volcanic National Parkmarker to Redding, Californiamarker. It depended upon springs for water, there being no dependable creeks along most of the route. East of Mt. Lassen, over a distance of about it used part of Lassen's road in reverse. In that section of trail a traveler going to Shasta City might travel north passing another traveler going south to Sutter's Fort California.

In 1857 Congress established the Fort Kearny, South Pass and Honey Lake Wagon Road for building a wagon road to California and appropriated $300,000. Exactly why the road was to terminate at Honey Lake near Susanville is a legislative mystery since very few went that way in 1857 or later. The first part of the route was surveyed by Frederick W. Lander working under William Magraw. In 1858 Lander, now in charge, guided several hundred workers who built the Landers Cutoff passing the Green River well north of the established ferries, over Thompson Pass into Star Valley Wyoming and from there up Stump Creek and on to Fort Hall in Idaho. In 1860 Landers was instructed to find a new route north of the Humboldt--there wasn't one. To help the emigrants leaving the main trail at Lassen's meadow and going to Honey Lakemarker Lander had two large reservoir tanks built at Rabbit Hole and Antelope Springs. These reservoirs helped Nobles Road keep its status as a emigrant trail but only the few emigrants interested in going to Northern California used it.

Toll Roads Over the Sierras

The main initial attraction for toll roads across the Sierras was Virginia City, Nevadamarker and the Comstock Lode strike there in the Washoe district in 1859. This rapidly developed, after about 1860 and they found out they how massive the gold and silver strike there was, that they would require millions of dollars of investment to buy thousands of tons of mining supplies to supply the mines, thousands of miners and all their support they required. Almost nothing existed in Nevada then. In addition, until the mills could be built, high grade ore was shipped to California for processing. The gold and silver ore there required developing a new massive industrial scale mining operation by multiple mines to get it out. New techniques would have to be developed to get the silver out--the Washoe process. New techniques would have to be developed to support the mines which were often in weak ground--the square set timber process that ultimately used millions of board feet of lumber. Millions of gallons of water per day would have to be pumped out of the mines usually by massive steam powered Cornish pumps which ultimately had over long pumping rods that weighed over and used over 33 cords of wood per day, each, to keep their engine pumps going. In addition the mine hoists and up to 75 mills were all run with steam engines all using copious amounts of wood. Winter heating was done by more thousands of cords of wood. All these thousands of cords of firewood would have to be freighted in. The gold and silver found would more than pay for any development and shipping costs. In the next twenty years over $300,000,000 (in 1880 dollars) worth of gold and silver would ultimately be extracted. Starting in 1860 many emigrant trails over difficult terrain and streams were improved and replaced by toll roads and bridges--built and financed by entrepreneurs and some cities. Later other strikes in western Nevada and eastern California would give impetus to new toll roads to a new mining town.

Initially, the two main toll roads over the Sierras that developed were the Henness Pass Route from Nevada City, Californiamarker to Virgina City Nevada and the Placerville Route, (also called Johnsons's Cutoff and the Tahoe Wagon Road) from Placerville to Lake Tahoemarker and over the Carson range to Virginia City. The Henness Pass route was partially built by a $25,000 grant from Marysville and Nevada City. The Placerville route was somewhat shorter at about and had the additional advantage that freight could be shipped to Folsom, Californiamarker about out of Sacramento on the Sacramento Valley Railroad--built in 1856. This freight could then be transferred onto wagons that had good roads to Placerville and later clear to Virginia City. In their heyday from about 1861-1866 these roads had major improvements made at many thousands of dollars per road and paid the salaries of a small army of employees that worked on building and maintaining different sections of the road and the service centers located roughly every ten miles. A standard wage then was from $1.00 to $2.00/day for laborers, teamsters etc.. A team could be hired for a few dollars/day. The gullies and ruts would have to be filled in, culverts installed, gravel hauled for the soft spots in the road, rough spots evened out and cuts made in the side hills to get around the hills and streams and canyons bridged. The only tools available to build and maintain roads then were picks, shovels, hoes, axes, hand saws, used with a lot of human sweat as well as black powder and wheelbarrows. The only power available was human, ox or mule pulled plows, wagons and mule powered dump carts. Every spring extensive repairs costing additional thousands would be needed to repair the ravages of winter and the gully washing spring thaws.

During summer daylight hours the roads were often packed for miles in busy spots with heavily laden wagons headed east and west usually pulled by up to ten mules. Wagons headed west were mostly empty. Passing spots were located frequently along the roads to allow two way traffic. Its estimated that there were about 2,000 teamsters driving about 2,500 wagons (some teams pulled two or three wagons trailed behind) with about 12,000 mules on the road in any given year. If each team occupied about 100 feet (30 m) of road and there were 1000 teams going in any given direction they would occupy at least of road. The roughly round trip over the Henness Pass road or the Placerville Route could be done by freight wagons in about 16 days.

Mail and passenger stages usually went at night to avoid most of the slower (~3 mph) wagon traffic. The average number of passengers carried each day on the Placerville Route's Pioneer Stage Company line with 12 coaches and 600 horses averaged about 37 passengers/day. Horses were changed at roughly every 10-20 mile intervals and the drivers often vied to make the fastest time. A typical stage trip took approximately 18 hour from Placerville to Virginia City with a 18 hour return. Holdups, stage wrecks and other accidents were an occasional occurrence on both routes. In 1864 stage receipts were estimated, by newspapers of the time, totaled about $527,000 at $27.00 per passenger on the Placerville route. The Henness Pass road's California Stage Company and Nevada Stage Line carried somewhat fewer passengers. Both routes together were estimated by newspapers of the day to have gross receipts, including mail subsidies, of over $1,000,000 total in 1864. At about $10.00 to $20.00/ton toll its estimated in 1862 the freight charges to Virginia City would have been about $2,800,000 (Central Pacific Railroad agent's estimate). The net profit per year from these toll roads was probably over 10% or about $300,000 total with another $100,000 for the stage lines. The Placerville Route and Henness Pass route even had sprinkler wagons that wetted down the road during daylight hours about every three hours to minimize dust and wear and tear on the road. There were 93 hotels, stage relay stations and lodging stations located along the Placerville Route with similar stations along the Henness Pass route located at roughly ten mile (16km) intervals. The Placerville Route also tried to stay open in winter to at least horse traffic and was only closed temporarily by winter storms.

Competition arrived in July 1864 when the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (DFDLWR) was opened over much of the route the new Central Pacific railroad would use over Donner Summit. This route followed much of the original Truckee Trail route with the major exception that its large work force could smooth and straighten the route and make major sidehill cuts that built around many of the steep grades and over or through major obstacles. Below Dutch Flat where the original Truckee Trail descended into a steep canyon to get on the Bear River ridge the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road (and the Central Pacific track) was cut around many of the sharp ridges that prevented an easy wagon road there. Despite its name the railhead would not reach Dutch Flat (about east of Sacramento) till July 4, 1866 as it built over difficult terrain. Their toll road was built with a reported $200,000 (1864 dollars) investment and involved about 350 men and many teams of animals working for ten months. Initially, the road extended from the railhead (then Newcastle, about east of Sacramento) over Donner summit to Verdi, Nevadamarker where it joined the road developed by the Henness Pass road to Virginia City, Nevada. This route was advertised by the California Stage Company to reach Virginia City in three hours less time (about 17 hours) than the Sacramento-Placerville Route and have lower grades and wider roads, ( ), than the other routes. This new toll road was developed so the new railroad could earn money even as it was being built as well as supplying their own hefty transportation needs. As the railroad construction progressed over the Sierras, freight could be shipped to near the railhead then transferred to wagons that could use the new toll road to complete their journey. It slowly took over much of the shipping to Virginia City and the Washoe district as the railroad progressed over Donner Summit (December 1868) and into Truckee and beyond. Today's Interstate 80 goes over much of the same route and is the main transportation artery over the Sierras in northern California.

Tolls existed on nearly all Sierra trail crossings as improvements were made; but most other roads after the two (later three) main toll roads were developed, were relatively lightly used. A typical toll from Sacramento to Virginia City Nevada was about $25.00 to $30.00 round trip for a freight wagon carrying up to of cargo with additional tolls possible for additional animals over six (usually $1.50/animal) and some additional bridge tolls were also needed. Some teams had up to ten animals pulling up to three wagons trailered behind each other. Neither the state nor federal governments helped build any "good" roads over the Sierras. Some counties and cities did help build some roads and grant franchises so toll road operators could build and maintain good roads and/or bridges with assurances of minimum competition and compensation. Some resented the toll charges but the users of the road paid for the improvements and maintenance on the roads and taxpayers of this era in general were very hesitant to pick up the very hefty cost of building and maintaining good "free" roads.

Nearly all of the heavy wagon freighting and stage use over the Sierras ceased after the completion of the Central Pacific and Virginia Truckee railroads in 1869. The on going massive needs for millions of board feet of Sierra timber and thousands of cords of firewood in the Comstock Lode mines and towns would be the single major exception, although they even built narrow gauge railroads to haul much of this. Stages and wagons were still needed and used for the many cities not serviced by the railroads and the stage and freight lines continued in business. The first "highway" established by the counties was the Placerville toll route that was bought by the counties and made a "free" road in 1886. The first "highway" established by the state government was this same Placerville wagon road over the Sierras after it was bought by the state in 1896. This road eventually became U.S. Highway 50.

Due to lack of use, most of the wagon roads across the Sierras were allowed to deteriorate until by the early 1900s many were again next to impassable to wagons. The railroad serving nearly all passenger and freight needs. The arrival of the automobile in the early 1900s revived the need for good Sierra roads. By 1910 only the Placerville route was maintained well enough for car and truck traffic to get over the Sierras. The Truckee Trail modified and upgraded to the Dutch Flat and Donner Wagon Road over Donner summit had deteriorated so bad the road had to be extensively rebuilt and relocated to become passable for cars or trucks. After extensive upgrades and modifications this road would become U.S. Highway 40 and later Interstate 80.

Other Traffic

Others besides emigrants were also using parts of the trail(s) for freighting, livestock herds, stage lines and briefly in 1860-61 the Pony Express. Traffic in the California-Nevada area was often two ways as the fabulously rich mines like the Comstock Lode (found in 1859) in Nevada and other discoveries in eastern California needed supplies freighted out of California. The completion of the Panama Railroadmarker in 1855 along with fast steamboats traveling to both the Pacific and Atlantic ports in Panama made shipping people and supplies from the east coast into California reasonably inexpensive. Toll bridges and ferries were active at nearly all previously dangerous river crossings as the trail became not only safer but quicker. Stage coaches, going day and night, could make a transit from the Missouri River to California in 25 to 28 days and regular wagon trains transit time dropped from about 160 days to 120 days in 1860. The tolls on the various bridges, ferries and toll roads typically averaged about $30.00 per wagon by 1860. All these toll bridges, roads and ferries shortened the journey west by about 40 days and made it much safer as dangerous river crossings were done now by ferries and toll bridges that cost money but were much safer and faster.

The Central Pacific and Virginia and Truckee Railroad

The ultimate competitor to the California Trail showed up 1869 when the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The railroads in California were The Central Pacific Railroad and in Nevada the Virginia and Truckee Railroad. The trip from Omaha Nebraskamarker to California became faster, cheaper, and safer with a typical trip taking only 7 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 basically reverted to mostly local traffic traveling to towns or locations along the trail.

See also

  • Emigrant Trail in Wyoming
  • Oregon Trail Interactive Map--National Park Service
  • Wyoming Immigrant Trail Maps
  • Wyoming Trail Descriptions & Maps
  • California Trail Maps NPS
  • National Trail Maps


John Bidwell

The Great Basin through which the trail passed and "claimed" by both Spanish and later Mexican authorities was not explored by any known Spanishmarker or Mexicanmarker explorer. British and American fur trappers were the first to explore this area. 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. 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. 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 Reddeford Walker and a small horse mounted party 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 to the Sierra Nevada mountains. He eventually got across the Sierra Nevada mountains in southern California over Walker Passmarker. 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" ). Captain John C. Frémont, and his guide Kit Carson led an expedition in 1845 over parts of the California Trail before acting as one of the leaders of the Bear Flag Revolution. John C. Frémont made a thorough map of the region and gave (about 1848) the Humboldt River its current name (after the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt). Fremont together with his wife Jessie Benton Fremont wrote extensive accounts of his explorations making them much more widely known.

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 emigrant to use parts of the California Trail was John Bidwell, who led the 1841 Bartleson-Bidwell Party of about 35 men, one woman and baby across Nevada and eventually into California. Other parts of his 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, members of this group later founded Chicomarker in the Sacramento Valley. In 1842 (a year without any known California Trail emigration), Joseph Chiles, a member of the Bidwell-Bartleson party, returned with several others back east. In 1843 he led the first party (of seven he eventually led) back to California. At Fort Hallmarker he met Joseph Reddeford Walker who he convinced to lead half the settlers traveleing in wagons back to California down the Humboldt. Chiles led the rest in a pack train party down the Malheur, River (Oregon) to California, pioneering a trail used by almost nobody. Walker's party 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 Nevadas and into California over what became the Truckee Trail. In 1845, John C. Frémont and Lansford Hastings guided parties totaling several hundred settlers along the trail to California. In 1846 it is believed that about 1,500 settlers made their way to California over the California Trail--just in time to join the war for independence there. One such party in 1846 was the Donner Partymarker, who were persuaded by Hastings (who had never actually traveled over the route he recommended) to take the Hastings Cutoff across the rugged Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lakemarker salt flats in Utahmarker before hitting the Humboldt River route. Unknown to Hastings and the Donner party his 'cutoff' led not only over a rugged set of mountains with no wagon trails but over of waterless salt flats. The Donner party lost several wagons, much time and many animals crossing the mountains and salt flats. They spent almost a week at Donner Springs trying to recover after they crossed the salt flats--they and their surviving teams were in poor shape. They were the last emigrants of 1846 to arrive in California--unfortunately east of the Sierras and just as it started to snow. They were stranded by early snowfall in the eastern Sierras near Donner Lakemarker and suffered severely including starvation, death and cannibalism (See: Donner Partymarker). Many of the 1845 and 1846 emigrants were recruited into the California Battalion to assist the Pacific Squadron in the fight for independence from Mexican miss-rule there.

The trickle of emigrants before 1848 would become 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 Californiamarker Territory in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo terminating the Mexican American War. The gold rush started in 1848 as settlers in Oregon, southern California and Mexico headed for the gold fields even before the gold discovery was widely known about in the east. Within several months of the public announcement of the gold discovery by President Polk in late 1848 and display of several hundred ounces in Washington gold seekers in the east began making plans to go to California. By the spring of 1849 tens of thousands of gold seekers headed westward for California. The 1848 and 1849 gold rushers were just the first of many more to seek their fortunes during the California Gold Rush which continued for several years as about $50,000,000 dollars worth of gold (at $21/troy oz) was found each year. Unfortunately, 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 1:18.

Combined with the settlers that came by sea, the California settlers that came over the California Trail by 1850 were sufficient for California to apply for and receive statehood.

Despite the popular image of Hollywood movies from 60 to over 70% traveled West with teams of oxen with mule teams second and almost no horses. These ox teams were guided by teamsters walking along side the team and using whip and voice commands to guide them-- “Whoa,” to stop, and “Get Up,” to go forward, or come, “Gee,” to turn right, and “Haw, to turn left toward the walking driver. The ox team was chosen for many reasons. An ox team was slower (about 2–3 miles/hour for ox team vs. about 10% faster for horses or mules) but: cheaper to buy ($70 to $250 for six oxen vs. $300 to $1000 for six mules or horses), three yoke of oxen (6 oxen total) could pull more, survive better on the sparse grass often found along the trail and was often tamer and easier to handle after they were trained. Oxen were fairly easy to train usually taking only a few weeks training before they could do good work. As a bonus, oxen seldom needed grain or oats like horses or mules and if an oxen ran off at night it was usually easier to find and catch them and the Indians were less interested in stealing them. In an emergency the ox could and was used as a pack animal or killed for food. Mules, the next hardiest animal, were hard to purchase trained and most that were available were untrained and it took a determined mule skinner two to three months to train them. Mules were often guided by riding one of the mules next to the wheels and using reins to the rest of the team. Horses were used in later years by more teams as settlements along the way made it possible to buy the grain they often needed to stay healthy for daily work. Losing your team to theft, stampede, lost animals or exhaustion on the trail was a major disaster and even if you could find or buy replacements (not a sure thing) it wouldn't be cheap or easy. Near the end of trail as wagons started breaking down more often and teams became depleted, the much smaller loads were often consolidated into fewer wagons using fewer total animals. (See: Oregon Trail for statistics on the trail for more info.)

Goods, supplies and equipment were often shared by fellow travelers . Other goods that were forgotten, broken or wore out could often be bought from a fellow traveler, post or fort along the way. New iron shoes for horses mules and oxen were often put on by blacksmiths found along the way. Equipment repairs and other goods could often be procured from blacksmith shops established at some forts and some ferries along the way. A good blacksmith shop could often do several thousand dollars worth of work in a few months time. Emergency supplies, repairs and livestock were often provided by local residents in Oregon, California and Utah for late travelers on the trail who were hurrying to beat the snow and had run out of supplies, broken down or needed fresh animals.



Estimated California Oregon Mormon Trail Emigrants
Year Oregon California Utah Total
1834-39 20 - - 20
1840 13 - - 13
1841 24 34 - 58
1842 125 - - 125
1843 875 38 - 913
1844 1,475 53 - 1,528
1845 2,500 260 - 2,760
1846 1,200 1,500 - 2,700
1847 4,000 450 2,200 6,650
1848 1,300 400 2,400 4,100
Tot to '49 11,512 2,735 4,600 18,847
1849 450 25,000 1,500 26,950
1850 6,000 44,000 2,500 52,500
1851 3,600 1,100 1,500 6,200
1852 10,000 50,000 10,000 70,000
1853 7,500 20,000 8,000 35,500
1854 6,000 12,000 3,200 21,200
1855 500 1,500 4,700 6,700
1856 1,000 8,000 2,400 11,400
1857 1,500 4,000 1,300 6,800
1858 1,500 6,000 150 7,650
1859 2,000 17,000 1,400 20,400
1860 1,500 9,000 1,600 12,100
Total 53,000 200,300 43,000 296,300
1834-60 Oregon California Utah Total
1861 - - 3,148 5,000
1862 - - 5,244 5,000
1863 - - 4,760 10,000
1864 - - 2,626 10,000
1865 - - 690 20,000
1866 - - 3,299 25,000
1867 - - 700 25,000
1868 - - 4,285 25,000
Total 80,000 250,000 70,000 400,000
1834-67 Oregon California Utah Total

Some of the trail statistics for the early years were recorded by the U.S. Army at Fort Laramie, Wyomingmarker from about 1849 to 1855. Unfortunately, none of these original statistical records have been found--the army lost them or destroyed them. We only have some diary references to these records and some partial written copies of the Army records as recorded in several diaries. Emigration to California spiked considerably due to the 1849 gold rush. Following the discovery of gold, California remained the destination of choice for most emigrants on the trail up to 1860, with almost 200,000 people traveling there between 1849 and 1860.

Travel after 1860 is even less well known as the U.S. Civil War caused considerable disruptions on the trail. Many of the people on the trail in 1861-1863 were fleeing the war and its attendant drafts in both the south and the north. Trail Historian Merrill J. Mattes has estimated the number of emigrants for 1861-1867 given in the total column of the above table. But, these estimates may well be low since they only amount to an extra 125,000 people and we know from the 1870 census numbers that over 200,000 additional people (ignoring most of California's population increase which had an excellent sea and rail connections across Panama by then) showed up in all the states served by the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman Trail(s) and its offshoots. Mormon emigration records after 1860 are a reasonably well known as newspaper and other accounts in Salt Lake City give most of the names of emigrants arriving each year from 1847 to 1868. Gold and silver strikes in Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada and Montana also caused a considerable increase in people using the trail(s) often in directions different than the original trail users.

Though the numbers are significant in the context of the times, far more people chose to remain at home in the 31 states. Between 1840 and 1860, the population of the United States rose by 14 million, yet only about 300,000 decided to make the trip. Between 1860 and 1870 the U.S. population increased by seven million with about 350,000,000 of this increase being in the Western states. Many were discouraged by the cost, effort and danger of the trip. Western scout Kit Carson reputedly said, "The cowards never started and the weak died on the way." According to several sources 3-10% of the emigrants are estimated to have perished on the way west..

Western Census Data

Census Population of western States
State 1870 1860 Difference
California 560,247 379,994 180,253
Nevada 42,491 6,857 35,634
Oregon 90,923 52,465 38,458
Colorado* 39,684 34,277 5,407
Idaho* 14,990 - 14,990
Montana* 20,595 - 20,595
Utah* 86,789 40,273 46,516
Washington* 23,955 11,594 12,361
Wyoming* 9,118 - 9,118
Totals 888,792 525,460 363,332

These census numbers show a 363,000 population increase in the western states and territories between 1860 and 1870. Some of this increase is due to a high birth rate in the western states and territories but most is due to emigrants moving from the east to the west and new immigration from Europe. Much of the increase in California and Oregon is due to emigration by ship as there were fast and reasonable "low" cost transportation via east and west coast steam ships and the Panama Railroadmarker after 1855. The census numbers imply at least 200,000 emigrants (or more) used some variation of the California/Oregon/Mormon/Bozeman trail(s) to get to their new homes in the 1860-1870 decade.


The cost of traveling over the 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. The cheapest way 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 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 $150.00-$200.00 per person.

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/persn.


Oregon-California-Mormon Trail Deaths
Cause Estimated deaths
Cholera1 6,000-12,500
Indian attacks2 500-1,000
Freezing3 300-500
Run overs4 200-500
Drownings5 200-500
Shootings6 200-500
Scurvy7 300-500
Miscellaneous8 200-500
Totals 8,000-16,500
See Notes

The route West was arduous and filled with many dangers but the number of deaths on the trail is not known with any precision and there are only wildly varying estimates. The estimates are made even harder by the common practice then of burying people in unmarked graves that were intentionally disguised to avoid them being dug up by animals or Indians. Graves were often put in the middle of a trail and then run over by their livestock to make them difficult to find. Diseases like cholera were the main killer of trail travelers with up to 3% (or more) of all travelers (6,000 to 12,000+ total) dying of cholera in the cholera years of 1849 to 1855. Indian attacks were probably the second leading cause of death with about 500 to 1,000 being killed from 1841 to 1870. Other common causes of death included: freezing to death (300-500), drowning in river crossings (200-500), getting run over by wagons (200-500), and accidental gun deaths (200-500).

A significant number of travelers were suffering from scurvy by the end of their trips. Their typical flour and salted pork/bacon diet had very little vitamin-C in it. Unfortunately, the diet in the mining camps was also typically very poor in fresh vegetables and fruit, etc. which indirectly led to early deaths of many of the Argonauts. Some believe that scurvy deaths due to poor nutrition may have rivaled cholera as a killer with most deaths occurring after they reached California. Ironically, many understood the importance of a diet that included fresh vegetables and fruit and how to prevent scurvy was common knowledge in some circles but far from universally known or taught. The Chinese Argonauts with their insistence on many vegetables in their diet fared much better. Miscellaneous deaths included deaths by: homicides, lightning strikes, childbirths, stampedes, snake bites, flash floods, falling trees, kicks by animals, etc. probably numbered from 200 to 500 deaths or more along the trail. Travelers rarely made the entire trip with out one or more in their traveling group dying. According to an evaluation by John Unruh , a 4% death rate or 16,000 out of 400,000 total pioneers on all trails may have died on the trail.


One of the main enduring legacies of the Oregon and California Trails is the expansion of the United States territory to the West Coast. Without the many thousands of United States settlers in Oregon and California with their "boots on the ground" and more thousands on their way each year it is highly unlikely that this would have occurred. Surprising to some, the Oregon and California Trails were both established as known emigrant routes in 1841 by the same emigrant party. In 1841 the Bartleson-Bidwell Party group set out for California, but about half the party left the original group at Soda Springs, Idahomarker and proceeded to the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the other half proceeded on to California. During pre-American Civil War "Bleeding Kansas" skirmishes between Kansasmarker and Missourimarker raiders, the jumping off points for westward-bound wagon trains shifted northward towards Omaha, Nebraskamarker. The trail branch John Fremont followed from Westport Landingmarker to the Wakarusa Valley south of Lawrence, Kansasmarker became regionally known as the "California Road."

Part of the same general 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 Rocksmarker National Reserve in southern Idaho.

See also


  1. Californios [1] Accessed 25 July 2009
  2. Californios revolt 1845[2] Accessed 25 July 2009
  3. Oregon-California Trail Association [3]
  4. National Trail Map [4]
  5. Union Pacific Chronological History [5] Accessed 14 July 2009
  6. Mattes, Merrill J.' "The Great Platte River Road"; Bison Books; 1987; ISBN 978-0803281530
  7. Causes of Cholera[6]
  8. Meldahl, Keith Heyer;"Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Rush Trail"; pp51-68; University Of Chicago Press; ;2008; ISBN 978-0226519623
  9. Meldahl, Keith Heyer;p 78; op.cite.
  10. Meldahl, Keith Heyer, p 143, op. cit.
  11. Sublette-Greenwood Cutoff Map [7]
  12. Lander Road Cutoff Map [8]
  13. "Emigrant Trails of Southern Idaho"; Bureau of Land Management & Idaho State Historical Society;1993; pp 117-125 ASIN: B000KE2KTU
  14. Petersen, Jesse G.; "Route for the Overland Stage: James H. Simpson's 1859 Trail Across the Great Basin"; # Utah State University Press; 2008;ISBN 978-0874216936
  15. United States Topographical Engineers Links[9] Accessed 9 Feb 2009
  16. Pony Express Trail map[10] accessed 28 Jan 2009
  17. Oregon-California Trail interpretive center[11] Accessed 4 Mar 2009
  18. Big Hill Idaho (OCTA Idaho) [12] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  19. Hudspeth cutoff map (OCTA-Idaho) [13] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  20. Oregon National Historic Trail Map [14] accessed 28 Jan 2009
  21. Northern Nevada and Utah, Southern Idaho Tail Map[15] Accessed 9 Feb 2009
  22. Forty Mile Desert[16] accessed 5 Feb 2009.
  23. Forty Mile Desert Pictures [17] Accessed 9 Feb 2009
  24. Several Pictures of Forty Mile Desert and Brady's Hot Springs[18] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  25. Meldahl, Keith Heyer; pp 229; op.cit.
  26. Brady's (Emigrant) Hot Springs Power Plant [19] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  27. Forty Mile Desert Spring[20] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  28. Forty Mile Desert Statistics [21] accessed 5 Feb 2009.
  29. Forty Mile Desert OCTA[22] Accessed 7 Feb 2009
  30. Trans-Sierra roads[23] Accessed 16 July 2009
  31. Gradydon, Charles; "Trail of the First Wagons Over the Sierra Nevada"; p 10; The Patrice Press; 1986; ISBN 978-0935284591
  32. Roller Pass Truckee Trail Map[24]
  33. Stewart, George R.; "The California Trail: An Epic with Many Heroes"; Bison Books; 1983; p 140; ISBN 978-0803291430
  34. Central Pacific toll road over Sierras[25] Accessed 17 July 2009
  35. Henness Pass Road [26] Accessed 16 July 2009
  36. Webber Lake Hotel [27] Accessed 17 July 2009
  37. Virginia and Truckee Railroad[28] Accessed 21 July 2009
  38. Beckworth Trail[29] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  39. Oroville-Quincy Highway[30] Accessed 16 July 2009
  40. Mormon-Carson Pass Emigrant Trail [31] Accessed 13 July 2009
  41. Pictures and text Forty Mile Desert[32] Accessed 13 July 2009
  42. Ox carts[33] accessed / July 2009
  43. Tragedy Spring[34]
  44. Hope Valley Pictures [35] Accessed 27 Mar 2009
  45. Owens,Kenneth N.; "Gold Rush Saints: California Mormons And the Great Rush for Riches"; p 184; University of Oklahoma Press; 2005; ISBN-978-0806136813.
  46. Pictures of Hope Valley CA[36] Accessed 8 Mar 2009
  47. Carson Pass[37] accessed 5 Feb 2009
  48. >Adams, Kenneth C., ed."From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p61
  49. Howard, Thomas Frederick; "Sierra Cossings: First Roads to California"; University of California Press; 2000; p 84; ISBN-978-0520226869
  50. Alternate trails over the Sierras [38] Accessed 6 Feb 2009
  51. Adams, Kenneth C., ed. "From Trails to Freeways". Centennial ed. Sacramento, CA: California Highways and Public Works, 1950; pp. 61, 64, 66
  52. Ebbets Pass road picture[39]
  53. Applegate-Lassen [htt[p://] Accessed 13 July 2009
  54. Applegate-Lassen Trail Pictures text [40] Accessed 13 July 2009
  55. Unruh,John D., pp236-37; op. cit.
  56. -Hoover, Wilfred B., Rensch, Hero Eugene, Rensch, Ethel Grace; "Historic Spots in California": p77-81 (3rd ed.); Stanford University Press; 1966;ISBN 978-0804744829 (5th Ed. 2002)
  57. Ford, Eliot; "Comstock Mining and Miners"; pp 190-97; Orig published 1883, republished 1959 Howell-North Berkeley Calif.; ASIN: B000MYUMMK
  58. Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road[] Accessed 23 July 2009
  59. Howard, Thomas F.; p. 175; op.cite
  60. First State Highway[41] Accessed 16 Feb 2009
  61. Adams, Kenneth C., ed.; "From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p66
  62. Adams, Kenneth C., ed.; "From Trails to Freeways"; California Highways and Public Works; 1950; (Centennial Edition); p66
  63. National Park Service Oregon Trail Interactive Map[42]|Accessed 20 Jan. 2009)
  64. Wyoming Immigrant Trail Maps [43] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  65. Wyoming Trail Descriptions & Maps [44] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  66. California Trail Maps NPS [45] Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  67. National Trail Maps [46]Accessed 20 Jan. 2009
  68. The Adventures of Captain Bonneville [47] accessed 5 Jan. 2009
  69. Greeley, Horace; "An Overland Journey from New York to San Francisco in the Summer of 1859"; XXXIV; [48]
  70. 1850 census Male female ratio California [49]
  71. Unruh: page 119-120
  72. Mormon Pioneer Companies [50] Accessed 11 Apr 2009
  73. Mattes, Merril J.; "The Great Platte River Road"; p23; Nebraska State Historical Society; 1979: ISBN 978-0686262541
  74. Mattes, Merrill J.; op. cit.; p 23
  75. Mormon Pioneer Companies [51] Accessed 11 Apr 2009
  76. Lloyd W. Coffman, 1993, Blazing A Wagon Trail To Oregon
  77. U.S. Census 1790-1870 [52]
  78. Unruh: page 408
  79. Unruh: pp 408-410, 516
  80. Steele, Volney M.D.; "Bleed, Blister, And Purge: A History Of Medicine On The American Frontier"; Mountain Press Publishing Company"; 2005;pp 115, 116; ISBN 978-0878425051
  81. Unruh, John David (1993). The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60. University of Illinois Press. pp. 408-410, 516. ISBN 9780252063602.


Cholera deaths includes deaths by other 'diseases' of the day like old age, small pox, typhoid, diphtheria, pneumonia, consumption (tuberculosis), measles, yellow fever, dysentery, whooping cough, scarlet fever, malaria, mumps etc. The trail people were already exposed to these diseases before they left and would have in all likelihood have caught them anyway and are not unique hazards of the trail. There was no effective treatment for many of these diseases then (the germ theory of disease was just gaining acceptance) and little that any Doctor of this era could do for those that got them except let them recover on their own or die.

Indian attacks increased significantly after 1860 when most of the army troops were withdrawn and miners and ranchers began fanning out all over the country often encroaching on Indian territory. Increased attacks along the Humboldt lead to most travelers taking the Central Nevada Route across Nevada.

For examples of freezing deaths see: Donner Partymarker and Willie and Martin handcart companies for three major disasters.

Run overs were a major cause of death, despite the wagons only averaging 2–3 miles per hour. The wagons couldn't easily be stopped and people, particularly children, were often trying to get on and off the wagons while they were moving--not always successfully. Another hazard was walking alongside the wagon and your dress getting caught in the wheels and pulling you under it. The iron wheels on the wagons were not very forgiving.

Drownings at river crossings probably peaked in 1849 and 1850 when young, impatient and pushy, men (who thought they knew it all and were immortal) were the predominant population on the trail. Later more family groups started traveling as well as many more ferries and bridges being put in--fording a dangerous river became much less common and dangerous. Surprisingly few people were taught to swim in this era.

Accidental shootings declined significantly after Fort Laramie as people became more familiar with their weapons and often just left them in their wagons. Carrying around a ten pound rifle all day soon became tedious and usually unnecessary as the perceived Indian threat faded and hunting opportunities receded.

Scurvy, as such, was not often listed as a cause of death; but reading the reason they died leads to the conclusion that scurvy was probably the major cause of death--particularly in the last month on the trail.

Miscellaneous is a large catch all for deaths on the trail and may be too small--there were a lot of ways to die back then.

External links

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