Following the California Trail
Hey y’all! My name is Alli, and welcome to A Noble Earthquake, a podcast about California history.
After an 8 day drive from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve finally made it to California! Before I get started, I just want to say, if you’ve ever thought about taking a cross-country road trip…do it. It is 100% worth it; though, I don’t know that I would start in Boston if I was doing it for fun – I think I would fly out to Chicago and drive from there. Make sure you hit some national parks along the way! We managed to get to the Badlands, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton along our journey, along with quite a few national forests.
This is the first official episode of A Noble Earthquake! I’m very excited to finally be living in California, and looking forward to being able to share all of the neat stories I dig up with you guys.
As I said, my partner and I drove to California. Credit where credit is due, my partner, Brendan, did all of the driving, because his car is a stick shift and I don’t know how to drive it. So big ups to him for tackling a 3600 mile drive across the country.
The last leg of our drive took us from Salt Lake City, across the Great Basin Desert in northern Nevada, and through the Sierra Nevadas – all along interstate 80. This route more or less follows the last portion of the California Trail, which was a series of westward overland trails that emigrants from east of the Mississippi followed in the 1840s and 50s to get to California. As you can imagine, once I figured out we’d be driving this route, I got pretty excited that I’d be able to share the journey, and thought it would make a great first episode. I live-tweeted the drive, so if you’re interested in seeing some photos, you can check out the podcast twitter page @nobleearthquake.
The California Trail was first established in 1841 by the Bidwell-Bartleson party, and cleared the way for future wagon trains. Eventually, the trail became a series of wagon routes, branching off of each other at different points along the way, but all heading in the same direction: west to California. The journey could take anywhere from 3 to 6 months, and meant packing every supply you would need for your new life in California, since provisions were non-existent once you arrived. Most emigrants would leave from towns along the Mississippi, including Independence, Missouri, of Oregon Trail fame. It was recommended that travelers leave in the spring, to allow for enough grass along the trail for your cattle and pack animals to munch on along the way. This also ensured you’d have safe(ish) passage through the Sierras; leaving later in the summer could mean you’d get to the Sierras and be snowed in.
I found one account of the journey, a diary written by Hermann B. Scharmann, who wrote about not only his experiences along the trail, but what his life was like in California afterwards. I’m going to link to it on the Soundcloud page so you can read it in full, but it was great to have as a reference, to compare his thoughts to what I was thinking along the way. He describes taking on the trail: This overland journey is one of the most unfortunate undertakings to which man may allow himself to be lured, because he cannot possibly have any conception before starting of this kind of traveling. To be sure, there is a beaten path which you see clearly before you, but there are no stopping-places with even the slightest signs of civilization. I can confirm, even from a car, this trek seems dangerous and exhausting!
As I mentioned, we started out from Salt Lake City. If emigrants following the trail came through here, they might have been taking what is known as the Hastings Cutoff – different from the main trail, which was further north in Idaho. The Hastings Cutoff was routed by Lansford Hastings in 1846, looking for a faster route to California. This route took travelers across the Great Salt Lake Desert (where the Bonneville Salt Flats are) and cuts south around the Ruby Mountains before rejoining the main trail outside of present-day Elko, NV. For the most part, interstate 80 follows the Hastings Cutoff until it rejoins the main trail.
This journey took travelers across the Great Basin Desert in northern Nevada; a series of low-lying valleys (I use the term low loosely, every time we checked we were still at 3000 ft + in elevation!) and small mountain ranges, covered in sagebrush and desert shrubs. There is very little shade along this route. By mid-day, the temperature outside of the car was in the high 80s. The only saving grace to the California trail’s winding path across the desert was the Humboldt River – a snaking respite in an otherwise parched landscape.
The National Park Service has published auto route tours for the entire California trail, and according to their tour across Nevada, the Humboldt was a loved and hated river; so much so that travelers wrote poems about it. In 1850, a Dr. Horace Belknap wrote, “Meanest and muddiest, filthiest / stream, most cordially I hate you.” The reeds and mud surrounding the banks of the river often trapped livestock who hadn’t had much to drink since leaving Salt Lake City. But as awful as the Humboldt was for emigrants, it was also their North Star, guiding them westward and allowing them to keep a somewhat steady source of fresh water available across an otherwise barren stretch of desert wasteland.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the illnesses suffered along the California trail. Scharmann mentions in his diary that his party suffered from “illnesses common along the journey”, such as dysentery, fever, cholera, and scurvy. Thousands died not only from disease and sickness, but from accidents along the way.
The California trail starts to break off into different routes around Mill City, NV, a few miles south of Winnemucca. The Nobles and Applegate trails continue west and eventually branch off to form the Lassen Trail and a southern Road to Oregon. From the information I can gather in Scharmann’s diary, his party took either the Lassen or the Nobles trail, because they eventually end up at Lassen’s ranch and mines before continuing sound to Sacramento. The other trail, the one that interstate 80 follows, continues to follow the Humboldt River, southwest towards present-day Lovelock, NV. It’s here that settlers would encounter the Humboldt Sink, and the dreaded 40 Mile Desert.
I’m a geology geek; sometimes I think I missed my calling by delaying taking a geology class until senior year of college. So learning about the Humboldt Sink was fascinating. Much of the western portion of the Great Basin Desert was once a giant prehistoric lake, which dried up due to climate change at the end of the Pleistocene era. This left dry lake beds behind, and the Humboldt Sink is one of them. The Humboldt River ends in this sink, instead of draining to the ocean.
Imagine getting this far along the trail, having this (albeit kinda gross and muddy) source of water with you most of the time, guiding you west and quenching your thirst, when suddenly you arrive at a barren, alkaline patch of desert, and the river vanishes. What you see before you is desert, and mountains in the distance; the same view you’ve been seeing since you left Salt Lake City. This is what settlers who chose to follow the Humboldt would eventually come across, and it was the last place they could refill their water supplies before they marched across the 40 Mile Desert. Hot, dry, and cruel, with highly alkaline hot springs to tempt your thirst – and no shade. Temperatures in this part of the desert reached 100 degrees (it was in the 90s when we drove across), so many emigrants chose to attempt the crossing at night, when it was cooler. At the I-80 rest area off of exit 83, a historical marker notes that almost 1000 unmarked graves can be found throughout the 40 Mile Desert.
I-80 follows the Truckee Route, which splits off from the Carson Route about 5 miles in to the 40 Mile Desert. After crossing this stretch of wasteland, emigrants would come across the Truckee Meadows and the Truckee River. Scharmann wrote about his party’s reaction to first seeing the Sierra Nevadas: In the distance we saw an extended mountain chain and huge dark pine forests which stretched from south to north as far as the eye could see. Our hearts beat for joy at the thought that the rich and longed-for land lay just beyond these mountains.” It’s probably safe to say his reaction is similar to any wagon train at the time.
The highway sticks pretty close to the river, which has been built around and flattened out some by modern industry; but in the 1840s and 50s, the route along the river meant walking along narrow, rocky canyon ridges that required a total of 27 river crossings. One the 27th crossing was made, it was time to start heading up and over their last hurdle before making it to California.
While driving through the Sierras, we eventually cut through Donner Pass, named after the infamous Donner Party. They had chosen to take the relatively new Hastings Cutoff in an attempt to get to California faster, but ended up being delayed leaving Utah and along their journey. When they reached the Sierras in October, winter decided to show up early, and the party was socked in by snow. I think most people probably know about the Donner party because of the stories of cannibalism associated with them; I personally remember having to do a class presentation about them in eighth grade U.S. history, when we were going over manifest destiny and westward expansion. I’m pretty sure my friend and I recorded sound clip to use in the presentation where we announced “Donner, party of 85” – probably in bad taste now, but as eighth graders, we thought it was funny.
Speaking of the Donner party, I just learned that there is a new book out by author Michael Wallis called “The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny”. It looks pretty interesting and I want to read it!
Many emigrants along the California trail described it as “seeing the elephant”, meaning it was impossible to describe the experience to others – you simply had to experience it for yourself. Driving through the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and then up through the Sierras, I can definitely understand how one would not be able to describe the journey. The landscapes alone are indescribable. From reading Scharmann’s diary (and from what I remember from U.S. history class), life in California was not the land of milk and honey it was described as; Scharmann’s wife and younger daughter both died soon after arriving at Lassen Ranch, and the price of provisions was exorbitantly high. Eventually, about a year after he arrived in California, he chose to take his two sons back to the east coast via steamer, and described California as a “much-praised and yet miserable country” and says that his “curiosity has been satisfied and my gold fever has disappeared.” He ends his diary by stating, I will be very glad to give my advice or any information about the trip to those of my fellow citizens who are attacked by the gold fever, which can only be cured by their own experiences, but the best advice I can give to anyone is this: Tarry at home, and honestly earn thy daily bread!
Over 250,000 emigrants followed the California trail west, hoping to find gold and a new life in the Golden State. We like to romanticize westward expansion and manifest destiny as part of our collective American nostalgia, but I think it’s important to keep in mind that this journey was life-changing for everyone who dared to brave it, for better or for worse.
That’s going to do it for this episode of A Noble Earthquake! I’ve got a pretty solid list of episode ideas to tackle over the coming months, so stay tuned for those. If you’d like to suggest an episode or give feedback you can get in touch via Twitter @nobleearthquake, or by emailing email@example.com. I’d like to thank Utopia, Ohio for letting me use their song “Coyote, California” as the intro and outro of the podcast. Make sure to subscribe on iTunes and leave me a review if you’d like!
– National Park Service California National Historic Trail: Auto Route Tour of Nevada
– California Trail Center: California Trail History
– Emigrant Trails West: California Trail Virtual Tour, Hastings Cutoff Virtual Tour, Truckee Route Virtual Tour
– Scharmann, Hermann B. Scharmann’s Overland Journey to California: from the pages of a Pioneer’s Diary. 1918.
– NoeHill Travels in Nevada: Nevada Historic Marker 26