California National Historic Trail


The California Gold Rush

"I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold." - James Marshall, 1848

At a time when restless Americans were already itching to go west, the discovery of gold in California in 1848 was like gasoline on a fire. Within a year of its discovery, emigrants using the California Trail were flooding into the Sierra Nevada Range by the thousands.

John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who came to California in 1839 with a dream of building an agricultural empire. When he needed lumber in early 1848, he assigned the task to one of his men, James Marshall. Marshall decided to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American river, about 40 miles from Sutter's home.

Marshall discovered a gold nugget on January 24, 1848, while at the sawmill. He and his men found more gold nearby. Both Marshall and Sutter tried to keep things quiet, but soon word leaked out. Gold fever quickly became an epidemic.

Many who already had arrived in California or Oregon immediately gravitated to the western Sierras. But it wasn't until December of 1848 that President James Polk confirmed the findings to Congress, which meant it was too late to start a trip for easterners. But by the spring of 1849, the largest migration (25,000 that year alone) in American history was already taking place.

Better-than-average conditions on the plains and in the desert that spring and summer helped soften the blow of the wave of emigrants. But conditions were harsh at best and many livestock were lost along the way. Grass and clean water became scarcer as the trip wore on, and diseases like cholera took their toll.

Indians in particular suffered from the "Forty-Niners" who streamed across the land. For centuries, Indians had lived in the West without outside competition for resources. But now the pioneers' lust for wealth was threatening to decimate the Indians through the consumption of foods, lands, water and space.

Many new routes were opened into California as a result of the Gold Rush. With an estimated 140,000 emigrants arriving in California via the California Trail between 1849 and 1854, routes were continually modified, tested or even abandoned.

Central cutoffs and alternate routes include:

1844 Sublette Cutoff
1846 Hastings Cutoff
1848 Salt Lake Cutoff
1849 Hudspeth Cutoff
1850 Childs Cutoff
1850 Kinney Cutoff
1850 Seminoe Cutoff
1850 Slate Creek Cutoff
1852 Baker-Davis Road
1856 Dempsey-Hockadsy Cutoff
1858 Lander Road
1859 Julesburg Cutoff

1859 Western routes include:

1844 Truckee Route
1846 Applegate Trail
1848 Carson Route
1848 Lassen Route
1851 Beckwourth Trail
1852 Nobles Road
1852 Sonora Road

History & Culture

Before railroads or automobiles, people in America had to travel by foot, horse, boat or wagon. Some of these routes from our nation's early days still remain today as reminders of our historic past. A National Historic Trail (NHT) such as the California NHT is an extended trail that closely follows the original routes of travel of national historical significance.

Modern-day Auto Tour Routes follow or closely parallel the historic road(s) with state map images and driving directions that provide opportunities for discovering the remnants and significant resources of the trail. Examples of the fascinating stories and incidents from emigrants, entrepreneurs, missionaries, and fortune seekers can be found all along the trail.

Donner & Reed Wagon Train Incident

The California Trail was not a single trail. Although the Oregon Trail provided an established route from Missouri to Fort Bridger, the California Trail between Utah and the Sierra Nevada split into different routes.

In 1846, one Lansford W. Hastings claimed to have found a new, timesaving route to California. Hastings then tried to persuade settlers in Missouri to allow him to lead them to California. Known as the Hastings Cutoff, his route lay directly through the Great Salt Lake desert in Utah. Emigrants who had started their journey early in the spring of 1846 were reluctant to believe him, but late starters found his tale enticing. Several decided to trust his words and allowed themselves to be led by Hastings.

One of these groups was the Donner-Reed party. Led by George Donner, a 65-year-old farmer, and James Reed, a neighbor of Donner's, the Donner-Reed party consisted of 87 men, women and children. This group left Illinois on April 12, and pushed past Independence, Missouri on May 12. With this rather late start and 2,500 miles to go, the Donner-Reed party agreed to join Hastings' group of 80 wagons so that they could save 150-500 miles (Hastings was a little vague on this point).

Hastings led his followers on a haphazard and uninformed trek that cost many livestock and more time than the popular routes would have taken. By this point, the Donner-Reed party had fallen behind and had trouble locating Hastings' route, costing even more time. They reached the Humboldt River on September 26.

With an assortment of bad luck and problems, the Donner-Reed party finally reached Truckee Lake below the crest of the Sierra Nevada in October. By now exhausted and low on provisions, the group was met with the first serious snowfall of the winter. They became trapped there for the next four months.

Starvation and desperation soon followed. When all the animals had been killed by mid-December, the party was forced to eat rawhide to survive. Some members left on a self-rescue mission and were able to reach help but not before resorting to cannibalism to survive. The others back in the camp also ate the deceased to stay alive.

Of the 87 who began the trek with the Donner-Reed party, 40 died that winter from starvation-related causes. The survivors were not rescued until the spring of 1847.