The California Trail — The Overland Route to California

19th Century

The California Trail was used by more than 250,000 people to emigrate from the east coast to the American West in the 19th Century. The trail helped the United States settle the continent, from the East Coast to the West Coast.

General Benjamin Bonneville, USA, Civil War

This illustration of General Benjamin Bonneville appeared in The Daily Graphic: New York on November 20, 1876.

California Trail Summary

The California Trail was one of the most important “Overland Trails” connecting the eastern United States to the west coast during the 19th century. It was used by over 250,000 settlers, including gold-seekers and farmers, who journeyed to California in search of new opportunities. The trail spanned over 2,000 miles, crossing ten states and numerous obstacles. The California Trail played a key role in America’s fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

California Trail Facts

  1. The California Trail was a major route used by settlers during westward expansion.
  2. The trail followed the same path as the Oregon Trail until it reached Fort Hall, Idaho. From Fort Hall, it went southwest along the Humboldt River through the Great Basin of Nevada, then through the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and on to Sutter’s Fort in present-day Sacramento, California.
  3. Benjamin Bonneville and Joseph Walker were explorers who helped blaze the trail.
  4. Settlers started to use the trail in the 1840s, including John Bidwell and Joseph Chiles, who also played a role in opening new segments of the trail.
  5. The California Trail carried over 250,000 people to the goldfields and farmlands of California during the 1840s and 1850s — the greatest mass migration in American history.
  6. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 sparked a massive influx of settlers, with over 70,000 emigrants using the California Trail in 1849 and 1850 alone.
  7. Emigrants faced numerous challenges, including weather, terrain, and the threat of attacks from Native American Indians.
  8. Following the introduction of railroads, the California Trail fell out of use.

Where is the California Trail?

This map from the National Park Service shows the branches of the California Trail.

California Trail Map, Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny
Map of the California Trail. Image Source: National Park Service.

California Trail History and Overview

During the mid-19th century, the California Trail played a critical role in connecting the eastern United States to the American West. The California Trail followed the same path as the famous Oregon Trail until it reached Fort Hall, Idaho. From there, it diverged southwest along the Humboldt River through the Great Basin Region of Nevada, the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and finally reached its destination at Sutter’s Fort near present-day Sacramento, California.

Astor, Bonneville, and Walker

The Great Basin Region had been only partially explored during the days of Spanish and Mexican rule before the establishment of the California Trail. It wasn’t until 1832 that Benjamin Bonneville, a United States Army officer, requested a leave of absence to pursue an expedition to the West. The expedition was funded by John Jacob Astor, a rival of the Hudson’s Bay Company. While exploring the Snake River in Wyoming, Bonneville sent a group of men led by Joseph Walker to explore the Great Salt Lake and find an overland route to California, which would eventually become part of the California Trail.

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party and Joseph Chiles

The first settlers to use the California Trail started to arrive in California in the 1840s. Among them was John Bidwell, who led the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party. In 1842, Joseph Chiles, a member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party returned to Missouri via the Humboldt River Route. Chiles would go on to lead another party to California in 1843, playing a critical role in the opening of more segments of the California Trail.

The Hastings Route

During the 1840s, settlers on the California Trail started to develop shortcuts on the main route to California. One such shortcut was the Hastings Route, which ran south of the main route. Lansford W. Hastings, a lawyer from California, published a guidebook in 1845 called The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, which included a route that cut across the Great Salt Desert of Utah, bypassing the established route north of the Great Salt Lake. This new route was supposed to be shorter and faster, but it proved to be treacherous and deadly for many who attempted it.

The Donner Party

The most tragic event in the history of the California Trail happened in the winter of 1846–1847, when the Donner Party, a group of emigrants who had taken the Hastings Route, became stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After experiencing a series of mishaps and misfortunes that delayed their journey, an early snowstorm trapped them in the mountains. With inadequate supplies and no way to continue their journey, they were forced to resort to cannibalism to survive. Only 48 of the 87 members of the party made it out alive.

Despite the dangers and difficulties, the California Trail remained a significant route of westward expansion until the late 1860s. The discovery of gold in California in 1848 attracted thousands of fortune seekers to the region, while the opportunity for a better life attracted many others.

Benefits of the California Trail

The California Trail offered many advantages to people who moved to the West. It helped people access territories gained by the United States through the Louisiana Purchase and the Mexican Cession. The westward expansion of the nation established new settlements, helped grow the economy, and added new cultural ideas to American society.

Disadvantages of the California Trail

Despite the advantages Americans gained from the California Trail, there were also negative repercussions to westward expansion. As Americans moved to the West, they impacted the environment, which contributed to the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Native American Indian tribes and bands were also impacted by westward expansion, which led to the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. Westward expansion along the trail also brought the formation of new states and territories, which increased the debate between Free States and Slaves States. The intense sectional division was a direct cause of the Civil War.

California Trail Significance

The California Trail is important to United States history for the role it played in the largest mass migration in American history and westward expansion. It helped establish the American West and contributed to the United States fulfilling the concept of Manifest Destiny.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title The California Trail — The Overland Route to California
  • Date 19th Century
  • Author
  • Keywords California Trail, Westward Expansion, Manifest Destiny, Oregon Trail, Overland Trails, Overland Routes
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 20, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 17, 2023