The California Trail

George R. Stewart
339 pages 196

We’ve reviewed a number of books about the Emigrant Trail to Californian and the emigrants’ experience (check our Heirloom article indexon each Heirloom page or go to the book review page on our website). Each one  has a different focus or emphasis.  All tell the compelling story and lead us to the conclusion that those people in the old days were way tougher than we are today.

The California Trail, “an Epic with Many Heroes,” by George R. Stewart relates the emigrant experience not primarily focusing on emigrant quotes, personal experiences, or the history of the migration west.  Instead Stewart tells the story by cataloging the wagon trains that came across the country year by year starting in 1841 and ending in 1850.  By 1850 and beyond Stewart begins to summarize the experience since what happened then was not new.  All of the routes and cut-offs had been discovered, there were trading posts along the routes, and the emigrants were following what had been done before on roads that could not be missed and which were becoming more roadlike.  It was still hard by then but not as hard or heroic as the first emigrants’ experiences.  For the first emigrants everything was new. If they had maps the maps were not detailed.  They had little idea of what was coming next or which was the best route (the Donner Party got into trouble by believing others who really had no idea).  They did not have the benefit of good advice.  The trips were “iffy.”  Those first emigrants were heroes.  The made the routes, conquered the dangers, and helped open California.

The California Trail is a heroic story not just of the leaders, the well-known, but also of the ordinary people who left home eyes set on the prize of new lives and opportunities..   They beat hardship, accident, diseases, Indians, desert, starvation, ignorance, dissension, lack of information and just bad luck.  It is an epic story.

Although the book is a catalog of wagon trains with diary quotes from the members of the trains, it’s not just a dry dusty text. It’s fairly lively, at least until the end.  For example, the first page of Chapter 1 starts out, “But young John Bidwell, when he arrived at the appointed place, found only one wagon already there.  Oh, it had been brave and glorious, that preceding winter, to plan going to California!”  That’s lively and draws in the general reader, even though it’s not quite “academic.”  A good portion of the book is written in that spirit along with a few digressions about life on the wagon trains day to day.

Stewart covers the Bidwell Party (’41), no wagons in ’42, and a return to California of a member of ’41 leading a group in ‘43.  Those first trips were failures.  They did not develop a road to California and they did not bring their wagons. The Stephens Party (’44) was the first successful group to get to California with wagons and Stewart gives a good, though short, description.  In ’45 there were lots of wagons and lots of stories and personalities and Stewart does a good job summarizing that year’s trek.

There is a chapter about how the emigrants traveled: wagon beds were four feet by nine or ten feet, travel was two miles per hour, there were no springs for suspension, there’s information about crossing streams and driving wagons, a discussion of oxen vs. horses, vs. mules, how to go downhill, day to day life on the trail, disease, how many people per wagon, how much food was needed per person, how much animals could pull (almost just the food weight0) and travel in general.  That’s a good chapter if you ever want to try it for yourself.  Then Stewart explains, as the journey proceeded and troubles happened, what it meant to have to abandon wagons and how people then got along.

Stewart also covers with a fair amount of detail the various routes and cut-offs in each section of the journey west.  For example he talks about “Ice Slough” (“This last was a boggy place where you could dig down through a foot of muck and come to layers of ice, even in summer.”)  Stewart covers Lansford Hastings’ and his cut-off pretty well too (the fellow who gave the Donners wrong turn advice).

Then there are summaries of the next years: less than two hundred wagons in ’46 (the year of the Donners), the Mormons made up half of ‘47’s emigration, ’48 was not much and ’49 was fifty times ‘48’s. ’49 was a big change with the news of the gold rush and a new kind of emigrant hit the trails.  The earlier emigrants were novices but they were mostly country people and were at least somewhat familiar with wagons.  The gold rush emigrants were pure amateurs.  They had no idea what they were doing and some of the stories are amusing like the group that decked themselves out in uniforms with gold braid, knives, swords, pistols, and rifles.  They were ready to cross the country.

Stewart puts ’49 into perspective saying that if all the wagons that year had been in a line it would have stretched 60 miles and there were
reports at the time of lines of 500 wagons.

There’s some good detail too.   The diaries don’t mention the offensiveness of emigrants but being in their company must have been offensive.  “…who was there to complain of smell?  Generally speaking, the pot does not even know that the kettle is black.  And by this time the noisomeness of rotting carcasses of mules and oxen filled the air at every campground.”

As we view the pictures or movies with covered wagons and think about the migration we don’t think about the more prosaic needs of people.  Stewart reports though.  Being constantly around other people must have been tiring.  A private moment must have been cherished. “I have found a quiet spot at a little distance from the wagons, where I am seated on a stone, with book and pencil in hand, the babbling brook just at my feet, and close beside me, my little Mary who is picking up the colored pebbles and throwing them, with exclamations of delight, into the sparkling waters.”

Other books describe the emigrant experience better with more liberal doses of emigrant quotes and more vivid descriptions but those writers have had access, via the internet and because more has come to light, to more diaries.  They do not go into detail about the routes however as Stewart does.

Towards the end the story strengthens when Stewart talks about emigrant troubles at the end of ’49 and the relief parties sent out from California.  To one emigrant woman the loose garments flapping at the sides of the relief party made them seem like angels “winged and high in the air.”  The woman said they looked “heaven-sent!”  One set of emigrants was in particularly bad shape. “They were trudging along, each with some pounds of decaying mule-meat strung around his neck.  Their smell was so high that the relief party refused to do anything for them until they had gone to the river and washed.”

Then even more graphically, “A more pitiable sign I had never before beheld. There were cripples from scurvy, and other diseases; women, prostrated by weakness, and children, who could not move a limb. In advance of the wagons were men mounted on mules, who had to be lifted on or off their animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effect of scurvy.”

Stewart is good with the perspective too.  He says that  in the big year of 1849 some one thousand of 21,000 emigrants crossed one of the Donner passes and 1850 was twice that of ’49.

California Trail is a good catalog of the early emigrant trains.  The listing gets a bit tedious towards the end but that just shows Stewart’s massive research.  The book does a good job detailing life and delineates the emigrant experience.  Some other books do a better job of that last with more liberal usage of emigrant quotes but Stewart has a good complete package.

There is an acompaniment to the California Trail and that is a map for emigrants and advice given by T.H. Jefferson in 1849