In December of 1847, Loren Hastings was walking the stump-filled, muddy streets of Portland, Oregon, when he chanced upon a friend he had known back in Illinois. Hastings had made the trip on the Oregon Trail unscathed, while his friend had lost his wife. Hastings’ …
Author: Bethany Nemec
compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved Oregon Trails Coordinating Council Significance In 1804, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery, under direction from President Thomas Jefferson, set forth on a lengthy expedition into the Western …
The single most important impetus for coming to Oregon was the lure of free land. The most important act of new settlers upon arriving in Oregon was to claim a piece of property, and for many years that could only be done in Oregon City.
There had been Americans in Oregon since the early 1810s, when fur trappers first arrived, but there was no real settlement until the 1830s. There simply weren’t enough trappers interested in settling down for them to need an organized system of staking claims. However, with the arrival of missionaries and the first waves of settlers, a need arose for means to secure legal title to their lands.
From 1841 until 1843, Americans in Oregon struggled with the problem of land claims, courts, and organized government. In 1843, by a vote of 52 to 50, the settlers of the Willamette Valley authorized the formation of a provisional government until such time as the authority of the United States was extended to the Oregon Country. They drafted Oregon’s first constitution, called the Organic Act. Section seventeen was the report of the Land Claims committee. It explained the methods of designating, recording, and improving a land claim, but perhaps more importantly, it limited the number and size of claims and excluded any religious missions. The intent was to prevent speculation and foster a community of self-sufficient farmers working their own land. Oregon City was named the capital of Oregon, and land claims were to be filed there with the recorder. Married couples were allowed to claim up to 640 acres at no cost.
When the United States finally did extend its authority and declare the Oregon Country to be a US Territory, Joseph Lane, the Territorial Governor appointed in 1849, was empowered to review all Provisional Government laws and accept or reject them. Only the law on minting gold “Beaver” coins was declared unconstitutional, as the US Constitution restricted the power of coining money to the federal government. The Provisional Government’s land ordinances remained in force until the passage of the Donation Land Act of 1850.
The Donation Land Act called for the orderly and legal ownership of property in Oregon Territory. It voided all laws previously passed making grants of land, but was worded to take into account existing claims in the Oregon Country. It granted every white settler and “American half-breed Indian” above the age of 18 already living in Oregon a free half-section of land if single or a full section (640 acres, the same as allowed under the Organic Act) if married, with half in the wife’s name. Residence and cultivation for four years was required. Settlers arriving after 1850 were granted half a section if married, or one-quarter of a section if single.
The office of Surveyor General for Oregon was created and the first federally-recognized land office was opened in Oregon City. A total of 7437 patents were issued under the 1850 law. Probably the most famous filing was the plat for the city of San Francisco, which had to be sent up the coast by ship to be filed in Oregon City, the closest land office. The plat still proudly belongs to Clackamas County despite periodic efforts on behalf of San Francisco to have it returned.
The Surveyor-General was required to survey the land by the method established by the Land Ordinance of 1785. The Willamette Stone was placed just west of present-day Portland, thus defining the Willamette Meridian, and the first survey of Oregon City was completed by Joseph Hunt in March, 1852.
After 1854, land was no longer free in Oregon. The price was set at $1.25 an acre with a limit of 320 acres in any one claim. As the years passed, the cost per acre rose and the maximum acreage dropped.
In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act to encourage the settling of the Great Plains. However, the law applied to Oregon, as well. Any head of a family of any age, or a single person over 21 who was or who intended to become a US citizen could claim 160 acres (one-quarter of a section) of public land by paying a $34 fee then residing on and cultivating the property for five years. After five years, they received legal title to their claim. Alternatively, after six months of occupation they could purchase the property for $1.25 an acre.
The Railroad Land Grant Act of 1866 gave successful railroad companies title to every odd-numbered section of land for twenty miles back from each side of their right-of-way. This put vast tracts of land in the hands of the railroad companies, which they were expected to sell off to recoup the expense of building the rail lines. To prevent wild speculation and price inflation, the railroads were restricted to selling their land for not more than $2.50 an acre. However, the railroads were expected to pay property taxes on the land they were granted, and many companies deliberately avoided filing land claims in order to escape paying taxes. In 1916, Congress finally tired of the railroads’ delaying tactics and took away 3 million acres. Most of this land remains publicly owned to the present day and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
Of all the Donation Land Claims in Oregon, the best known is probably that of George Abernethy, the first man to be elected to the governorship in the years of the Provisional Government. It was on his claim, in a meadow that became known as Abernethy Green, that the exhausted Oregon Trail emigrants camped long enough to find a promising piece of land that they could claim as their own.
compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved Oregon Trails Coordinating Council Significance The Oregon Trail is the predominant symbol of American westward expansion in the Nineteenth Century, a period of Manifest Destiny when the nation realized its …
compiled by Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White copyright 1998 ~ all rights reserved Oregon Trails Coordinating Council
Although Jedediah Smith is overshadowed by Lewis and Clark in the exploration of the American West, his influences and impacts on the American West are perhaps no less significant. During his eight years in the West, Smith made the effective discovery of South Pass and was the first American to travel overland to California, the first to cross the Sierra Nevadas and the Great Basin, and the first to reach Oregon by a journey up the California coast. These accomplishments were coupled with involvement in the three greatest disasters in the fur trade. He survived the Arikara defeat of 1823, the Mojave massacre of 1827, and the Umpqua massacre of 1828 — battles which cost the lives of 40 trappers.
Jedediah Smith is regarded as one of America’s trailblazers, yet his expedition to Oregon and its disastrous end is not commonly known to Oregonians.
Jedediah Smith was born in New York in 1799 and while still a child, moved with his family to Pennsylvania and then to Ohio. In 1822, Smith traveled to St. Louis to join the American Fur Trade Company organized by General William Ashley and Andrew Henry. After wintering at the company’s fort near the Yellowstone River, Smith was sent back down the Missouri to meet General Ashley. The two met near the Grand River, where an ensuing battle with the Arikaras resulted in the loss of thirteen of Ashley’s men and fostered an appreciation on the part of Ashley and others for Smith’s bravery under fire. Later in 1823, Smith was sent out as leader of a party to explore beaver country south of the Yellowstone. After wintering in the Wind River Valley, the trappers crossed the Continental Divide over South Pass, eventually reaching the Green River.
After trapping and exploring the areas around the Green, Bear, Snake, and Clark’s Fork rivers, Smith became a partner in Ashley’s business. In the summer of 1826, Ashley sold his business to Smith, David Jackson, and William Sublette. The new partners held a rendezvous on Bear River where it was decided that Jackson and Sublette would go north to trap the Snake River while Smith would explore and trap to the south. Smith and seventeen trappers traveled south along the eastern side of the Great Salt Lake, following the Sevier and Virgin Rivers to the Colorado River where they rested and traded at Mojave Indian villages. From there Smith decided to travel west to California crossing the Mojave Desert and arriving at Mission San Gabriel. The trappers were hospitably received at the mission, but Smith was summoned to San Diego by Governor Echeandia to explain the American’s presence in the Mexican province. Smith’s request to continue their expedition north through coastal California was denied and Smith was eventually ordered to leave Spanish California by the way they had come.
In January 1827, Smith and his men retraced their way back over the San Bernadino Mountains, but then turned north and crossed to the San Joaquin river basin. Working their way up the valley as they trapped, they eventually reached the American River where the company turned east and made an unsuccessful attempt to cross the Sierra Nevadas. Smith decided to leave eleven of his men at an established camp while he and two others attempted another crossing, intent on reaching the rendezvous at Bear Lake and returning with more men and supplies. On May 20, Smith and his two companions began crossing the Sierra Nevadas, the first non-Indians to do so, and then crossed the Great Basin of Nevada and Utah where the exhausted and starved men reached the rendezvous on July 3.
Staying in rendezvous for only ten days, Smith departed with eighteen trappers, two Indian women, and two years’ worth of supplies for a return trip to California. Following the same route taken a year earlier, Smith followed the Sevier and Virgin Rivers to the Mojave villages where they rested for three days. Smith and his party attempted to cross the Colorado River by swimming their horses and floating their supplies across on rafts. However, while Smith and some of his men were ferrying their goods, the Mojaves attacked and killed all of the party who still remained on shore, leaving Smith and eight others on the opposite shore. The survivors gathered what supplies they could and staved off a second attack behind a makeshift fort before escaping at nightfall. Smith’s party crossed the Mojave Desert on foot. Upon reaching the San Bernardino Valley, they obtained supplies and proceeded north to the camp on the Stanislaus River, arriving there in September.
Smith decided to go to Mission San Jose to present himself and buy supplies. At San Jose, he was arrested and charged with attempting to claim the lands he had trapped for the United States. Taken again to Governor Echeandia, Smith was vouched for and bonded by Captain John Cooper, a respected Bostonian shipmaster who had married and settled in Monterey. Smith was given two months to leave California. In late December, Smith and his men began their journey up the Sacramento River with a purchased herd of 330 horses and mules which they planned to sell once the party returned to the Rocky Mountains.
Smith’s trip up the Sacramento was a slow one. Trapping as they went, slowed by mires and sloughs, they reached their farthest point up the river near Red Bluff on April 10, 1828. It was at this point that Smith, evaluating the mountains around him, chose to abandon an attempt to leave California by a northern route, and instead go west to the coast and north to the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver. The route to the coast proved to be a monumental struggle through rocks and brush until they reached the Pacific Ocean on June 8. The trappers found the Indians of the interior valleys to be highly fearful, but peaceful. However, as the party crossed the mountains to the coast, the local Indians shot arrows into camp and at the livestock which prompted the trappers to fire their rifles in return.
Smith in Oregon
Camp 1. The expedition reached Oregon on June 23, traveling along the shore and making its camp on the north side of the Winchuck River. That evening, Indians visited camp bringing berries, small fish and roots to trade.
Camp 2. On June 24, because of the high tide, the expedition traveled only three miles and camped on the south bank of the Chetco River. Near the camp was a village of 10 or 12 lodges, but the inhabitants had all run away.
Camp 3. On June 25, the group traveled 12 miles, turned inland, took an old trail behind Cape Ferrelo, crossed Whalehead Creek and camped that night near the mouth of Thomas Creek on its north bank. Indian lodges were close by, but again the inhabitants had run away. No Indians were seen that day, but two men sent back to hunt for a mule reported being attacked by Indians and escaped by retreating on horseback and swimming a creek. The next morning, the horses were found badly wounded with arrows.
Camp 4. June 26 was a relatively easy day of travel spent following and Indian trail to the mouth of the Pistol River where, because of high tide, the group camped on the south side. When counting horses, one particularly valuable animal was found to be missing and presumed killed by Indians when the earlier three horses were wounded.
Camp 5. On June 27, the expedition traveled over Cape Sebastian and traveled along the beach to the mouth of the Rogue River, where they camped on the south side. A large number of Indian lodges were on both sides of the river, but again, all of the inhabitants had disappeared. The trappers tore down one of the lodges to get puncheons to make rafts. Timber was scarce along the beach. Smoke signals were observed on the north side of the bay.
Camp 6. The next morning, rafts were used to ferry goods across the river, followed by driving in the herd. Twelve to fifteen animals drowned, producing the loss of some two dozen horses and mules in just 3 days. Once across, the brigade moved along the shore to camp at Euchre Creek (near Ophir).
Camp 7. Only five miles were made on June 29. High tides prevented travel on the beaches and forced the brigade into the thicket-covered hills. Camp was made at mussel creek.
Camp 8. June 30 took the group up the beach and then behind Humbug Mountain where camp was made on Brush Creek. Two more mules were lost; one fell into an elk pit made by Indians, and the other fell down a precipice.
Camp 9. Continuing the next day, the brigade moved along the beach and crossed the hills through Port Orford, past Garrison Lake, and through the gap at Cape Blanco to the Sixes River where camp was made on the south side to wait for low tide. One horse was crowded off a cliff and killed.
Camp 10. July 2 was an easy day of travel along the beach and over small sand hills past Floras Lake to a campsite just south of Bandon. As most of the men’s time expired this day, Smith called all hands and re-engaged them at a rate of one dollar per day.
Camp 11. On July 3, the expedition made another early start and reached the Coquille River in two miles. Reaching the river ahead of the group, Smith discovered some Indians moving as fast as possible up river in a canoe. Smith galloped his horse to get above them and when they saw they could not outrace him, they pulled ashore and attempted to destroy the canoe. With Smith screaming at them, they abandoned the canoe and fled. The trappers then used the canoe to ferry their goods across the river. All but one of the horses swam over. The group traveled five miles further and camped at Whiskey Run creek. One of the men caught an Indian boy about ten years old and brought him to camp where he was given some beads and dried meat. By signs he indicated that all of the other Indians had fled in canoes and left him. The boy was from the Willamette Valley and was a slave of one of the bands who fled at Smith’s approach. The trappers gave him the name of Marion and he continued with the group to the Umpqua.
Camp 12. The brigade hugged the coastline and experienced difficult travel through thickets and across bad ravines. Camp was made on a long point of Cape Arago and marked the first American 4th of July in southern Oregon.
Camp 13. July 5 was a short day of travel making less than two miles. Finding good grass and judging the horses as tired, camp was made in the natural meadows of Shore Acres and, for the first time since the Winchuck River, friendly contact with Indians was made. Two Indians who spoke Chinook jargon visited camp and told the trappers the welcome news that there were only ten days travel from the Calapooya people in the Willamette Valley. Meeting Indians who could communicate in trade language indicated the brigade had entered the region of Hudson’s Bay Company influence.
Camp 14. July 6 was another short day going only two miles through brush and mires until camping at Sunset Bay. After encamping, two elk were killed and it was decided to maintain the same camp over July 7 to rest the horses, prepare meat, and clear a road to Coos Bay. On the 7th about 100 Indians came into the camp with fish and mussels for sale. Smith bought a sea otter skin from the chief. All of the Indians had knives and tomahawks, one had a flintlock musket, one a cloak, and others had cloth pieces, all items presumed to have been obtained through trade for otter and beaver skins.
Camp 15. On July 8 the expedition moved two more miles and broke through the brush to the beach at Charleston where they found a large Indian village and camped. The villagers brought goods to trade including fish, shell fish, berries, and some furs. In the evening it was discovered that arrows had been shot into eight of the livestock, killing three mules and one horse, and maiming another horse that had to be left behind. Indian interpreters told the trappers the killing was done by an Indian angry over a trade he had made. Tribal oral history identifies the hostile Indian as a visitor from a lower Umpqua village who tried to steal some elk meat and was driven from camp by the cook. Angered, the Indian wanted the Coos to attack the brigade to avenge the insult.
Camp 16. Using canoes, the expedition crossed South Slough and then moved up the east shore of Coos Bay to encamp near Empire. The area was well-populated with Indian lodges. Many Indians came to the camp with fish and berries for sale. The trappers bought as much as they could. More beaver and otter skins were also purchased. When asked about the shooting of the horses, the chiefs disclaimed any responsibility.
Camp 17. On July 10, the trappers again engaged canoes and crossed Coos Bay to the North Spit where they camped in the area of Henderson Marsh. The crossing went well, although Smith, who remained on the east side with five men (to swim over the last horses and mules), felt apprehensive because the Indians’ behavior indicated they were considering an attack.
Camp 18. July 11 produced a long drive along the beach to the mouth of the Umpqua River and an encampment near a small Indian village on the south bank of the river at Winchester Bay. The Indians living there appeared friendly and a number of them spoke Chinook jargon; 70 to 80 Indians brought fish and berries which they sold at an expensive rate. The Hudson’s Bay Company dealt with the Umpqua Indians in a guarded manner and sent only well-armed parties in and through their country. The brigade was unaware that these Indians had a reputation for being hostile to fur traders.
Camp 19. On the morning of July 12, the brigade crossed the Umpqua River to a landing near the future site of Umpqua City. From there they traveled three miles upriver and camped on the north side of the bay. Along the way, one of the Indians accompanying the caravan stole and hid an axe. Smith and another seized him and tied a cord around his neck to scare him into revealing the location of the axe while the other trappers stood by with guns drawn in case there was resistance from the other 50 Indians present. The axe was recovered, but the incident carried with it a foreboding circumstance: the Indian involved was a Umpqua Chief. The rest of the day passed peacefully enough in trading of furs and buying berries.
Camp 20. On July 13 the expedition continued around the east side of the bay about four miles and camped at the mouth of Smith River; the best evidence places this final campsite and location of the massacre at a spot on the north bank of the Smith River channel opposite the west tip of Perkins Island. Fifty to 60 Indians again visited camp to trade furs and food; they also reported that within 15-20 miles upriver was easy traveling to the Willamette Valley. During this encampment another incident occurred which fueled the attack that would occur the next day. The chief involved in the stolen axe incident wanted his tribe to retaliate against the trappers, but was overruled by a chief of higher authority. Subsequently, this second chief mounted one of the brigade’s horses to ride it around camp, but was ordered to dismount by one of Smith’s men. The incident was an insult to the higher chief and he gave his concurrence for an attack on the expedition.
The morning of July 14, Smith left camp to look for a route east toward the Willamette Valley. Departing in a canoe, he traveled up the Smith River and took with him John Turner, Richard Leland, and an Indian guide. While they were gone, those who remained allowed about a hundred of the Kelawatsets into camp. On a signal, the Indians rushed the trappers. Arthur Black was cleaning his rifle when the attack came; two attackers wounded his hands with knives while fighting him for his gun; a third hit him a glancing blow in the back with an axe. Black released his rifle and ran into the woods, seeing others of the party falling in the attack. He wandered in the woods for the next four days until emerging on the ocean shore a few miles north of the Umpqua River.
When Smith paddled back down the river, he thought it strange that none of his men were visible. Just then an Indian on shore called to Smith’s guide who turned around in the canoe, seized Smith’s rifle and dived into the water. Kelawatsets hidden on shore then began to fire on the canoe. Smith and his two men paddled to the opposite bank and climbed a hill to get a view of the camp. Seeing none of their party and having none come forward to help them, it was concluded that they had all been cut off. Deciding that nothing could be done for the rest of his men, Smith headed north with Turner and Leland.
Arthur Black, knowing that he could seek refuge at Fort Vancouver, set out to the north following the coast. The first Indian he encountered wanted to take his knife, but Black resisted. A little later seven Indians stripped him of all his clothing except his pants. After escaping this group, he saw no more Indians until he came to a Tillamook village. Here he met friendly people who led him through to the Willamette Valley (presumably by following trails up either the Trask or Wilson Rivers) to a Hudson’s Bay freeman who delivered Black to Fort Vancouver on August 8, 26 days after the attack.
It is uncertain what route was taken by Smith’s party, but they reached Fort Vancouver on August 10. John McLoughlin, Chief Factor at Fort Vancouver, recorded that Smith reached the ocean at the Alsea River (staying inland for 50 miles) and then followed the coast to a Tillamook village where Indians took him through to the Willamette Valley and Fort Vancouver. Historian Dale Morgan contends this route would have gone up the Trask River, descended to the Tualatin River and then to the Willamette. History instructor Nathan Douthit suggests that Smith came upon a southern village of the Tillamooks, was taken up the Salmon River then down the Yamhill River to Champoeg as is suggested by information on the Fremont-Gibbs-Smith map produced by Dale Morgan and Carl Wheat.
After hearing the reports of Smith and his men, McLoughlin immediately sent Indian messengers and Michel Laframboise to the Umpqua to seek survivors and offer rewards for their return. Preparations were already in progress for a trapping expedition to the Umpqua, but instead McLoughlin ordered that Smith’s property be recovered by an expedition led by Alexander McLeod. On September 6 the expedition, including Smith and his surviving men, headed south through the Willamette Valley, then over the Calapooya Mountains to the Umpqua. On October 28 McLeod’s party arrived at the site of the massacre. Eleven skeletons were found and buried; four others of Smith’s men were unaccounted for. At the time of the attack, Smith had 228 horses and mules, 780 beaver and 50-60 sea otter skins, 200 lbs. of beads and 100 lbs. of goods and tobacco. Moving along the coast, McLeod was remarkably successful in recovering the goods taken and then traded by the Kelawatsets, including 38 horses and mules, 700 skins, several rifles, cooking pots, traps, clothes, beads and other items. On November 12 the group turned back up the Umpqua River to return to Fort Vancouver. In an act of good will, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought the livestock and furs (despite their now poor condition) from Smith for $3,200. In return, Smith assured that the Rocky Mountain Fur Company would confine its operations to the region east of the Great Divide.
On March 12, 1829, Jedediah Smith and Arthur Black ascended the Columbia River and returned to the northern Rocky Mountains to be reunited with David Jackson and William Sublette. In 1830, Smith, Jackson, and Sublette sold their Rocky Mountain Fur Company and Smith returned to St. Louis where, in 1831, he entered a trading venture on the Santa Fe Trail. On May 27, while in route to Santa Fe, he left the main party to search for water. Near the Cimarron River, Jed Smith was killed by Comanche.
When the first wave of American settlers arrived in the Oregon Country, it was ironic that they were greeted by two Canadians: one a sympathetic rival who was under orders to discourage them, and the other probably the single person most responsible for establishing white …
FREIGHTERS, STAGECOACHES, AND LONE RIDERS The pioneers with their Prairie Schooners weren’t the only ones on the Oregon Trail. They shared it with stagecoaches, freight wagons, mail wagons, fur trade caravans, Army troops and supply trains, dispatch and Pony Express riders, pack horses and mules, …
The year 1848 started out looking like it would be fairly quiet. The United States was recovering from a depression. A war with Mexico had been fought and won. The fur trade and its once-great empire was well into its decline. The Oregon Question, briefly threatening a third war between the United States and Great Britain, had been settled diplomatically. Mormons were en route to Utah. Farmers were en route to Oregon. The pace of national life had slowed down.
Enter Johann Augustus Sutter, a Swiss immigrant to Mexican California. In 1839, he had convinced the Spanish governor that he was a minor European nobleman and so conned his way into ownership of a rancho in the Sacramento valley. He had become a successful farmer and herder, and he aspired to making his fortune as master of an agricultural empire. To this end, he hired James Marshall, an emigrant from New Jersey by way of Oregon, to oversee the construction of a sawmill. On January 24th, 1848, Marshall was inspecting a ditch when he noticed flecks of gold in the mud.
Despite efforts to keep it a secret, word got out. Oregonians heard about the discovery in July, when the brig Honolulu dropped anchor in the Columbia and tried to buy out Fort Vancouver’s mining supplies under the pretext of supplying coal miners. The East Coast heard about the gold strike in August. Newspaper headlines proclaimed “GOLD! Gold from the American River!” in huge letters across the top of every front page in the eastern states. Success stories abounded: two prospectors dug out $17,000 worth of the precious metal in a single season; others dug up nuggets worth over $5000 in just two months of prospecting. The first dependable account of the magnitude of the gold strike to reach the East was delivered to the War Department in November, when an officer brought back 230 ounces of gold in a tea caddy. By the end of the year, the whole world knew.
Californians, of course, got a head start to the gold fields. Then came Oregonians, Mormons, and Hawaiians. Miners from around the world, including South America, Australia, and China, were welcomed at first, but later taxed or driven out.
The gold rush from the East was delayed until the spring of 1849, when the overland trails were again passable. That year, tens of thousands of 49ers poured into California. Some came by ship around Cape Horn, or took a packet ship to Central America, crossed the Isthmus of Panama by mule train, and booked passage up the West Coast to San Francisco. These were the preferred routes for 49ers from the East and Gulf Coasts; for those in the American heartland, or who lacked boat fare, the California Trail was the way west.
For most historians, the California Trail started at Fort Hall: when wagon trains reached the Raft River just past Fort Hall, they found a sign on the right that read, “To Oregon,” and on the left was a pile of gold-colored rocks, probably fool’s gold, marking the trail to California. (A modern anecdote says when the parties reached the sign, they formed committees to discuss alternatives. Those who were able to reach consensus went to California; those who could read the sign went to Oregon. Californians, of course, tell this joke the other way around.)
Like the Oregon Trail, the California Trail is not to be confused with the trail to California. There is a difference: each emigrant, prospector, or farmer had his own trail to California. It started at their old home and ended at their new one. Along the way, they followed a well-used (and later, often shortcutted) trail commonly known as the California Trail.
As an emigrant road, the California Trail is exactly as old as the Oregon Trail. The 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party got as far as Fort Hall when half of the California-bound party decided to start their farms in the Oregon Country, instead. In the following years, most emigrants were headed to Oregon, hence the popular name Oregon Trail for the entire route. However, all that changed when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill — suddenly, everyone on the overland trails seemed to be heading for California.
The main trunk of the California Trail cut off at the Raft River in Idaho near the City of Rocks, angled southwest to the Humboldt River near Elko, Nevada, and followed the river past Winnemucca to its demise in Humboldt Lake. Crossing Humboldt and Carson Sinks, overlanders picked up the Truckee River, passed the present-day site of Reno, and crested the Sierras at Donner Pass. This put them in the Bear River basin, which empties into the Feather and Sacramento Rivers.
Always in a hurry, gold seekers took many cutoffs. Many bypassed Fort Bridger by using Sublette’s Cutoff to Wyoming’s Bear River. Some took Hudspeth’s Cutoff straight from the Bear River to the California Trail, bypassing Fort Hall. Lansford Hastings recommended taking the Mormon Trail from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City, circling south of the lake, crossing the Great Salt Desert, and joining the California Trail near Elko. Following Hastings’ advice led the Reed-Donner Party across the Bonneville salt flats to its gruesome fate in the high Sierras, but later travelers improved the trail and rendered the route serviceable. Some gold rushers lessened the hardship of Hastings’ route by going north around the lake. A popular cutoff that became so heavily trafficked as to become the main branch of the trail was the Carson Pass Trail, which left the Donner Pass route at Carson Sink, picked up the Carson River, passed Carson City, crossed the Sierras south of Lake Tahoe, and went through the gold fields of Placerville to the American River and Sutter’s Fort.
Much of the gold in California was discovered before the 49ers even arrived. Still, many stayed in California to farm, ranch, or open shops. Most who found gold did not make millions overnight but worked from sunup to sundown for $20 a day — which was still a sight better than the dollar-a-day pay that was typical back East.
Life in the gold fields was unlike anywhere else in the country. Camps sprang up overnight. Cabins consisted of tents or old blankets tossed over a wood frame. Dirty, muddy streets filled with garbage and sewage, and outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox and malaria were common.
With so much wealth suddenly entering circulation, costs skyrocketed as merchants rushed to cash in on their own bonanza. Flour sold for $400 a barrel, sugar $4 a pound, and whiskey $20 a quart. Miners spent gold as fast as they found it. They drank, gambled, and danced with each other to Stephen Foster’s popular song “Oh, Susanna.”
Gamblers, saloon keepers, merchants, prostitutes, and lawyers preyed on the mostly male communities. The only real buildings in boom towns were the saloons, and the only women worked in the dance halls. There was no rule of law in mining camps, and robbery, murder, and violence became common. Vigilant committees were formed, and judges called “alcaldes” were elected to keep the peace.
Sacramento, San Francisco, and Stockton boomed as merchants sold out their supply of picks, shovels, knives, pans, skillets, canteens, and tents. In 1850, San Francisco was a jungle of tents and wood shacks. Its harbor was fairly littered with deserted ships. That year a fire leveled much of San Francisco, but there was so much money floating around that no one did much more than pause to take a breath before commencing the town’s reconstruction.
Those 49ers who went bust in California had many opportunities to search for gold elsewhere. There was a rush every year from 1850 to 1873 as strikes were made throughout the west. This was the era of boom towns such as Virginia City, Boulder, Carson City, Boise, and Denver.
From 1851 to 1858, there were strikes in southern Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Nevada. Then came 1859, a banner year for mineral strikes. In Nevada, “Old Virginia” Finney and “Old Pancake” Comstock discovered a true motherlode: the famed Comstock Lode outside Virginia City. Miners brought out a million dollars a month in silver and gold during the peak of production in Virginia City. Meanwhile, other miners headed for Colorado with “Pike’s Peak or Bust” painted on their wagon bonnets (about half of them later left under the slogan “Busted, by God”). From 1860 to 1864, rushes were on in Idaho and Montana as strikes there lured miners north. One monstrous nugget found in the vicinity of Helena, Montana, weighed 175 ounces.
In 1873, gold was discovered on sacred Sioux land in South Dakota’s Black Hills. The Sioux refused to vacate their reservation, and the US government, despite promises to the contrary, did little to discourage prospectors from invading the reservation. By 1876, thousands of miners were in the Black Hills and another round of war with the Sioux had begun.
The last great strike in the lower 48 states was at Cripple Creek, Colorado, in 1891. As each gold rush cooled off and the metal became harder to find, individual prospectors left for greener pastures and mining was left to big business backed by Eastern money interests. Dynamite came to America in 1868, a boon to prospectors and mining companies alike. However, the vastly more destructive technique of placer mining was used where the terrain allowed for it. Aided by high-pressure pumps that could kill a person with the powerful stream of water they produced, men channeled streams, opened sluiceways, and literally washed entire hillsides out to sea in their search for gold.
It is estimated that during the first five years of the California Gold Rush, $276 million in gold was dug out, panned, or otherwise brought to light by hand. In the next five years, the mining companies with all their manpower and heavy machinery were able to uncover only $220 million in gold.
To some, the California Trail was the road to sudden wealth and prosperity; to many more, it was only a road to poverty and hardship. Within a few years, it was being used in reverse for the long trip home — or, for those who had been hit hard by gold fever, for the considerably shorter trip to the silver mines of Nevada or the gold fields of Colorado. 0160005
Significance The Free Emigrant Road, a branch of the Oregon Trail, successfully opened a middle route across Oregon for emigrant travel from the Malheur River (Vale) to the southern Willamette Valley (Eugene). Three different wagon trains made the attempt to cross by a middle route. …