Despite the migrants’ great hopes for trouble-free travel, the California Trail only got harder. When one hardship eased another equally difficult one replaced it. A case in point is the struggle wagon trains endured crossing their greatest barrier, the Sierra Nevadas (Spanish translation: snowy mountain range). The two most frequently used routes over the mountains were over Carson Pass and Donner Pass. These two passes are now crossed by State Highway 88 and Interstate 80.
After crossing the Forty-mile Desert the weary people and their worn-out animals faced this last obstacle. One early migrant wrote, “We thought we had seen the elephant, but we were mistaken, but at the mountain we saw him good.” The phrase “See the elephant” was a common expression of the early nineteenth century reflecting the rarity and strangeness of an animal that was first imported to America in 1785. It eventually came to mean anything exotic and strange—a “now I’ve seen everything” statement.
As wagon trains followed the Carson River and the trail began to climb, Bernard Reid wrote, “…the first mile or two is pretty and shady with a good road—but presto, what a change! Steep pitches [slopes] up and down—appalling rocks,—stumps and logs,—sudden bends— all make the worst piece of road I ever saw or dreamed of.
With immense effort they somehow made it through the rocky debris in the Carson Canyon. The twisted path up the canyon required three river crossings, and according to George Lawson it was, “the most desperate road I ever saw, even for pack horses. For wagons you would think it impossible.” Amasa Morgan found the canyon choked with “rocks so large we had difficulty in driving our wagons through.” Lell Woodley wrote that the six miles of Carson Canyon was “the roughest piece of road that we found between Missouri and California. There were great boulders from the size of a barrel to that of a stagecoach promiscuously piled in the bed. It took us two days to make the six miles.”
The final approach to Carson Pass was as hard as “climbing a wall.” One wagon driver said,”It was not only right up and down, but leant a little over us.” Near the top he said, “We were half the day at least getting our wagons the last two miles over the mountains using eight yoke of oxen to do it.” Travelers who followed noted seeing abandoned goods of all kinds as wagon loads had to be lightened or wagons were upset on the treacherous trail. One migrant said he saw “wrecked wagons, trunks, axes, gold washers, two sawmill blades, and other articles scattered in all directions.” Once over the brow of the pass Charles Boyle described the beauty of what he saw. “Before us far down between the mountains lay a beautiful green valley surrounded by high mountains of bare solid granite of which the lower part was covered by a growth of pine trees while the summits were lightly capped with snow.” After crossing another final pass Peter Decker wrote, “Stopping we looked around at a view too magnificently grand and wildly romantic for me to attempt to describe.”
James Wilkins wrote that the scenery was sublime and noted, “Here on the summit of the backbone of America we were favored with a storm of hail, rain and sleet. The wind blew icy cold.” At this time one of the woman in the company “was taken with pangs of labor and we had to descend as quickly as possible over a most rock road to the first grass, which we did not reach until after dark.” Wilkins wondered that the woman was able to endure the jolts and bounces of the trip. He pitched his tent to shelter her and “before morning she was delivered of a little girl.” After a two-day rest the company continued and Wilkins said the woman was “doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances.”
The descent on the western slope of the Sierras was also difficult, but on reaching their final destination in the Sacramento gold fields Gordon Cone wrote, “We are now in the gold region and beyond all danger of snows and the mountains. The climate is warm and the atmosphere is balmy.” But they did not arrive in one piece. An inventory of his wagon train showed that two carts and four wagons were all that remained of the ten wagons that left Ohio.” Boyle reported that Tommy Davis had already found two specks of gold.
Meanwhile other emigrants followed the Truckee River toward a crossing of the Sierra Nevada Mountains passing through the site of present day Reno, Nevada. After 1847 the name Truckee Pass became Donner Pass in recognition of the disaster met by the Donner-Reid Party while crossing the Sierras. Many later wagon parties avoided Donner Pass because of a stigma attached to the name. Those who used Donner Pass followed the Truckee River almost to its source at Lake Tahoe, which is just southeast of the pass.
They began their ascent in a beautiful valley “over a very good road for a mountain road.” Augustus Burbank described the scene as “…clothed with a heavy forest and highly elevated. Some grass and small streams.” Then the pull became more difficult as the trail steepened. These unfortunate emigrants were stranded by an October blizzard without shelter or adequate supplies and food. There they were stranded until the spring of 1847. During their desperate entrapment some members of the group resorted to cannibalism to survive. Of the eighty-three members of the Donner Party who were trapped in the mountains, only forty-five survived the harsh winter to reach California.
Many later travelers stopped to see the remains of the Donner Party near Donner Lake as they neared the pass. Thomas Van Dorn wrote, “A surprising number of gold seekers described visiting what they called “cannibal camp,” the ruins of the shanties on Alder Creek and Donner Lake. Some told grotesque tales, such as Edward McIlhaney when he “stopped at the cabins at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains where the Donovan [Donner] party perished in ’46. There were several cabins. The roofs had rotted and fallen in and the [tree] stumps were twenty feet high where they stood on the snow to get wood to make a fire to keep them from freezing. The ground was covered with human bones still there.” James Abell noted that nothing remained “but the square enclosures with patches of newspaper hanging to the logs on the inside to keep out the cold.” He found scattered shreds of clothing and “bones of all descriptions, human and other.” Elisha Perkins added that, “…the imagination could find full scope in the indications of human suffering scattered around. I gathered some relics as curiosities and left, thankful that late as my journey had been prolonged, I was still safe from any such catastrophe as befell these unfortunates.” A full description of the Donner tragedy is beyond the scope of this article. Today the Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee, California preserves the site and tells their story in the Emigrant Trail Museum.
Edward Jackson said the final ascent to the pass was “over the worst road we have seen yet. The road was filled with large rocks and looked impossible for wagons to pass over. John McCarty wrote that the ascent was “extremely difficult—took twelve or fifteen yoke of cattle to draw up the lightest loaded wagon.” Migrants felt great relief upon finally reaching the summit and felt they had achieved a major milestone. Many imagined their troubles would now end with an easy descent, but nothing was easy in the Sierras. Instead they saw more mountains, gorges, and snow fields in their path. Isaac Wistar lamented, “Beyond, instead of the expected Sacramento Valley, nothing broke the magnificent expanse of the mountain chains.” D.B. Wood described the western descent of the Sierras as “rough beyond description.” John Markel complained that it “was the damn-dest, roughest, and rockyest road ever saw. We had to take out the mules and let our wagons down with ropes and it was off of one rock onto another all day.” Joseph Wood described trees “worn half down where wagons had been let down by a rope wound around them. This point was a descent over a ledge of rock some 30 feet—not quite perpendicular—our cattle taken around by a narrow passage and our wagons let down by ropes. At the foot of almost every steep we find the remains of broken wagons. A chain to one wagon broke and it rolled over three times, smashing everything to pieces.” No grass grew on those mountain trails and they had to cut down trees for the mules to eat the leaves and bark The mules soon associated the chopping sound with food and began braying with hunger. Cattle became very weak and were reduced to eating oak leaves for the last few days.
At last the trains reached the rolling hills of the Sacramento Valley, their long sought destination. Once there one migrant described “the process of gold working a going on.” along the stream. Many migrants immediately “got out our pans and went at it and washed out half a dollars worth in no time.” Gold in 1850 was worth $20.67 per ounce. About 0.024 ounces would be worth half a dollar.
In general, migrants seeking gold fared rather poorly. Some found only a little gold, many found more but failed to get rich, very few discovered a lode deposit and became rich. Most migrants drawn by golden riches soon reverted to the trade they practiced back home—mostly farming. Agriculture became the real motherlode of California. Today it is nearly impossible for us to imagine the strength and courage needed for the strenuous and exhausting trek made by those pioneers.
Bagley, Will. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West 1849-1852. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. 2012
Davis, Robert E. Following Sarah: Sarah Davis’s 1849-1850 Journey from Michigan to California. Twentynine Palms, CA: Quiet Creek Corp. 2013.