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on the California trails
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By John G. MitchellPhotographs by Jim Richardson

Dreaming of land and gold, wagon train pioneers blazed a 2,000-mile (3,220-kilometer) trail from Missouri to California.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Long before corpses and carcasses started piling up on the Forty-Mile Desert, skeptics had fashioned upon the public conscience another wasteland of mythic proportions. It ran from the edge of the tall-grass prairie all the way to the Rocky Mountains, and—thanks to inadequate explorations in 1820 by Maj. Stephen Long—was known to schoolmasters and mapmakers alike as the Great American Desert. The whole territory, it was said, was as bare as the Sahara. If the traveler didn’t starve to death, his animals would. And if both man and beast managed to elude starvation, then how could one possibly elude the savage Indians?

Among the handwringers was the eminent editor of the New York Daily Tribune, Horace Greeley—the very same Greeley now widely remembered for advising young men to go west. The catch, however, was that Greeley’s west at the time wasn’t California and Oregon; it was Illinois. In an editorial in July 1843 Greeley scolded the thousand emigrants who had just embarked. Their overland venture, he thundered, had an “aspect of insanity” about it. “There is probably not one among them whose outward circumstances will be improved by this perilous journey.”

Not that Greeley and other ink-stained scolds were altogether off the chart, for the trail west did entail a perilous journey. . . .

Visit now the journal of W. S. McBride, May 15, 1850, somewhere on the Platte: “I lay here in my tent and hear the merry music and the shuffling of strong men’s feet over the turf. I cannot help but feel a melancholy foreboding. . . . Some of us are no doubt doomed never to reach California.” And some never did. . . .

By one estimate 20,000 people died on the California Trail between 1841 and 1859—an average of ten graves for every mile.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

This monthly special showcases a unique blend of imagery and sound. Travel west with photographer Jim Richardson as he narrates excerpts from pioneer diaries.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Emigrants traveling west on the California Trail often wrote in their journals or diaries that they were “seeing the elephant,” or that their party had just felt a “brush of the elephant’s tail.” The expressions evolved in the first half of the 19th century from the fact that, in those days in America, the sight of a pachyderm was a most unusual and exciting thing—though surely not as exciting and dangerous as an overland journey to California.

According to etymologist Peter Tamony, the very first elephant to set foot in the United States did so in New York harbor in April 1796. The second arrived in or about 1815. By and by, zoos and circuses began to spread across the expanding nation until domesticated elephants had become so commonplace, Rodgers & Hammerstein could surmise in 1943 in the musical Oklahoma!, that on beautiful mornings, “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.”

Did You Know that most emigrants made it west on their own two feet? Space was valuable on the wagon train and, if available, for the old and infirm only. The Mormons pushed the human mettle even further between 1856 and 1860.

During these years 3,000 Saints walked from Iowa to Salt Lake, hauling their supplies in two-wheeled handcarts. A crop failure had left the church short of funds to buy wagons and oxen for the migrants, so church leader Brigham Young decreed: “Let them come on foot with handcarts or wheelbarrows; let them gird their loins and walk through and nothing shall hinder or stay them.”

Oregon-California Trail Association
An extensive site prepared by the Oregon-California Trail Association, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the emigrant trails. It includes a virtual tour of the California Trail.

National Park Service: Park Net
This site gives an overview of the California National Historic Trail listing contact information for many of the sites along the route as well as some recommended activities.

The California Trail
This California Trail page is part of an extensive website that provides hundreds of links to sites pertaining to overland trails. It will lead you to online emigrant diaries, maps, histories, and trail organizations.

Cordes, Kathleen Ann. America’s National Historic Trails. University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Hastings, Lansford W. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. Applewood Books, reprint of 1845 publication.

Holliday, J.S. Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California. University of California Press, 1999.

Mattes, Merril J. The Great Platte River Road. Nebraska State Historical Society, 1969.

Nunis, Doyce B. Jr., ed. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party: The Documents and Memoirs of the Overland Pioneers. Western Tanager Press, 1991.

Peters, Arthur King. Seven Trails West. Abbeville Press, 1996.

Stewart, George R. The California Trail. University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Unruh, John D. Jr. The Plains Across: The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-60. University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Walker, Paul Robert. Trail of the Wild West. National Geographic Books, 1997.

Heacox, Kim. Visions of a Wild America: Pioneers of Preservation. National Geographic Books, 1996.

“The Westward Movement.” National Geographic CD-ROM, 1996.

Findley, Rowe. “Along the Santa Fe Trail.” National Geographic, March 1991, 98-123.

Dunn, Jerry Camarillo. “If Stone Could Speak.” National Geographic Traveler, May/June 1990, 122-123.

Gibbons, Boyd. “Life and Death on the Oregon Trail: The Itch to Move West.” National Geographic, Aug. 1986, 147-177.


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