If you were a pioneer with a wagonload of family facing the daunting task of moving from the United States across the Rocky Mountains to settle in early California you had three basic options before the railroad was finished in 1869. The earliest wagon route opened in 1846 by the ill-fated Donner Party. You followed the Oregon Trail over the Continental Divide at South Pass and then split off on the California Trail through northern Nevada. In 1857 the more-southerly Butterfield Overland Mail route was opened through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Finally, in 1859 the Central Overland Trail was opened to wagons following the Pony Express route from Salt Lake City through central Nevada.
The California Trail had several variations but all followed the Humboldt River through northern Nevada toward Carson City. For example, most travelers started near St. Joseph, Missouri and followed the Oregon Trail into Idaho before splitting off to California. But some passed through Salt Lake City rather than the more northern route through Idaho. The alkali water of the Humboldt River in Nevada was enough to drink and grow fodder for your horses and cattle before it sank into the desert at the Humboldt sink. After that you faced the “40-mile desert” with no water at all before you reached Carson City and the mountains. From far western Nevada pioneers followed 11 trails over the Sierra Nevada mountains into the California gold country and beyond.
The Butterfield Overland Mail route was estabished to provide a non-snow route to and from California. A stagecoach company provided service from St. Louis, Missouri, or Fort Smith Arkansas to San Francisco, California from 1857 to 1861. The route passed through Oklahoma and Texas (near El Paso) to Deming, New Mexico on to Tucson, Arizona and through Yuma to Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The Central Overland Route or Pony Express trail left a branch of the California Trail at Salt Lake City, Utah headed south and then west into the central Nevada desert toward Carson City, Nevada. At the base of each desert range of mountains was usually a small swamp surrounded by enough forage for animals. The Central Overland Route followed a series of passes over the mountain ranges between these oasis swamp areas, or mountain springs. There were also occasional army forts for protection from hostile Indians. This dusty route shaved 200 miles and over ten-day’s travel time off the more northern California Trail route.
After the discovery of gold, about half the immigrants were from overseas, and many came by ship. Also some of the pioneers that had previously followed the Oregon trail to Washington or Oregon made their way south to the California gold fields.
Problems and daily life on the trail. Along the way overland wagon migrants faced the dangers of fording rivers (many could not swim), diseases like cholera or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, long dry marches through hot deserts, figuring out ways to get wagons up and down steep mountain trails, taking the wrong fork of a trail hundreds of miles out of the way, ferocious thunderstorms on the plains, lost or sick or dead draft animals, lack of feed for animals because of over grazing by previous pioneers, broken wagon parts, gun accidents, pioneers and their children were run over by their wagons, snakes, mosquito hordes, swindlers and robbers, and even a few Indian raids. You would likely need to wash your clothes once a week. On the plains you probably used dried buffalo dung to fuel your cooking fires. Most emigrants followed a trail guide book, or went in groups with an experienced wagon train master, but some set off on their own. You probably slept on a rubberry mat under the stars on clear nights, but if rain threatened your home was a canvas tent, or sleeping in or under your wagon. Hunting buffalo, deer, antelope or fishing might supplement your diet on the trail, but might also slow your progress.
Settlers and records. No complete list of pioneer settlers who traveled these trails to California is known to exist. However, a variety of sources can be used to identify most of them. Some of these sources may reveal their place of origin. The Native Daughters of the Golden West, Roster of California Pioneers (Internet site) shows 35,000 pioneers (14 percent) who lived in California before 1870. Charles Warren Haskins, The Argonauts of California lists 27,000 names and has a separate index. California land records, and a federal homestead index (starting 1862) may help identify property owners. Federal censuses of California for 1850, 1860, and 1870 list pioneers. The California Great Register voting lists will list males over age 21 as early as 1866 but researchers must guess the county to search. Finally, look in county and local histories of the place a pioneer ancestor settled for biographies of early settlers.