It’s not surprising to find that with over 2,000 miles of overland travel, pioneers encountered plenty of wild animals on the California Trail as they moved westward for gold or the rich lands of the coast. Emigrants took animals with them, such as horses or oxen. Still, as they moved along the trail, they also saw wildlife native to California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming.

Some of these came to have special meaning, and others were terrifying as they traveled across the trail.

  • Owls, Bald Eagles & California Condors
  • Jaguars & Mountain Lions
  • Grizzly Bears & Black Bears
  • Grey Wolves & Coyote
  • Antelope, Deer, Elk & Moose
  • Prairie Dogs, Badgers, Beaver & Squirrels
  • Bison
  • Snakes
  • Fish
  • Rabbits

Historical Records Of Animals On The Trail

The Emigrants Guide To Oregon and California by Langford Hastings reported the presence of bears, wolves, elk, muskrats, martens, antelope, foxes, buffalo, deer, otters, and seals. This was the guide used by the Donner-Reed Party. Famous “pathfinder” and cartographer John C Freemont reported seeing 40-pound Lahontan cutthroat trout when he reached the Truckee River.

Did California Pioneers See Bison Or Buffalo?

“Of all animal life resident in the trans-Mississippi West, without question, the one creature most commented upon was the buffalo.” – OCTA, Wild Trail, Wild Life

The California Trail Interpretive Center showcases many animals along the California Historic Trail. Some of these are well known, such as bison. Their size and numbers meant that the coming of a roaming heard was like a thundering storm. The bison were used for meat and their hides to keep the travelers warm and to feed them when fresh meat was needed.

The area crossed by the California Trail was actually home to the plains bison, not buffalo.

What Are The Differences Between Bison And Buffalo?

  • Home: Bison call America, Canada, and parts of Europe home. Buffalo are found in Asia and India.
  • Hump: Bison have a hump in the shoulder area, while buffalo do not.
  • Horns: Bison have short, sharp horns. Buffalo have long (up to 6 feet!) arced horns.
  • Beard: Bison have a thick beard. Buffalo are beardless.

American West Herbivores In The 1800s

Other herbivores seen along the westward expansion trails were antelope, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain goats, and moose. Smaller mammals such as prairie dogs and jackrabbits were also abundant along the trail.

Big Animals That Ate The Little Animals

As you can imagine, these prey animals were bound to attract carnivores or predators such as wolves, bears, jaguars, mountain lions, and coyotes. North America’s only big cat, jaguars, were plentiful during the mid to late 1800s, roaming throughout much of Arizona and New Mexico, even as far north as the Grand Canyon.

Pioneer journals are full of encounters with thieving coyotes and tales of being kept up at night by the howls of nearby wolves.

What Birds Did The Pioneers See?

Trail goers also had the company of birds as they traveled west – from bald eagles to hawks to songbirds. Birds were a heartening sight while walking or riding around scenery that never seemed to change. They were also a way to find eggs that could be used for food along the trail.

Trail Wildlife In Rivers, Lakes & Streams

Westward emigrants would fish for extra food when fording rivers or stopping near other water sources. There were many different types of fish, some more common than others, such as salmon, trout, catfish, and codfish.

After Sarah Sutton (1854) annoyed her fishing husband so much at their stop at the Bear River in Idaho, she made her own fishing line with thread and a pin hook and beat his catch in very little time.

Come See Our Elephant In Elko

The animals found along the California Trail were essential for the survival of the early American pioneers. We invite you to learn more about the native wildlife these emigrants saw, feared, and ate, along with the story about our elephant exhibit in Elko, NV. Contact us at the California Trail Interpretive Center today to check upcoming activities and plan your next trip.

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