When 3,000 miles is a simple two-day car trip with stops, the trek many western expansion pioneers made across the United States in the mid-1800s might not seem like such a big deal. At the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, we’ve put together a few ideas to help you really think about how you would fare if you had traveled the California Trail.

Not Your Typical Road Trip

The average journey across half of the United States took close to six months. Instead of picking up what you forgot along with a few snacks at a gas station and pit stops at comfortable hotels, you’d have to settle for what you could find at the next fort, which could be weeks away. In between, all you had is what you could carry on your back or in your wagon.

You also couldn’t just pull over and wait for a rainstorm, windstorm, or snowstorm to pass you by. Although travelers quickly learned to time trips to miss the worst of the winter, you, your herds, and your family would’ve been exposed to all kinds of weather before reaching California.

They Ate What?

Imagine your favorite food. Now imagine eating it every day for 5 months. Would it still be your favorite? Emigrants needed to bring enough food with them to last at least 5 months! What kinds of food do you think they brought? How did they preserve it for that long?

Emigrants did not have access to ice or refrigerators to keep their food fresh. They relied on natural preservatives, like salt and dehydration, for their food to last months on the trail. Many pioneers brought cows, chickens, and other animals with them for milk, eggs, and sometimes meat.

  • Bacon
  • Flour Or Hard Bread
  • Sugar
  • Coffee & Tea
  • Dried Vegetables
  • Citric Acid
  • Saleratus (Baking Soda)
  • Salt & Pepper

Entertainment On The Trail

There was no internet in the 1840s. Instead of having access to phone apps, video games, and movies, kids on the trail had to entertain themselves with simple toys and games made out of rocks, wood, rope, and scraps of cloth.

  • Rolling The Hoop
  • Skipping
  • Leap Frog
  • Shadow Tag
  • Ducks Fly — Similar To Simon Says
  • Poor Doggie
  • Who Has The Button

Medicine Before, Well, Actual Medicine

Even though the chances were high of suffering anything from frostbite and food poisoning to smallpox, scarlet fever, cholera, and measles, there weren’t many doctors on the California Trail. Since medicine wasn’t regulated, almost anyone could call themselves a doctor back then. We also didn’t have antibiotics yet (they weren’t discovered until the 1920s and in wide use until the 1940s). If you got sick or hurt, you would most likely be treated with some type of folk remedy.

  • Ipecac — To induce vomiting.
  • Calomel — To cleanse the system. Also caused teeth to fall out.
  • Steam Baths & Freezing Baths
  • The Draining Of “Bad” Blood
  • Opium, Cocaine & Alcohol
  • Herbal Remedies Known To Work On Cattle
  • Salves & Liniments

“Carry then your patient into the passage between the two cabins—strip off all his clothes that he may lie naked in the cold air and upon a bare sacking—and then and there pour over and upon him successive buckets of cold spring water, and continue until he has a decided and pretty powerful smart chance of a shake.” — Treatment For Malaria On The Frontier

Could You Do It?

If you were banished from your cold, starving traveling group for murder when you were only trying to protect yourself, would you rather get away from those people as fast as possible or do everything you could to go back and bring help? If you had to leave two of your children behind in order to save the rest, could you do it? These are real-life challenges James Reed and Margaret Reed had to make as a part of the Donner-Reed party.

Could you empty your handcart full of belonging to make room for fellow travelers who were too sick or weak to walk? Would you volunteer to stay with discarded property to protect it while other emigrants were rescued, not knowing how long it would be until anyone returned? When traveling the Mormon Trail, the Martin Handcart Company had to dump property in order to be rescued, so 19 men stayed all winter long at Devil’s Gate to guard what was left behind.

Learn More At The California Trail Center

These are just a few of the challenges and decisions faced by travelers along the California Trail. Stop by the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV, to participate in activities and view exhibits that bring this early American history to life for learners of all ages. Contact us to plan your trip and get the latest information on available visit activities.

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