Before we had the “Old West” or the “Wild West,” American pioneers and immigrants had to actually start moving, well… West. Land, gold, trade, and religious freedom were some of the many motivations driving individuals, families, and groups to brave a journey into what we know today as Utah, Oregon, Colorado, Montana, and California.
Learn more about the many important overland trails created as a part of this westward expansion from the California Trail Interpretive Center.
Who, Where & When?
The westward expansion trails across America took form throughout the 19th century. Before this, the primary means of travel were by boat or train. An estimated 500,000 emigrants traveled the Oregon, Mormon, and California Trails between 1843 and 1869.
More southerly routes helped travelers avoid the frigid winters, but no path was effortless or peril-free. Close to 1 in 10 travelers, or 50,000 people, never made it to their journey’s end.
- The Santa Fe Trail – From Santa Fe, New Mexico to Chihuahua. Pioneered by William Becknell in 1821.
- The Old Spanish Trail – From Sante Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles. California. Used between 1830 and 1848.
- The Oregon Trail – From Independence, Missouri to the Oregon Territory. This route crossed the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and the northern Great Basin. It was the longest of the overland routes west. First traveled by Marcus Whitman and 900 colonists in 1843, called the Great Migration.
- The California Trail – From Fort Hall to Sutters Fort. Stretched southwest through present-day Nevada, along the Humboldt River, and to the Sierra Nevadas. 250,000 49ers used this trail heavily during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s and 50s.
- The Mormon Trail – Stretched 1,300 miles from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah. Created by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called “Mormons,” in response to religious persecution.
- Siskiyou Trail – Ran from Oregon to California. Used during the California Gold Rush.
- The Southern Emigrant Trail – From Cooke’s Spring to Los Angeles, California. Used heavily by immigrants from the eastern United States to California and during the California Gold Rush. This route was open year-round to pioneer wagons. Instead of snow, travelers had to deal with high summer temperatures and a lack of water.
The Birth of America’s Pioneering Spirit
Although the trip was anything but a fun time, many of the challenges faced by westward travelers still capture our attention today. Knowing more about some of these facts can make a big impression and remind us of the ones that came before to make our country what it is today.
- Most travelers headed towards Oregon and California used ox or mule pulled covered wagons.
- Some LDS emigrants made a move to Utah using handcarts.
- Temperatures on the trails could fluctuate from ninety degrees during the day to the low 40s at night.
- Where trees were scarce, buffalo chips were a popular source of fuel.
- People moving west across the Arkansas Valley disrupted bison grazing habits, contributing to the Comanche peoples’ decline in that area.
You’re Invited West
Stop by and see us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV, where we bring the westward expansion story to life. Hear the stories, explore exhibits, and participate in immersive events that show you how people lived and traveled on their chosen trails west.