Turning Stones ~ George McKale

George McKale George McKale is a practicing archaeologist and Sonoma’s City Historian. He has excavated throughout California ranging from Native American sites thousands of years old to Gold Rush era locations. His passion and specialty in archaeology is the study of human remains.


On the California Trail

Posted on November 29, 2012 by George McKale

As westward expansion began to creep into Mexican territory by the mid 1840’s, men, women and children made their way west across the country, hoping for a new beginning in California.  Truth be told, in the early years, westward expansion on the California Trail was a man’s endeavor. Wives and children often remained home until the man of the family established a new home in the western frontier. Some who made the journey, worked their way right past Sacramento, and on into Sonoma.  For most, a new beginning came with a great price.

Generally, at least one person perished along the way with each traveling group. Causes of death along the Oregon-California-Mormon Trails, between 1847 and 1869, include “cholera, indian attacks, freezing, run-overs, drownings, shootings, and scurvy.”  Other casualties mention lightning strikes, childbirth, snake bites, falling trees and wagon mis-haps.

The 2,000-mile California Trail extended from various Missouri River towns, following the mighty valleys of the Platte, North Platte and Sweetwater Rivers.  There were several routes the intrepid explorers might take once reaching Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. The California Trail wound its way to present day Wells, Nevada where followers found the Humboldt River.  They followed the Humboldt until reaching the Truckee, which led to the Carson Range and Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada was the last big obstacle before reaching the gold fields in the eastern foothills.

In the 1840’s a typical wage for an honest days work was $1.00.  Unless one got a job on the trail, guarding livestock or driving wagons, most could not afford the six-month excursion.  Food for a family of four averaged about $150, and the cost of other supplies could far exceed $500 for the trip.  Most who made the journey were farmers who had saved enough money to finally make the journey in hopes of finding greener pastures on the other side.

The travelers augmented their food supply by hunting along the way.  Antelope, deer, elk, buffalo, trout, elk, bear, ducks and geese, were prized as they provided something different than beans, coffee, ham and biscuits. Fires were started at each camp and a healthy supply of buffalo chips, collected and dried along the way, made great fire starters.

For my younger readers, buffalo chips did not come in sour cream and onion varieties.

One of the most infamous groups heading west to California was the Donner Party.  The group included 87 souls, of which only 48 survived. The group was encouraged to attempt a reportedly faster route through Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. They planned to make it to California in September, but arrived in the Sierra Nevada in early November. Eliza Donner, age three, survived the ordeal, arriving in Sonoma in 1847.

Prior to the Gold Rush, 2,735 individuals made their way to California via the trail. Once word of gold made headlines worldwide, over 200,000 immigrants made their way into the golden state between 1849 and 1860.  Some arrived in Sonoma, but thank goodness greener pastures could be found throughout the state, keeping our little treasure just the right size.

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