The California Trail: A Tangible History
Tracing the historic route through the farms and small towns of Idaho.
Photography courtesy Oregon Trail Center
The dusty SUV, two skeletal bikes strapped to its roof and pulling a U-Haul embellished with a florid celebration of a Midwestern state, cannonballs west on Interstate 86, an hour out of Twin Falls. One imagines a young couple, leaving Midwestern entropy in their rearview mirror, aiming for the Chardonnay chic neighborhoods of Portland or Silicon’s money trees or the pacific civility of Sacramento. Goodbye to the slush and dormant rust belts “back there.”
Passing over a scrawny Idaho stream identified by a sign as the “Raft River,” they probably pay little attention, or, if they do, idly wonder how a creek was elevated to river status. It is, after all, a trickle that would snag the most modest raft. But the menial stream passing beneath the interstate symbolizes a momentous departure point in American history.
More than a century and a half ago, before there was an Idaho, this area straddled a vague border between Mexico and the Oregon Territory. And at this unremarkable juncture of the measly Raft and the epic Snake, a great flood began. A flood of humanity . . . one of the largest voluntary migrations of people in our nation’s history. With gold and sunshine and renewal on their minds, tens of thousands veered off the original Oregon Trail and started along the Raft River . . . riding or walking alongside the stream . . . on their journey toward California. They were yeomen of a young America, some with wives and children or extended family, along with a rambunctious polyglot of awestruck immigrants. Not to mention the inevitable Western contingent of charlatans and bamboozlers and rank opportunists.
Left: A mormon emigrant wagon family Right: Wagon stuck in the marsh
The California Trail began here, just north of the overpass. It was not for the meek or indecisive. My wife’s great-grandfather, August Schuckman, a good burgher from Germany, made the left turn here in 1853 for a better life, certainly better than dressing up in an outlandish costume to serve as cannon fodder in yet another grinding European war between dim-witted monarchs. August was not a violent man. But the California Trail could be a life or death endeavor. At one point, August and the other men in his train debated whether to shoot or hang their venal wagon master. He got the message.
The California Trail, only a few hours from Sun Valley, is tangible history. You can follow wagon ruts through farms and small towns and the most formidable desert. You can take water from the same natural springs that gave succor to the travelers and their beasts. On a chill morning at the old Jimmy Stewart ranch you can see steam rising from hot springs where the travelers washed clothes. You can read their autographs, scrawled in grease and tar onto rocks alongside the trail.
You can see their graves . . . three at the juncture of the Raft and Snake.
They began heading west around 1840, a decade or so after Western expansion stalled. The eastern third of the nation, covered by trees and forests, was settled. But the land to the west seemed flat and treeless. Unwelcoming. The conventional wisdom in Washington seemed to be, “forget it, let the natives deal with it.” But Americans are inherently restless. A lot of the 17 million people “jammed” into the United States in 1840 wanted more elbow room. More opportunities. So over the next 30 years at least 200,000 people journeyed across the trail and its numerous shortcuts to California . . . for the land and the gold.
They occasionally battled Indians, suffered thirst and scurvy, hunger and cholera. Along the way, children were born and old folks died. Accidents, particularly with firearms, were many and frequently fatal. But they labored for 18 miles or so a day, for four grueling months. From Independence, Missouri, or some other Midwestern trail head, they trudged alongside their creaky, overburdened wagons and underfed oxen.
Always looming ahead of them was a nonnegotiable deadline: winter in the Sierra. They had to clear the mountains just west of what is now Reno, Nevada, before the heavy snow. The path they took now bears a chilling name: Donner. The Donner party, which gave new meaning to the word hunger, has grown to symbolize the unspeakable fate of those who tarried or fell behind.
But here, at the Snake and Raft, it seemed tranquil. They headed south along what the maps now call Cassia Creek, past the current hamlets of Elba and Almo. It was comfortable, with fresh water and grass . . . much as it is today. Many travelers hit this area in August. It was hot, but the nights seemed cool.
“…we camped for the night on the . . . raft river grass is fine and our cattel are improving their opportunity by laying into it lustily some of the pike county boys paid us a visit to night they brout a fiddler along with them and we all had a sociable dance amonst ourselves. Dictanc to day 14 miles . . . ” Joseph Hackney 1849
Just south of Almo the travelers encountered one of the most remarkable sights of their voyage . . . the City of Rocks. The diaries, and there are many, reflect their wonderment at the massive granite stones rising abruptly from the earth. One pinnacle is 60 stories tall. One pair of rocks, side by side, became known as the Twin Sisters. One is 2.5 billion years old; the other 25 million years old.
To the travelers, they were awe-inspiring. Thomas Christy described them as “decayed casels and lofty steeples.” Another diarist said they could be interpreted as anything from “the Capitol at Washington to a lowly thatched cottage.”
“ . . . there were sphinxes and statues . . . haystacks and wigwams and castles, and towers, and cones and projecting turrets and canopies, and leaning columns, and so throughout a thousand varieties of fantastic shapes . . . ” Bernard J. Reid, 1849
The stones were irresistible as canvases for early-day graffiti. People scrawled their names. Their hometowns. They named rocks.
“NAPOLEON’S CASTLE.” “CITY HOTEL.”
The City of Rocks, even to today’s worldly travelers, is an unforgettable experience. Rock climbers come from the Wood River Valley, and around the world, to challenge the granite. But the area itself hardly has avoided the historical mountebanks.
Just outside the City of Rocks is the hamlet of Almo, where next to the little grade school is a striking, 6-foot stone monument, in the outline of Idaho. It bears a dedication to “the memory of those who lost their lives in a horrible Indian massacre (in) 1861.Three hundred immigrants westbound. Only five escaped.” There is a gripping and horrific description of the slaughter. It is so ghastly that it evokes prayers from the most hardened traveler.
But there is a problem. The event is a fabrication. It never took place. There is absolutely no credible, contemporaneous record of the event . . . which apparently was created out of whole cloth in 1927 by local boosters to generate buzz for naming the City of Rocks a national monument.
The calumny against the Indians is now part of the popular history.
Pushing west from the City of Rocks, the wagons . . . from a distance appearing as little white dots slowly moving across a dramatic monochromatic landscape . . . descended down the terrifying Granite Pass into hard desert, traveling along Goose Creek and Thousand Springs Creek towards today’s Nevada desert.
If the Cassia Creek area had been gentle, this land quickly became punishing. It is remote, desolate cow country. Even the bovines appear wary of their environment . . . stark, pungent with the aroma of sagebrush, inherently malicious. There is the occasional bluebird and golden eagle, and off in the distance, the slinking coyote, wary of a newcomer.
“…the dust (here) is extremely tormenting. Much of it has a lime-like appearance, taste & smell and is very injurious to the skin—chapping the hands & face very much . . . ” William Renfro Rothwell, 1850
While water was a constant concern, so was fresh food. The wagons set out from the Midwest carrying anywhere from 1,600 and 2,500 pounds of food and supplies, from firearms to forks. But the trip was hardly a culinary delight. The daily menu of an emigrant was “for breakfast, coffee, bacon . . . bread; for dinner, coffee, cold beans, bacon or buffalo meat; for supper, tea, boiled rice and dried beef or codfish.”
One woman diarist told of her hungry children coming home from a hunt with freshly dressed meat they told her was squirrel. She knew they were desert rats and the children were attempting to spare her the horror of knowingly eating the rodents. But she played along with the boys.
They all needed the meat.
The wagons frequently carried priceless family heirlooms: china and silver and chairs and spinning wheels; dresses and books and mirrors—symbols of civilization crushed into a covered wagon lurching toward a place with little or no civilization. As wagons mired in the desert, as oxen died and tempers frayed, families would frequently jettison beloved objects, one after another, to keep moving forward. The diaries speak to the remarkable array of objects strung along the trail, particularly toward the end of the desert.
The obstacles seem enormous. Endless. At one point, in Thousand Springs Valley, the trail itself becomes a deep gash in the earth. The wagon wheels sank deep into the crusty sand and then eventually dug a trench into the earth between the ruts. That trail section is 7 feet deep, 50 feet wide and over one mile long.
But just when the landscape seems unrelentingly cruel, one comes across a remarkable gift. Turning a corner, the road crosses a stream. And then, off to the side, at the base of a tall, flat face of rocks, is a spring. Rock Spring. Another place well recorded in the diaries. For better and worse.
“…this spring issues from the foot of a cliff on rocks on the right, and running a few rods across the road to the left, loses itself in the sand. It is a beautiful spring and the water very tolerable tho’ nearly milk warm…”
Elijah Preston Howell 1849
Again, you find yourself in a kind of communion with the travelers. They were here, crouched over the pool and stream, taking water, splashing their dusty faces—relishing a sudden burst of comfort in a place alien to comforts.
“. . . there were nine small trains from three to seven wagons each camped near us, stuck around in the shape of a half circle. Women were singing, children were laughing, and infants were crying. The camp fires were giving out a cheerful light. All seemed to forget that we were in the wilderness and in the limits of a savage tribe of Indians . . . ” Ephriam Brandriff, 1852
Not all the memories were as pleasant.
“ . . . Camped at Rock Spring. Water is good. Found the body of a buck Indian, who had six holes in the side of his head. We supposed that he was to steal horses from a train. This is my night to guard and I will say that between the hungry cattle and the smell of the Indian, made it anything but pleasant…” Patrick Henry Murphy, 1854
The wagons rocked and dipped across the desert, heading for what we know as the Humboldt River in Nevada. At Route 93, just south of the Idaho line and the gambling town of Jackpot, is the Wine Cup Ranch, once owned by Jimmy Stewart. Approaching it on a chilly morning one could see from miles away what appeared to be white smoke rising into the air. But it was steam. From a hot springs. And near the hot springs is a cold springs.
“ . . . this morning we . . . soon came springs that were boiling hot. Only five feet from them was another as cold as ice. Here were men engaged in washing their clothing . . . after washing a garment in the boiling springs, they could take it by the waistband and flight it across into the cold spring . . . with perfect ease…” Margaret Frink, 1850
John Koon was in a wagon train that hit the hot and cold springs on July 4. “ . . . We had a publick dinner, and for our dainties we had a box or two of Sardeans. The balance of the dinner was flap jacks and old ned or bacon. We had several short speeches and Toasts, and in that way we spent a happy 4th. About 1500 miles from our friends and our homes.”
Ultimately, it is the images of these people that stay with you. You sit on a rock next to the ruts and imagine a train struggling by. The wagons creak. The oxen complain. The people are dusty, haggard, anxious. But resolute. There is no government that will rescue them from ineptness or bad luck. They are a mobile community, entirely self-supporting, braving hostile ground. Ultimately, supporting one another.
One morning on this desert, a wagon train pulled out for the day, but halted when someone noticed behind them a dust trail. A horse and rider were closing rapidly on the train. Up rode an exhausted woman clinging to a horse nearing collapse. Dangling from the pommel of her saddle were empty canteens. She had ridden alone, through the night, to reach a train. Any train. Her husband was sick and her child perilously ill.
They were traveling alone, eight hours back. She needed water if husband and child were to survive. The wagon families pooled their resources and filled her canteens. They exchanged a fresh horse for her depleted one, and offered the woman rest. She declined and saddled up. After again conveying her thanks, she wheeled around and raced back into the lonely desert.
Did she reach the wagon? Did the husband, the child, prevail? We’ll never know. But one hopes that somewhere out here in the West, at a family dinner, a group of people raise a glass to a long gone ancestor, a great-grandmother, who as a young woman rode through the desolate desert night to save her husband and child. On the California Trail.
Van Gordon Sauter, a resident of Gimlet for nearly 20 years, was president of CBS News and Fox News. He was also chairman of the California Boxing Commission.