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The California Trail

The History and Legacy of the 19th Century Routes That Led Americans to the Golden State
Narrated by: Colin Fluxman
Length: 1 hr and 47 mins
Categories: History, American

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Publisher's Summary

The Lewis and Clark expedition, notwithstanding its merits as a feat of exploration, was also the first tentative claim on the vast interior and the western seaboard of North America by the United States. It set in motion the great movement west that began almost immediately with the first commercial overland expedition funded by John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and would continue with the establishment of the Oregon Trail and California Trail. 

The westward movement of Americans in the 19th century was one of the largest and most consequential migrations in history, and among the paths that blazed west, the California Trail was one of the most well-known. The trail was not a single road but a network of paths that began at several “jumping off” points. 

As it so happened, the paths were being formalized and coming into use right around the time gold was discovered in the lands that became California in January 1848. Located thousands of miles away from the country’s power centers on the East Coast at the time, the announcement came a month before the Mexican-American War had ended, and among the very few Americans that were near the region at the time, many of them were army soldiers who were participating in the war and garrisoned there. San Francisco was still best known for being a Spanish military and missionary outpost during the colonial era, and only a few hundred called it home. Mexico’s independence, and its possession of those lands, had come only a generation earlier.

At the same time, the journey itself was fraught with risk. It’s easy for people with modern transportation to comfortably reminisce about the West, but many pioneers discovered that the traveling came with various kinds of obstacles and danger, including bitter weather, potentially deadly illnesses, and hostile Native Americans, not to mention an unforgiving landscape that famous American explorer Stephen Long deemed “unfit for human habitation”. Nineteenth-century Americans were all too happy and eager for the transcontinental railroad to help speed their passage west and render overland paths obsolete.

One of the main reasons people yearned for new forms of transportation was because of the most notorious and tragic disaster in the history of westward travel. While people still romanticize the Wild West, many Americans are also familiar with the fate of the Donner Party, a group of 87 to 90 people heading for California who met with disaster in the Sierra Nevada mountain range during the winter of 1846-1847. The party knew the journey would take months, but early snowfalls in the mountains left dozens of people trapped in snow drifts that measured several feet, stranding them in a manner that made it virtually impossible for them to go any further for several weeks. The plight of the Donner Party made news across the nation, even before the surviving members were rescued and brought to safety, and by the time the doomed expedition was over, less than 50 of them made it to California. As writer Ethan Rarick summed it up, “More than the gleaming heroism or sullied villainy, the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous."

The California Trail: The History and Legacy of the 19th Century Routes That Led Americans to the Golden State examines how the various paths were forged, the people most responsible for them, and the most famous events associated with the trail’s history. You will learn about the California Trail like never before.

©2019 Charles River Editors (P)2019 Charles River Editors

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