Early Days of California and the Westward Movement

Before the discovery of gold in California few outsiders came here. In very early times, European explorers arrived in the sixteenth century. Earliest explorers thought California was an island. Spain’s Juan Cabrillo in 1542 sighted the coast of, then Alta California. England’s Francis Drake scouted California in 1579. Russian ship captains seeking provisions for their Bering Sea fur hunters landed near San Francisco Bay. During this time California and the West belonged to the Native Americans. They lived in tribes and spoke many different languages. Newcomers began arriving and called the different Native Americans by a single name—Indians. They would change California and the lives of the first inhabitants forever.

The Spanish monarchy in the late eighteenth century began colonizing California lead by Father Junipero Serra and his group of Franciscans. They built a chain of missions from San Diego (south) to Sonoma (north). This included four presidios (forts) at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco, which were used as barracks by the Spanish army to protect the missions. Small areas called pueblos were set up as individual towns. The Native Americans living here were encouraged to work and practice the Spanish religions. The mission system went into decline when Mexico rejected Spanish control in about 1820 and Mexico’s independence resulted in taking over California to govern by their law and customs.

In 1834 a young law student, Richard Dana, sailed from Boston to California, by way of Cape Horn.  Six years later he published an account of his experiences, “Two Years before the Mast”, which created a great deal of interest in California for many Easterners. He described California as having beautiful land with mountains, pleasant sunny weather and a lack of people. Those that were here did not seem to understand the great potential of the region according to Dana. At this time in the East, America was a land of farmers and each generation needed more land.  Many farmers were having hard economic times and always looked west for new land and the next frontier. Other writers published ideas of westward expansion founded on the idea that it was our God given right to expand our country. Westward expansion became an idea of the 1840s that grew into what became the Manifest Destiny.

In 1844 President Polk was elected on a promise of major land expansion of the western frontiers. Polk worked with England to obtain a major portion of the Oregon territory and he tried to buy California from Mexico. The United States annexed Texas in 1845 under Mexican protests. To resolve these issues the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846 and ended about the time the Gold Rush was beginning in California in January 1848. At this time, the United States claimed almost all the West. The Louisiana Purchase, the annexation of Texas and Oregon and the war with Mexico had expanded the boundaries of the United States from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.  Although the United States now spanned two oceans, the west was a big unknown.

The American frontier moved west in slow stages after the American Revolution.  Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific in the first decade of the new century in 1805. The thirteen states showed little interest in setting out across the uncharted wilderness for the Pacific Northwest. The first settlers to reach Oregon arrived in 1836. By 1840 the route west was well known. The Bartleson-Bidwell party became the first emigrants to reach California.  Two hundred settlers came west on the Oregon/California Trail in 1842, a thousand in 1843, five thousand in 1845.  After gold was discovered, travel west exploded. More than 30,000 came west in 1849, peaking at 55,000 in 1850.  By 1857, 165,000 had crossed the continent overland. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, 350,000 emigrants had journeyed west on the Oregon/California Trail. The railroads gradually took over, but wagon trains continued to roll out of Missouri every May for 20 years after 1869. The Oregon/California Trail began at Independence, Missouri and other Missouri River towns. Routes to California cut off from the Oregon Trail at several places west of the South Pass. It was possible to reach California by routes either north or south of the Great Salt Lake. Most chose the southern route and all routes came together to follow the Humboldt River until it disappeared into the desert in present-day Nevada. A murderous desert crossing then brought the settlers to the high country passes through the Sierra Nevada to California.

Things changed dramatically when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 tying Sacramento to Omaha. The time to cross the United States was reduced from typically six months to just one week, setting the state for rapid western expansion.

For more information, order CHISPA, Special Edition, February, 1996, “The Walker River-Sonora Crossing, The Story of the 1852-1853 Emigrant Trail Into California”.