History Pages: 8 - The Wagon Trains

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The frontiersmen came to California on foot and/or on horseback. Many of the earliest were hunters/trappers, but others were explorers like Lewis & Clark, Jedediah Smith, and Benjamin Bonneville, who mapped their routes so that others could follow. By 1840, wagon trains began to follow those routes all the way to the West Coast - to the north of California, so the main route became known as the Oregon Trail. Some, after reaching the western Columbia River settlements, turned south to California. The Vardamon Bennett family came by that route in 1843, and some family members ended up in what is now Santa Cruz County. The future wife of John Hames was in that party, and may have met John on that journey.

Others sought shorter routes to California and, in 1841, the Bartleson-Bidwell party became the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada into California's Central Valley. Dozens of other wagon trains followed over the next ten years or so, over a number of different routes. The most famous of these was the ill-fated 1846 Donner Party, which didn't make it over the pass before an early winter set in. Martha "Patty" Reed, nine-years old at the time, survived to become a Santa Cruz and Capitola resident. Local writer James D. Houston told the Donner Party story in his novel Snow Mountain Passage (2001).

Other routes were found to be equally dangerous, but for different reasons. The John Arcan family narrowly survived a trip through the heat of Death Valley. They may have been part of a party whose survivors' descendants now call themselves the "Death Valley '49ers".

Immigration to California peaked during the 1848-50 Gold Rush, but many gold seekers decided that overland travel was too slow, and came instead to San Francisco by sea.

Next: History Pages: 9 - Bear Flag Revolt