If you are interested in learning more about the California Trail through Nevada and California, there are many resources, though not all are easy to find. Here are some of the better ones:
The California Trail Interpretive Center outside Elko has a vast array of artifacts, research materials, maps, and even an actual section of the trail you can walk on. There are also living history events open to the public.
The James Beckwourth Museum in Portola, CA.
Donner Memorial State Park in Truckee
This is located on the actual site of the Donner Party’s disastrous stay in the snow. There is a campground, boat ramp, trails, and all sorts of modern recreational facilities, but the historically minded will want to check out the Visitor’s Center with its many displays and artifacts, as well as the monument, whose base is built to the height of the snow in the winter of 1846.
The Nevada Historical Society in Reno
While not technically a museum, the NHS has a variety of maps, books, and documents related to the California Trail, and also has rotating displays which often feature material related to this subject.
The Sparks Museum and Cultural Center
This museum is more focused on the railroad era and later, but it does have good materials on the California Trail, as well as extensive documentation of what replaced it. It is located in downtown Sparks and well worth a day or more of your time.
Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko
This is a largely unknown gem. It has vast collections and displays on many aspects of Nevada history, focusing on the area around Elko. This necessarily includes a lot of material on the California Trail. This also makes a good double-header visit with the California Trail Interpretive Center outside of town. I have visited a lot of local museums around the world, and this is one of the very best I’ve seen anywhere. That really makes it worth a visit!
Nevada State Library and Archives
The State Library and Archives are an amazing treasure for Nevadans, and they are local and free! Located in Carson City, the Library and Archives exist to provide research and storage services for the state government, but they also function as a treasure trove of documents, books, periodicals, maps, art, and artifacts for the citizens of Nevada. There are also professional research librarians and archivists there who can help you track down just about anything, including more California Trail information than you can shake a stick at!
Oregon and California Trails Association (OCTA)
This is the mother lode of California Trail organizations. The OCTA exists to “protect the Historic Emigrant Trails legacy by promoting research, education, preservation activities and public awareness of the trails, and to work with others to promote these causes.” It is a national organization with chapters in every state, including a California/Nevada chapter that is quite active. Their website is also rich with primary and secondary source materials as well as guides to trail sites from camp sites to grave sites. You will also find their white Carsonite trail markers all across the west, including in the Reno area, marking the carefully surveyed original trail routes.
Trails West, Inc. (AKA Emigrant Trails West)
Trails West is a local group in California and Nevada devoted to mapping and marking the 19th century emigrant trails. Their work is often complimentary to and in tandem with OCTA, but Trails West uses a unique steel marker make from a railroad rail, and attaches a plaque to each marker with a short quote from an emigrant diary about that site. Each marker is also numbered, so you can figure out where you are along the trail, which trail, and if you have a guidebook, find your way to the next marker. In our area, you are likely to see markers with a T for Truckee Trail or a B for Beckwourth Trail. The Truckee Trail markers start with marker T-1 near the Humboldt Sink, at the spot where the Carson Route and the Truckee Trail split off. Marker T-19 is at Steamboat Creek just as the trail comes into Reno/Sparks. If you want easy to spot markers, Marker T-21 is in Mayberry Park in West Reno, right where the Bike Path hits Aspen Glen Drive. You can drive almost right up to this marker, while many of them require serious hiking, especially as they go through wild areas of the Sierra Nevada. The Beckwourth Trail markers start with B-1 at the river in Sparks, B-2 directly in front of the Sparks Courthouse (it sits on the trail route!), and B-3, which is in front of Sunbelt Rentals, a mile west of TMCC. Markers B-4, B-5, and B-6 are all tucked away right next to gas stations, strip malls, and subdivisions along US 395 through Stead. Note that the rail always aligns with the trail route, so if you sight along the rail, you can see the direction to the previous or next marker.
National Park Service:
“Across Nevada: California National Historic Trail, Pony Express National Historic Trail” Driving Guide
National Emigrant Trails Downloadable Maps
There are many good histories of the California Trail in print. You can look at the TMCC Library, UNR Library, Washoe County Library, or any of the museums, libraries, and archives listed above. Arguably the best scholarly history is:
George R. Stewart, The California Trail, Bison Books, 1983.
Primary sources are harder to track down. Stewart’s book contains a good selection of primary source excerpts and trail maps. If you want more, here are some suggestions:
UC Berkeley Bancroft Library
The UCB Library has a number of rare primary sources that can only be viewed in person with permission. If you are in the area or know someone who is, it is will worth a search through the online catalog followed by an appointment and careful viewing of the original sources.
For those who want easier digital access, the library has digitized some sources, including a crucial diary from the Donner Party.
UNR Library Special Collections
The main UNR Library has an excellent collection of books on the trail, including primary and secondary sources. The Special Collections Department also has many documents, books, and images that you can search online or visit in person, and it is a lot closer and less fussy about access than the UC Berkeley Library!
Short Excerpts on the California Trail at Spartacus
Spartacus Educational is an online history website gear specifically toward teaching and learning. The site is based in the UK and definitely is left-leaning in its politics. The sources linked below are short, but make excellent conversation starters, or would be useful as sources for a research paper, or to lead to longer works.
Oregon and California Trails Association Primary Sources
The OCTA has quite a few primary trail sources, of varying usefulness. You can find them in the OCTA’s “Trail Stories” section:
One that is truly fascinating is the advice of a pioneer who tells people back east that California is just not worth the trip! His advice: Stay Home!
The Big One!
If you are interested in reading a complete narrative of an overland journey, including passage through what is now Northern Nevada, there are a number of books out there. You can buy reprints on Amazon, but some careful research can also lead you to free online version of 19th or early 20th century accounts.
Thomas Turnbull, Travels from the United States Across the Plains to California, Madison, WI, 1914.
Turnbull’s account is excellent. He left the Midwest in 1852—the peak year for trail traffic—so his account gives us a clear view of the trail after it was well developed with published guidebooks, two-way traffic and a series of trading posts and profiteers along the way. And as Turnbull’s diary makes clear, there were many hucksters tempting people to pay them for “shortcuts,” or swindling them by selling supplies at exorbitant prices. Turnbull’s diary is also unusual in that he took a little-used branch of the Mormon Trail in the middle of his journey, and this is one of the few diary accounts of that stretch of trail. Another key factor is that Turnbull wrote his original 97-page diary on the journey, then set it aside and never worked on it again. When his family turned it over to the Wisconsin Historical Society half a century later, it remained unaltered. So, we have a pure primary source here: Turnbull always wanted to go back and expand and “clean up” his diary, but never had the time. We are lucky he was so busy. The result is an immediate, unfiltered account of what he experienced in 1852, with no later events altering the perspective. It is extremely rare to find such a primary source in its unaltered state.
You can find the entire book for free here, and there is a study guide below:
There are many other sources out there. Research some of the sources above or ask your instructor!
You can also find a list of links to full-length primary sources here:
Henness Pass Road with the California Trail Crossing It (Trail on Right) Near Verdi
This is looking south, back down the canyon toward Verdi and I-80. You will completely miss this spot going up, unless you know exactly where to look. The emigrants headed for California, including the Donner Party, took the route of the single-track trail. They were not concerned with how steep the road ahead was, but how steep it was laterally: their wagons were top-heavy and could easily overturn. So, the trail snaked up the canyon, crossing the later Lincoln Highway (and today’s dirt forest road) several times usually, it is just a few yards right or left of the new road. Modern roadbuilders just cut away the hill to get it to be flatter in both axes: easy with modern technology, but impossible before the 20th century.