California Trail.This historic highway ran from the Missouri river to the Pacific coast. From the time of the first rush incident to the California gold discoveries, up to about 1850, the bulk of travel for those remote sections passed over the Oregon trail (q. v.) which had its start from Independence, Mo. Before this travel had begun to subside this old highway had lost much of its identity, and to the generation then using it was better known as the "California trail." On the completion of the new military road considerably shortening the distance between Fort Leavenworth and Salt Lake, travel for Oregon, Utah and California begun starting from Fort Leavenworth and St. Joseph, Mo., practically deserting the Oregon trail. From early days Fort Leavenworth had been an important distributing point, much freight being hauled from there to other military posts on the frontier. During the early '50s, St. Joseph developed into an important outfitting point. Shortly after the admission of Kansas, Atchison and Leavenworth immediately sprung into prominence, their geographical location on the west bank of the Missouri river militating against the successful competition of any Missouri towns.
The Independence branch (Oregon road) entered the state in Johnson county, followed the Santa Fe trail to a point near Gardner, where the trails divided, the California (Oregon) trail turning north, entering Douglas county and passing through the old town of Franklin, the sites of the present towns of Eudora and Lawrence, the old town of Marshall, and entering Shawnee county; thence west on the divide south of the Kansas river, past the site of the present village of Tecumseh to Papan's ferry on the Kansas river, now in the city of Topeka. At this point the road divided, the Oregon trail crossing the river and the California road following west along the south side past the old Baptist Indian Mission, to the only rock bottom ford on the river at Uniontown. From there the road crossed to the north side of the river, passed up the stream through St. Mary's mission to Cross creek, thence in a northerly direction to the crossings of the Big and Little Blue rivers, thence up the divide in a northwesterly direction to the Platte river. The road from St. Joseph west ran through what is now Wathena and Troy in Doniphan county, and intersected the military road at a point on the Kickapoo reservation. In 1849 Capt. Howard Stanbury surveyed for the government a route from Fort Leavenworth to Salt Lake. Discovering a more practicable crossing of the Blue river at a point 6 miles higher up stream than the old "Independence," "Mormon" or "California" crossing, the road was changed. By 1851-52 the upper road had become the popular one, and Frank J. Marshall, an Indian trader who had located at the lower crossing in 1846, operating a ferry, moved to the new location. In 1852 Marshall was operating a store, postoffice, eating-house, saloon and ferry. A California-bound pilgrim of that year, in describing Marshall's place said: "Here for a dollar one could get a cup of bad coffee, a slice of bacon and a portion of hard bread. For the same price one could get a drink of bad whisky. For the same amount he would carry a letter to St. Joseph and place it in the postoffice there. His ferry charges were $5 for wagons and $1 each for men and beasts." Marshall conducted this place until 1856, when he sold out to the Palmetto colony from South Carolina.
From the early '60s until the Union Pacific railroad superseded the stage coach and the wagon trains, it is probable that the bulk of travel westward was by way of Atchison and Leavenworth over the California road. Besides having good steamboat landings the first of these cities was about 15 miles nearer than St. Joseph.
The California trail was about 2,000 miles long, of which 125 miles were in Kansas. A number of short trails marked "California roads" are shown on the early Kansas surveys. The most notable of these was the Fayetteville emigrant trail (q. v.), but they were all merely "feeders" of the original trail. In 1855 the territorial legislature passed number of acts making certain roads or portions of roads public highways. Six of these acts refer to portions of the California trail.
Many hardships were endured by the early pioneers and freighters who went over this trail. During the Oregon and Utah emigration the travel was attended with a great mortality, and during the period of the California gold excitement it is said that the mortality was as great as 10 per cent. Ezra Meeker, the Oregon pioneer, has placed it at this figure, which some authorities are inclined to think is too low. One writer has said that at least 5,000 emigrants died along the trail in 1849-50, and that the graves of these unfortunates were soon dug into by coyotes and the corpses torn to pieces.Pages 271-272 from volume I of Kansas: a cyclopedia of state history, embracing events, institutions, industries, counties, cities, towns, prominent persons, etc. ... / with a supplementary volume devoted to selected personal history and reminiscence. Standard Pub. Co. Chicago : 1912. 3 v. in 4. : front., ill., ports.; 28 cm. Vols. I-II edited by Frank W. Blackmar. Transcribed May 2002 by Carolyn Ward.
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