FInding the way

The 69 men, women, and children who joined the first emigrant wagon train to set out across the Kansas prairie knew where they were going: to California, some 2,000 miles away. And they knew how they would get there: they would go west until they arrived. It was an elegant plan; but the devil, as they say, was in the details. In May 1841, no wagon roads to Oregon or California yet existed. There were only long-distance Indian footpaths worn deeper by fur trade traffic following the Platte River towards The Rocky Mountains.

No member of the emigrant party knew the route, and no useful government map or published guidebook was available to advise tenderfoot travelers along the way. On top of all that, these American emigrants would be trespassers in much of the country to be crossed and illegal squatters on the land they planned to settle, for nothing west of the Continental Divide was American soil. Mexico claimed the Southwest, the U.S. and Great Britain disputed the Oregon Country, and American Indian peoples- nations, really, with distinctive languages and cultures—occupied and controlled the region. Yet the members of the “Western Emigration Society,” as these pioneers called themselves, were determined to go overland to California and confident they would get there.

No one of the party knew anything about mountaineering and scarcely anyone had ever been into the Indian Territory, yet a large majority felt that we were fully competent to go anywhere no matter what the difficulties might be or how numerous and warlike the Indians.

—John Bidwell, 1841 California emigration

What these greenhorns lacked in good sense they made up in good fortune. Near the start of their trip, just a few days west of Independence, Missouri, they met up with Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. The famed mountain man was guiding a company of missionaries bound for the Pacific Northwest, but he agreed to take the emigrants along through the Rocky Mountains. “And it was well that [he] did, ” recalled pioneer john Bidwell years later, “for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because I of our inexperience.”

Fitzpatrick led the combined company up Nebraska's Platte River, through the Rockies and across the Continental Divide at South Pass, Wyoming, and into today's Idaho southeast of present-day Montpelier. The party then followed the flow of the Bear River northwestward past Soda Springs to Sheep Rock, where the river curls around the north end of the Wasatch Mountains and turns back to the south. There, Fitzpatrick's party prepared to split up: the missionaries and their guide would continue to the Northwest by way of Fort Hall, a Hudson's Bay Company fur trade post, and the settlers would turn, pilotless, toward California.

. . .there was no road for us to follow, nothing was known of the country, and we had nothing to guide us, and so [Fitzpatrick] advised us to give up the California project. He thought it was doubtful we ever got there; we might get caught in the snow of the mountains and perish there, and he considered it very hazardous to attempt it.

—Josiah Belden, 1841 California emigration

Fitzpatrick believed the inexperienced emigrants were foolish to blunder into the unmapped interior on their own. He persuaded about half of them to give up their California dreams and follow the Snake and Columbia Rivers to Oregon, instead. The other 34 determined emigrants (including a woman and infant) spurned the mountain man’s sensible advice and turned their oxen south down the Bear River toward the Great Salt Lake. The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, as that group is now known, took the first wagons into northern Utah, but the trial-and-error trail they blazed down the Bear River, around the Great Salt Lake, and into Nevada was so difficult that few would attempt to follow in their track. Later California- bound travelers developed a network of better routes through southeastern Idaho.

We were now thrown entirely upon our own resources. All the country beyond was to us a veritable terra incognita, and we only knew that California lay to the west.

—John Bidwell, 1841 California emigration

But the other Western Emigration Society pioneers left their wagons at Fort Hall and continued with pack animals along the Snake River, as Fitzpatrick had advised. Their faint trace through the sagebrush would become the main emigrant route to Oregon, leading thousands of people west over the next 30 years.

As more wagons trickled and then flooded across the West, the track along the Snake River evolved into a wagon trail and finally a network of well-beaten roads that snaked around mountains and marshes, kept to high ground, and generally went wherever water and grass could be found. These roads were not rustic wagon-width versions of today’s paved highways, direct and efficient, with two lanes for traffic to follow in orderly single file. Rather, they were evolving, bustling, multi-lane, winding, spreading-out and drawing-in, free- for-all travel corridors with no rules of the road, constrained in their wanderings and widths only by geography and the locations of grass and water. They went wherever somebody thought he could drive a wagon, and they were developed by repeated use, rarely by engineers or work crews. Over the years, travelers developed a tangle of wagon trails through the basin and range country of southeastern Idaho and across the Snake River Plain as they sought out shorter, easier, or safer Ways west.

The Snake River route formed the spine of the combined Oregon and California Trails. To reach the river, westbound wagons first had to thread through the mountains of southeastern Idaho.