The California Trail
We all know, from textbooks, that life was hard for families traveling across the country in the mid 1800′s, but to drive across the same stretch of land that was once known as the California Trail puts the hardship into perspective – a big huge barren and dead perspective. On the one hand we’re driving at 75 mph (that’s the published speed) with a wireless internet connection and Nintendo. Outside is nothing but a waterless and harsh landscape that our ancestors, not too far removed, had to cross on foot or in a wagon while contending with limited water and a deadly climate. I stopped at a rest stop along the highway that I don’t think gets a lot of visitors and took a picture of the landscape and read a lonely looking sign that said this:
“Traveling Through Hell”
Look at the barren country south of here just beyond this Rest Stop. This is the Forty-Mile Desert – a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland. It was the single most dreaded section of the entire California Trail from the banks of the Missouri River to California. If possible, it was traveled by night to avoid the great heat during the day.
Regardless of its horrors, it became the accepted route. The trail splits three miles southeast of here into the two main trails to California – the Carson River and Truckee River routes. Each Route had its advantages and disadvantages, but both of them included a 40-mile-long stretch before water could be reached.
Starvation for men and animals stalked every mile. A survey made in 1850 showed these appalling statistics. 3061 dead mules, almost 5,000 horses, 3,750 cattle, and 953 graves. The then value of personal property loss was set at $1 million. When emigrants had crossed the Forty-Mile-Desert and lived to tell about it…. they had truly “seen the Elephant.” And as one diarist described. “We saw the Elephant and ate its tail.”
The heaviest traffic came from 1849 to 1859. The route was still being used by some travelers after completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869.
“Seeing the Elephant”
The expression “Seeing the Elephant” was commonly used by emigrants who made the journey to California between 1841 and 1859. No one knows where the expression began, but it may have originated from seeing the elephants that European circuses first brought to America about that time. The large, strange looking beasts were a huge hit, and people who saw one could not find words to describe the animal.
On the trail, the term came to be associated with the difficulties of the journey. It was almost a badge of honor to say that you had “Seen the elephant,” had experienced difficulties that others would not understand or believe, and had made it through. This part of the California trail was one of the places where the elephant was often found.
There you have it, reader. That’s a little piece of American history that I learned at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere.