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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

Historical marker on the California Road
(2012.201.B1172.0687, by J. Argo, Oklahoma Publishing Company Photography Collection, OHS).


Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, gold seekers, or Forty-niners, joined a westward movement to make their fortune in California. Established during the gold-rush days, the "California Road" comprised a number of sinuous pathways across the trans-Mississippi West.

A northern California Road that crossed present Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and California was known as the California Trail. It had eight individual branches: the Raft River-Humboldt River route, the Hustings Cutoff route, the Applegate-Lassen route, the Mormon-Carson route, the Stevens-Donner route, the Sonora route, the Noble route, and the Beckwourth route. The main course originally branched off from the Snake River and the Oregon Trail at Raft River in south-central Idaho.

The gold rush also affected the Indian Territory, or present Oklahoma, from the spring of 1849, and a southern California Road developed. During the peak year, 1849, as many as twenty thousand emigrants traveled on the southern route. Emigrant parties began leaving Fort Smith and Van Buren, Arkansas, crossing parts of Indian Territory along a Canadian River route used in 1839 by Josiah Gregg, author of Commerce of the Prairies. The federal government decided that the emigrants should be protected, and in 1849 Capt. Randolph B. Marcy escorted a large company of them westward along the Canadian River, establishing the Canadian River route of the southern California Road. Like its northern counterpart, the southern trail had branches.

The main or upper branch of the southern California Road began at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Some emigrants went directly west along the north bank of the Canadian to North Fork Town, Creek Nation, and continued north of the river. Most followed the road that went from Fort Smith fifteen miles southwest to Choctaw Agency (Skullyville). There the route divided. One path led westward to Edwards's Trading House on Little River. From that place, travelers found paths on both banks of the Canadian River. Those on the north bank went past the former site of Chouteau's Fort; those on the south bank went to Delaware Mound and The Mound and then northwest to Mustang Creek. The alternate Canadian River paths rejoined west of Chouteau's and proceeded northwest past landmarks such as Rock Mary and the Antelope Hills before crossing into the Texas Panhandle. The road continued westward to Santa Fe and turned south to extend three hundred miles across New Mexico along the Rio Grande River to El Paso, Texas, This branch of the California Road extended for more than two thousand miles. At El Paso it joined Cooke's Wagon Road across southern Arizona.

The lower branch of the southern California Road, blazed by Marcy on his return trip, ran from Fort Smith to Choctaw Agency and then southeast to Boggy Depot and Fort Washita, crossed the Red River at Colbert's Ferry (Preston, Texas), and traveled southwest across central Texas to El Paso. This route took travelers seventeen hundred miles from Fort Smith to El Paso. There it joined Cooke's Wagon Road. It became the route adopted in 1858 by the Butterfield Overland Mail and stage line to California.

To maintain the routes and provide sufficient supplies to travelers, various stops became important stations and developed as towns or military posts. In comparison with the northern trails, which suffered heavy snowfalls in winter, the southern routes benefited from warmer, drier winters and abundant natural resources such as water, timber, and grass. Some areas offered fertile soil for agriculture. Moreover, the opening of the southern routes contributed to a movement to construct a transcontinental railroad, and the California Road served as an important transportation for military and civilian movements. Following its development immigrants began to view the West's Indian owner-occupants as an obstacle. Therefore, the rapid progress of the southern route not only affected economy and social activities of the region, but also swayed federal policy toward the Indian Territory.

Ryoko Okamura


Robert H. Dott, "Lieutenant Simpson's California Road Across Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 38 (Summer 1960).

Grant Foreman, Marcy and the Gold Seekers: The Journal of Captain R. B. Marcy, with an Account of the Gold Rush Over the Southern Route (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968).

W. Eugene Hollon, Beyond the Cross Timbers: The Travels of Randolph B. Marcy, 1812–1887 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955).

Thomas H. Hunt, Ghost Trails to California (Palo Alto, Calif.: American West Publishing Co., 1974).

David Morris Potter, Trail to California: The Overland Journal of Vincent Geiger and Wakeman Bryarly (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945).

Muriel H. Wright, "Historical Places on the Old Stage Line from Fort Smith to Red River," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 11 (June 1933).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Ryoko Okamura, “California Road,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=CA012.

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