Friday, May 13, 2011

Wagon Trains 1840-1860

How Did They Get There?

We know there were wagon trains. Extended families packed their belongings, and carried their personal wealth overland to reach the newly opened west lands.  It wasn't just for those panning for gold.  There were the Mormon's escaping persecution, the future vintner wanting rich soil, and those who made a living in transport.  Oh...there were many others.  But how do you find records that verify a date of passage?  Their method of passage?  Your ancestor's experience.

Learn the Trails
It is possible your ancestor traveled overland, by water, or partly by rail.  A good source to understand their choices may be answered in John Unruh, Jr.'s book The Plains Across;  The Overland Emigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1860.  It is possible that Great-Grandpa left Illinois with his four (4) brothers, but only two (2) settled in California.  The remainder of the party may have ended their journey in Salt Lake, or may have taken any other fork in the trail. 

What I find interesting, is that many made several trips overland.  We may be able to confirm their one-way trips to California, but how did they return to Missouri?  Did you know that many returned to the Mid-west through Panama - Isthmus!  Be sure to check any ship  records going to Louisiana ports from San Francisco or other west coast ports.  The trip from Louisiana up the Mississippi River was still arduous, but without the protection of a large wagon train, going through hostile territories, was not usually an option.  Plus, the military controlled the trails, and would detain small groups travel due to safety. 

Search for Your Ancestors in Writings
 What did five (5) month travelers do?  They recorded their journeys in diaries and letters back home, detailing the trip.  Ok, not all of them. But you will be surprised where you may find your ancestor's name. Sometimes the diaries are filled with gruesome details as the writer recalls on paper a companion's demise. Sometimes the accounts are so detailed they read like a novel.  Sometimes they just follow a train of thought, or confirm a reader's suspicion. 

I recently proved that a religious "group," Bethel Community, occupied settlements in both Missouri and Oregon.  I located the letters that leader, William Kiel, wrote to his congregation back home in Missouri from 1855-1870.  He even threatened to excommunicate ("bar them from the Bethel Community") a few Missourians for raising the Union flag, and endangering the community. Interestingly enough, he was writing from his new Bethel Community in Oregon.  The letters were filled with historical data, names of members and religious practices.[1] 

Where to Find Diaries?
Following are a few of my favorites: 
1) The Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA) hosts of Paper Trail, an online database Guide to Overland Pioneer Names and Documents is a great place to begin your diary, manuscript, and written information search.
It is subscription based, but the initial search is free.  This database will GUIDE you to the correct repository. You cannot download the diary from this location, but it leads you to where to go using a surname search.
2) Be sure to research the Merrill J. Mattes Reseearch Library at the National Frontier Trails Museum. I must say, spending a day with this concentrated selection of wagon train resources, makes me smile.  
3) The California, Pioneer and Immigrant Files, 1790-1950 database holds 10,000 records "with biographical information about pioneers who arrived in California before 1860.
4) Local Histories and Newspapers detail wagon trains and their departure (it was both exciting and devastating to communities and families).  Small-town newspapers also reprinted letters sent "home" for the community to read; sometimes enticing others to follow, and just as frequently warnings of the danger.

My Ancestor Wasn't Mentioned
Well, not everyone will find Great-Grandpa's passage recorded, or even his name.  But, by narrowing his year, and month of travel, you may find his experience recorded through the eyes of his neighbors and friends.  Analyze the diaries from his hometown. Follow the path and his final settlement to determine his passage. 

African Americans?
The overland journeys were before the Civil War.  But free-coloreds, as many as 3000 by 1850, found their way to California from the onset of the gold rush.  Even though some slaves were carried by their masters, many found the westward journey as an integral step to their escape plan. Well, the trails did have several forks in the roads. If you need to refresh your history of the role African Americans played during this westward movement, you may wish to read Blacks in Gold Rush California, by Rudolph M. Lapp. 
Another great source is the Negro Trail Blazers of California by Delilah L. Beasley; original 1818; reprinted 1969. 
Happy Wagon Trail Researching,

Kathleen Brandt

[1] Kiel, Wm., Letters 1855-1870; Bethel Community to Oregon 24 Jun 1855; microfilm, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, UMKC


  1. Thank you, again, Kathleen. Some great reference sources. I was so excited to find my great-grandfather Preston, a 17 year old, traveling alone, listed both in an Omaha newspaper departure list and a Sacramento newspaper arrival list, in 1952. Still a lot of research to do, but he was in the California, Idaho, and Montana gold fields for the following 40 years. ;-)

  2. Frequently I receive correspondence referencing an a3Genealogy blog post. Infrequently do I repost as a comment, but for the purpose of other Keil researchers I thought this was definitely worthy to repost. I have removed the To: email, for protection of the author, but if you need the originator's contact info, I will happily forward a request for you.

    show details 3:22 PM (5 hours ago)

    Hello Kathleen. I'm a descendent of William Keil, thru his son, August Keil. Your blog regarding the Keil/Bethelite wagon train west in 1855 caught my eye. I've been able to read several excerpts from William Keil's letters - they were pretty interesting. My great grandfather, Frederick William Keil, was born in Bethel, Mo. He died at age 97 yrs in 1969. His father, August, was the colony doctor and his mother, Rosina Forstner Keil, was the daughter of George and Julianna Forstner, ex-Rappites. Rosina's brother was Benjamin Forstner, the inventor of the Forstner bit. August Keil is buried in the Hebron Cemetery, on the outskirts of Bethel, where many of the early colony members are buried. Rosina moved to Corvallis, Oregon, to be near her sister, Sophia Forstner Biers, some time after 1900 and is buried in the Crystal Lake Cemetery, near Sophia and Sophia's husband, John Biers. Sophia and her husband were also members of the Bethel Colony and went west on the third wagon train from Bethel to Aurora, Oregon. They eventually left the Aurora Colony to settle in Corvallis with their 5 children. Many of the early homes and buildings are still in use in Bethel. Have you ever visited there? Its worth the trip just to see the interesting architecture and eat some of the great German food served at the Festhall diner on the main street thru town."

  3. Recently I read a paper in a Missouri historical journal because it mentioned my ancestor as a member of a "company" who made a contract to support each other on their trip to the gold fields of California. The article also mentioned an instance where a Missourian joined such a company and sent his Black slave in his place. He specified that his man was not to be required to work any harder than the other members of the group. What an example of the trust a slave owner placed in one of his slaves!

    1. Someone recently requested this. Can you forward a copy to

  4. Would love a copy of that! If you get a chance forward it my way, and I will add to the blog.

    1. I had to order a hard copy, which is 20-some pages long. I'd be happy to snail-mail it to you, though. Let me know.


    2. Would I be able to get that sent to me,I feel as though I could locate my family.I am unable to do so thus far,I feel as though this was my family.Thank u .RIB

    3. I see many articles on western trails, however my family traveled from Maryland to Missouri in late 1839 or early 1840. Where can I locate information that can help me understand how the 5 of them made that move?

    4. So many reasons. 1) Land acquisition 2) pro slavery 3) religion 4) ethnic community: German settlers especially came for that reason.
      Most likely they made the trek by land and with a caravan via the the Great Road. Easy move Maryland / Virigina to Kentucky to Missouri. However, there were also the waterways. Missouri not only has the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to the inner waterways of Missouri, many traveled from the east-coast to Louisiana and then up via the Missouri waterways. Very common migratory path.