“Came … up to the forks of the road, one goes to Placerville and one to Weaver Town (Weberville), Took our right hand road to Placerville or Hang Town, and came to what is called Johnson’s Ranch” — Journal entry of Milo Stannard Baker, Aug. 13, 1850.
Such was the journal entry of Milo Baker, one of the adventurous souls who ventured west on the Oregon-California Trail. The entry is one of several inscribed on a rail marker below Union Hill that commemorates the intersection of three of the most important trails used by the pioneers crossing into Northern Sierra: the Carson Route, the Johnson’s Cutoff, and the Pony Express Trail.
That rail marker, along with others, was placed there by members of the California-Nevada Chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association (OCTA). OCTA is the nation’s largest and most influential organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of overland emigrant trails and the emigrant experience.
With 11 chapters across the country, the California-Nevada chapter is the largest with 400 members. President of the chapter is John Winner, who is the former assessor for El Dorado County.
Captured by the past, Winner said he got into OCTA because of a lifelong interest in history, and especially that of the old west, that dates back to when he was a teen visiting ghost towns.
“I liked western history. Its uniqueness. I had the opportunity to visit with people still living in those towns and hear about the old boom town days,” he said. “Then I would go to the county seat and look up newspaper articles to validate what people said.” He also met writers who specialized in writing about the old west. Once he retired, he returned to his first interest. “This is more fun,” he said.
“Went down in the morning for the cattle, one of mine so weak he couldn’t navigate, sent for some whiskey, poured a pint into him, gave him some meal, and brought him along. What with his weakness and the whiskey he acted as if he really felt two or three sheets in the wind.” Journal entry of John McTurk Gibson, Sept. 7, 1859
Winner noted that the trek cross-country on the Oregon-California Trail was “probably the largest peacetime migration of people in the United States. Four to five hundred thousand people emigrated from 1840 to 1869,” he said.
The jumping off place for most emigrants was Missouri. The pathway, which was originally called the Oregon Trail, followed the Platte River to its headwaters and then crossed several mountain ranges. In the beginning, most pioneers were headed for the farmlands of the Willamette River Valley.
However once gold was discovered in California, the tide of emigrants turned south and soon became a flood. “At the time, four of five of all emigrants (to California) were coming for the gold fields,” Winner said.
It was about that time that the trail came to be known as the Oregon-California Trail. Pioneers would travel to southern Idaho to a juncture called the Parting of the Ways. It was there the trail split and people either continued on to Oregon or went south to California.
According to Winner, it was President Polk who encouraged Americans to emigrate because he wanted the borders of the country established given that the Russians had established a colony at Ft. Ross, just north of San Francisco, and the British were moving down from the north in the form of the Hudson Bay Company.
What followed was a steady stream of hardy people who braved weather, broken axles, cholera, drownings, American Indian attacks and other hardships for the sake of a better future. The 2,000-mile journey typically took four-and-a-half to five months to complete with most people walking the entire trip.
Tom Mahach, a member of the local chapter of OCTA, said the wagon trains “would travel about 12 miles a day but in rough country it was only two or three miles a day. And they didn’t use horses. They used oxen or mules because they could live on whatever vegetation they found along the trail. The spirit and tenacity of these people was incredible,” he said.
Because the wagons were top-heavy and didn’t have springs, they were vulnerable to tipping over. So they were limited to traveling on relatively flat trails. In areas where that wasn’t possible, men would tie ropes to the top of the wagon and walk along a ridge above it, pulling on the ropes to keep the wagon from tipping over. Other times, they would empty the wagons and hand carry items over dicier parts of the trail.
Many emigrants kept detailed diaries describing the day-to-day hardships and adventures on the trail. One estimate is that one of every 250 emigrants left some kind of written account.
One such writer was Sarah Royce. In a book she wrote called Across the Plains, she described holding her infant in one arm and changing and feeding the child while traveling on horseback. However she was one of the lucky ones. Most women had to walk and carry their babies in their arms.
John C. Johnson and the Johnson Cutoff
The many friends of J.C. Johnson will be pleased to hear that he is fast recovering from the injuries received by walking out of a window on the third story of the Cary House in this city (Placerville). Col. Johnson is an old mountaineer — has sought out and opened for public use many trails through the mountains, but this last act, performed while in a somnambulistic state, caps the climax for discovering and taking cutoffs. — The Mountain Democrat; July 24,1869
One of the most important trails used by the emigrants to California was called the Johnson Cutoff after a trailblazer named John Calhoun Johnson who came to the state in 1848.
According to his great-great-granddaughter, Ellen Osborn, who lives in Pollock Pines and is writing a book about him, Johnson was a lawyer by training but a man who didn’t limit himself to one career.
He was at various times the adjutant to the State Militia during the El Dorado Indian Wars in 1850-51; was El Dorado County Treasurer from 1850-52; served as a State Assemblyman in 1855; was a Delegate Member of the Democratic County Central Committee; was the first farmer in El Dorado County; a hotel keeper; sawmill owner; practicing lawyer and gold mine owner. He also owned a 320 acre ranch in Camino that is now the Apple Mountain Golf Course.
Johnson is credited with discovering the pass through the Sierras known as Echo Summit, he surveyed the Emigrant Wagon Road, now Highway 50, and laid out the Johnson Cutoff Trail as an alternative to the Carson Route.
His trail became the preferred one because it required only one river crossing, was 2,000 feet lower in elevation and was 60 miles shorter than the Carson Route. It eventually became the most heavily traveled trail across the Sierra Nevada and, with the exception of the deviation over Peavine Ridge, is generally the same as Highway 50.
Unfortunately Johnson later lost his ranch in a dispute over mining rights. He then moved to Arizona where he was murdered by Apaches in 1876.