The mountain men and other explorers carried back to the East tales of the wondrous and potentially bountiful lands that lay toward the sunset. Through the decade of the 1830s, America’s westering dreams simmered. At last, on February 1, 1841, 58 men—settlers living in Jackson County, Missouri—met at the town of Independence to plan the first fully organized emigrant wagon train to California. Assembling across the Missouri River, at Sapling Grove, the party had grown to 69—including more than 20 women and children—under the leadership of John Bartleson. The prominent Catholic missionary Father Pierre-Jean deSmet and the mountain man Thomas Fitzpatrick also joined the train of 15 wagons and four carts.
The trek consumed five months, three weeks, and four days. It was marked by a single death, a single birth, and a single marriage. The following year, some 20 wagons carrying well over 100 persons made the trip. Other journeys followed each year thereafter until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made the Overland Trail and the other trans-West routes obsolete.
Surviving the three-to seven-month journey across an often brutal and always unforgiving landscape took discipline, strength, and luck, Yet most who undertook the trek survived—albeit transformed by the ordeal: haggard, even reduced to skin and bones. Such hardship was sufficient to convince many emigrants to make an expensive and often stormy journey by sea—either all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America or to the Isthmus of Panama. No such thing as a Panama Canal existed in the 19th century (the canal would not be completed and opened to traffic until 1914). Therefore, travelers bound for the West Coast had to disembark on the Atlantic side, make a disease-ridden overland journey across the steaming jungles of the Isthmus, then board a California-bound ship on the Pacific side.