Westward Ho!

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

Back in the mid-19th century, even though it was long before CNN or the Internet, news of the California gold rush spread east like wildfire. In Missouri, for example, Luzena Wilson and her husband “early caught the fever,” and in a few days packed their belongings and walked away from the land they had worked for two years. “It sounded like such a small task,” wrote Luzena, “to go out to California, and once there, fortune, of course, would come to us.”

The Wilsons embodied the spirit of tens of thousands of Americans who poured west in the mid-1800s. Whether they were chasing free land, a better climate, good health or gold at the end of the rainbow, they knew it could be reached by following the setting sun. If your ancestors were among them — or in any of the subsequent migrations, well into the 20th century, that lured Americans to the “golden West” — you’ll find a wealth of genealogical resources to help you trace them. It’s not quite as small a task as the Wilsons imagined finding gold would be — your family history won’t, of course, come to you — but it is getting easier all the time.


When the first Europeans traveled west to the Pacific, they had no guidebooks and little information about what to expect along the way. But by the time the major migrations began, published accounts helped travelers with every detail of the journey. Chances are, your westward-heading ancestors pored over one before leaving home.

Capt. Randolph B. Marcy’s The Prairie Traveler, for instance, advised travelers on everything from the correct way to pack a wagon to how to ford a river without drowning. He even cautioned sod-busting farmers about the dangers of standing in front of a rifle’s muzzle when pulling it out of a wagon. “Always look to your gun,” he wrote, “but never let your gun look at you.”

Marcy’s book, which was commissioned by the War Department, took the place of an earlier work by Lansford W. Hastings. Hastings painted the West in terms so glowing he was credited with single-handedly creating a land rush. Unfortunately, his prose was more effective than his directions — one of his “shortcuts” led the Donner Party to its tragic end.

Forty-niners hoping to strike it rich in California’s gold fields usually discovered that a prospector’s life was far more arduous — and far less lucrative — than they believed. By the time these Chinese workers and most other immigrants arrived, the gold supply had already diminished.

The main route west was the Oregon Trail, which began on the banks of the Missouri River. Travelers arrived at a jumpingoff place such as Independence or St. Joseph, Mo., or Council Bluffs, Iowa, then waited until spring to go west. Deciding when to begin the journey could be a life or death choice: Leaving too early meant not enough grass to feed the cattle and oxen; leaving too late meant winter storms through the mountains.

The trail followed the Platte River Valley to Fort Kearny, in what’s now Nebraska, then Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming. Between the two posts travelers encountered some of the most prominent landmarks of the journey — Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock and Scotts Bluff. Today, their “signatures” are still carved into the rock face at Register Cliff, located outside Guernsey, Wyo.

After resting a few days at Fort Laramie, the wagon trains headed towards the mountains to South Pass, crossing the Continental Divide. Near Fort Hall, California-bound settlers left the trail and headed south. Those heading to Oregon and Washington continued on, rafting down the Columbia River to Oregon City. The entire trip took four to five months.

In 1841, fewer than 100 settlers followed the trail to Oregon, which was then claimed by both the United States and Britain. In 1847, emigration rose to 4,000, then to 11,000 in 1848.

When the US government passed the Donation Land Claim Act, guaranteeing land to people willing to settle and cultivate it, .30,000 new farmers arrived. By 1852, an estimated 70,000 were on the Oregon Trail — so many, the Indians called it “the white-topped wagon road.” In all, at least 350,000 Americans traveled this route to the West. Of those, nearly a tenth died along the way, many from cholera. The rest — your ancestors — helped build the states of California, Oregon and Washington.

Go West, Young (and Old) Genealogist!

The Federation of Genealogical Societies’ annual Conference will be held August 7-10, 2002, in Ontario, Calif. Entitled “A Gold Mine of Diversity,” the conference will celebrate America’s ethnic diversity. You can choose from more than 150 lectures, plus browse and shop for genealogical software, books and services.

The National Archives Pacific Region facility is located nearby, as is the Los Angeles Public Library. Other nearby attractions include Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Sea World and the world-famous San Diego Zoo.

For more information, contact the California State Genealogical Alliance, Box 311, Danville, CA 94526, <>, or see <www.>.


A cartoon on the home page of the California Genealogical Society depicts a matronly woman staring at an ancestral portrait. “My goodness,” she says, “I had no idea people from California had ancestors.”

In fact, California — and the West Coast — was actually settled for decades before statehood. At one time or another, California was claimed by Spain, Mexico, Russia and England. Most settlements were Spanish, with the first missions opening in 1769 in San Diego.

When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, California was included in its land booty. Ownership lasted until the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848. Although the California Republic was established in 1846, present-day California didn’t become a state until 1850.

Before the gold rush of 1848, though, California’s population was nothing to brag about. San Francisco was a shantytown with barely 900 people. By October 1850, however, the city had grown to 25,000, and was well on its way to becoming a major supply center for the gold fields.

Like California, Oregon and Washington began under similar foreign claims. At the beginning of the 19th century, Russia, Spain and Britain all claimed the territory that now encompasses both states. In 1848, the United States created Oregon Territory, which included present-day Oregon, Washington and Idaho, plus parts of Montana and Wyoming.

In 1853, Washington Territory was carved out of the northern part of the Oregon Territory; in 1863, Idaho Territory was created in turn from the eastern part of Washington Territory. Oregon was granted statehood in 1859, Washington in 1889. Knowing these boundary lines and dates will be helpful in your research — records for an early eastern Washington settler, for example, may be in present-day Idaho.

Were your ancestors among the first to go west? Let’s look at some specific resources for your research.


California was first enumerated in the federal census in 1850, followed by Oregon in 1860 and Washington in 1890 (that census was destroyed by fire, however, so 1900 is the earliest surviving federal census of Washington). Although the “oldest” West Coast censuses are far newer than those used to research the East, they cover the most genealogically productive years. The 1850 count was the first one to enumerate the complete household, and is one of the most valuable for research based on family relationships. The 1850 and later censuses list every person’s birthplace, too. If you aren’t sure where your family originated before arriving in the West, the census is a good jumping-off place.

You can access the federal census on microfilm through the Family History Library’s (FHL) branch Family History Centers (FHCs) <> and various state archives and libraries, on CD-ROMs and on subscription Web sites such as (<>, 1850 and 1900) and (< >, 1790 to 1930). You can also check USGenWeb (<>, <>) to see if a volunteer has transcribed the census you need. For more on using the census, see the February 2002 Family Tree Magazine and the new book Your Guide to the Federal Census by Kathleen W. Hinckley (Betterway Books, $19.99).

Territorial census data is also available for 1850 for the Oregon Territory (which included Washington) and 1860, 1870 and 1880 for Washington Territory through FHCs and’s subscription site. State and territorial censuses exist for a few counties from 1857 to 1892 in Washington and 1842 to 1905 in Oregon, but generally include only the head of household’s name.

Early California census records (called padrons) were kept of Spanish, Mexican and Indian residents and have been published in The Quarterly, a publication of the Historical Society of Southern California <>. The FHL has microfilm of the Los Angeles padrons of 1790, 1836 and 1844, as well as the 1852 state census, which provided data on the entire household.

To search the FHL catalog online, go to <> and click Place Search. Next, type in the name of a state. From the next page of options, click the state, then Census. Scroll down through the list to see what’s available at the library in Salt Lake City or through its worldwide network of FHCs.


For the families who made it to the end of the Oregon Trail, you’ll find a wealth of resources in Portland, home to one of the largest genealogy collections on the West Coast at the Genealogical Forum of Oregon (GFO) <>. The GFO’s holdings include more than 22,000 volumes, thousands of rolls of microfilm and a collection of Multnomah County marriage records. The collection’s focus is the Pacific Northwest and states where Oregon pioneers began their journey. A valuable source at the GFO’s library is the Early Oregon Settler Files, which contain records of families who arrived in Oregon prior to 1900. In addition, you can investigate the microfilm records of the Oregon Donation Land Claim files (see page 51). You’ll also find indexes to marriages, divorces and deaths, as well as Oregon city directories, records on Civil War veterans, county histories and cemetery books.

The GFO sells several publications on its Web site and maintains an Internet mailing list. If you can’t make it there in person, a small staff of volunteers will do up to one hour of research for $10 plus any copy costs.

Portland is also home to the Oregon Historical Society Library <>. Founded in 1892, the library has the state’s largest Oregon collection: more than 100,000 volumes, 2 million photographs, 15,000 maps and 8,000 linear feet of original documents. Among the holdings are Oregon’s federal censuses, provisional and territorial censuses, church registers, Sanborn fire insurance maps and wagon-train diaries. The library’s biographical index lists names that appear in about 15 western Oregon newspapers, as well as scrapbooks, local and regional histories and Indian War pension papers. (For a complete genealogy guide to Portland, see the June 2001 Family Tree Magazine.)

Descendants of Washington pioneers may find treasures at the state archives, located in Olympia <>. The archives holds territorial census records taken between 1857 and 1892, as well as school censuses, which were used to count children in kindergarten through 12th grades. The school censuses date from the late 1800s to the early 1930s.

Washington researchers may also strike genealogical gold at the Tacoma Public Library. Its collection includes censuses, city directories, county histories, passenger and cemetery lists, obituary indexes and death indexes for Washington, Oregon and California. If you’re having trouble finding a Washington location, take advantage of the library’s Washington Place Names Database < htm>. This searchable database, the fruit of 25 years of research, can be invaluable for tracking down small or historical places. It’s also rich with historical nuggets, perhaps about your ancestors. For example, the results for Backman Creek reveal that it was named for Charles Backman, a prospector who worked in eastern Snohomish County in the 1880s and 1890s: “Backman had a 40-acre homestead claim on the south side of Darrington in 1907 but did not fulfill the conditions set out under the Homestead Act and did not perfect his title. He owned several claims in the Wellman Basin region of the county.”

If you can’t travel out West in person, the cost of a letter will buy you help from the Seattle Public Library: The genealogy staff will do limited lookups in the census index, city directories and Washington State Death Index; see the library’s site <> for details.

Having difficulty locating an ancestor in records of the Oregon or California trails? Don’t forget that many people came west by ship. The FHL has microfilm of passenger and crew lists of vessels arriving in Seattle (Port Townsend) from 1890 to 1921. Unfortunately, local immigration records for ships docking in San Francisco were destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. But the National Archives has passenger lists and indexes for vessels arriving from 1893 to 1934. The FHL has these indexes, as well as copies of the lists for 1903 to 1918.


Local newspapers often contain gems of family information by way of obituaries and death, marriage and birth notices. If you’ve had problems locating family in official records, it’s well worth the effort to turn to newspapers. Besides news of vital events, you may find an article on a veteran’s group your ancestor belonged to, or details of a church function or community event.

If your ancestors resided in the San Francisco area, your research will probably lead you to newspapers because the city’s land, court and vital statistic records were destroyed in fires during the 1906 “great quake.” Fortunately, the California branch of the Daughters of the American Revolution transcribed the vital statistics from the 1855 to 1874 San Francisco Bulletin (excluding 1869). The transcriptions were then published in 24 volumes and are housed at the California State Library in Sacramento.

Genealogist Jim Faulkinbury is creating an index of vital records from the San Francisco Call. Ultimately, he expects the database to total 240,000 entries. As entries are completed, they’re posted to an online searchable database <>. If you find an ancestor in the index, you can contact Faulkinbury to obtain a copy of the records.

In addition, the California State Library <> owns a large collection of newspapers, including the full run of at least one paper from most California counties and major cities. Most are on microfilm and are available for interlibrary loan.

The California Genealogical Society Library in Oakland holds the San Francisco Newspaper Index (Chronicle and Examiner), which covers 1904 to 1980, and an index to vital records printed in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. CGS is the oldest genealogical society in California and, according to spokesman Rick Sherman, is an underutilized resource for anyone doing California research.

For Oregon and Washington newspaper research, the Oregon Historical Society Library is a good starting place. The library has an alphabetical card file with abstracts of birth, marriage and death information from early Oregon newspapers. You’ll find some pre-1880 Oregon newspapers at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley <>. The Washington State Library <>, which heads up the Washington State Newspaper Microfilm Project, maintains a large microfilm collection of newspapers dating from the 1870s.


Many Oregon- and Washington-bound pioneers were drawn by news of fertile ground, excellent climates and free land. Thousands of settlers who arrived in the Oregon Territory were eligible to receive donation land claims — plots granted through the 1850 Donation Land Claim Act. The applications are genealogically rich with information, including birth, marriage, migration and citizenship data. The Oregon State Archives has territorial land records covering 1845 to 1849.

Donation land records are on microfilm at the National Archives Pacific Alaska Region in Seattle, as well as the FHL (films 1028543 and 1490152 through 1490242). The FHL also has microfilm of land abstracts with indexes for 1852 to 1903 (films 847554 through 847559).

Washington donation land records exist for people who settled and cultivated land before 1855. The FHL has a register with indexes and abstracts for claims from 1855 to 1902 (film 418160). Each claim is identified by name, certificate number and local office. You can use the register to locate the original file, which is on microfilm at the regional National Archives and at the FHL.

After 1862, settlers could also obtain homestead grants by living on the land, raising crops and making improvements for five years. Homestead land was open to United States citizens or those who filed an intention to become a citizen.

Homestead land entry case files are located at the National Archives, and can include names, birth dates, marriage dates and locations and citizenship information. To get a copy of the records, you’ll need to provide the name of the person who filed the claim, the legal land description, the land patent number and date, and land office where the patent was issued. Microfilm of the tract books (which contain the information you’ll need) are located at the FHL and the Oregon State Office of the Bureau of Land Management, Box 2965, 333 SW First Ave., Portland, OR 97204, (503) 808-6002, <>.

Spain granted lands in California until 1822, followed by Mexico until 1846. Early Spanish land grant records are located at the California State Archives <> and the Bancroft Library. The California State Archives also holds records from 1833 to 1845 in its Spanish Archives Record Group. This group is also available on microfilm at the FHL (indexes on films 978888 through 978890).

The United States’ first general land offices in California were in Los Angeles and Benicia, established in 1853. The federal government sold public-domain land through these land offices. Original tract books are located at the National Archives.

For the tens of thousands of pioneers who reached the West Coast, thousands more lie in unmarked graves along the Oregon Trail or in the depths of the sea. Cholera, Indians, starvation and disease all took their toll — from the “white-topped wagon road” to the ships sailing ’round the Horn. If your ancestors survived the journey, they were among America’s hardiest.

The rush to the West Coast lasted nearly five decades, brought three new states into the Union and fulfilled the dream of Manifest Destiny. Not everyone who went West found gold, either literally or metaphorically, but their journeys and their stories left a golden legacy for us to discover.

From the August 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine