The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Historical Background: The West, 1840-1860

This unit focuses on the overland travel of emigrants into the American West just before, during and after the California Gold Rush of 1849. It is designed to be compatible with Westward Expansion studies carried out in fifth-grade classrooms. It is important to note at the outset that many of the emigrants of this period reached the West by sea routes rather than land trails. But even they--in order to get where they were going in the interior--at some point journeyed by land. However they traveled and wherever they came from, the emigrants brought with them visions of instant wealth from mining or free rich land for farming and ranching. In some cases--for example, the Mormons--they also brought a yearning to establish new societies based on faith and conviction. 

According to Wallace Stegner (in his book The American West As Living Space, page 3), the emigrants' dreams were "recognizable American dreams--a new chance, a little gray home in the West, adventure, danger, bonanza, total freedom from constraint and law and obligation, the Big Rock Candy Mountain. ...Those dreams had often paid off in earlier parts of America, and they paid off for some in the West. For the majority, no. The West has had a way of warping well-carpentered habits, and raising the grain on exposed dreams." 

Historians today describe the West as the region within the United States west of the Mississippi River drainage basin around the 98th meridian, generally having less than 20 inches of annual rainfall, the amount normally needed for unirrigated agriculture. The word arid describes the geography of the West. They also characterize the region as a meeting ground of cultures. Historian Patricia Limerick de-emphasizes the notion of frontier and notes that the "workings of conquest tieddiverse groups into the same story." According to Limerick, the American West is an important meeting ground territorially, culturally and economically for Native, Anglo, Latino, African and Asian Americans (Patricia Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest, pages 26-27). 

Trails crisscrossed the West. Pre-Columbian paths, such as the trail that became El Camino Real in California, expanded into horse and wagon tracks as new entrants traversed the region. Some, the Oregon-California and Mormon trails, originated as throughways to far destinations such as the Willamette Valley, the community at Salt Lake, or the gold camps of the Sierra. Others, such as the Gila and Santa Fe trails, offered opportunities for the movement of goods as well as people; these intersected with trails into Mexico. Hunters, sheepherders and cowboys, following the grazing habits of buffalo, sheep and cattle, created another set of trails. Prior to the advent of trains and automobiles, movement throughout the West involved lengthy journeys along a few reliable rivers across rugged terrain. Sometimes it still does. 

The main trails involved in the overland emigration of the mid-19th century were the Overland Trail (Oregon-California Trail); the Southern Route (Gila River Trail); the Santa Fe Trail, which intersected with the Southern Route and extended north-south from Independence, Missouri, to Chihuahua, Mexico; and El Camino Diablo, another north-south trail that extended from Durango, Mexico, until it too intersected with the Gila River Trail. All these trails had a considerable number of cutoffs and extensions associated with them, but together they account for the greater part of the overland emigration into the American West just before--and for a decade or more after--the Gold Rush of 1849. Of these trails, certainly the most heavily used was the Overland Trail, which extended into the interior of the West along the Platte River before crossing the Rocky Mountains, deserts and Sierra to reach Oregon or California. 

We sense the inspiration for the mid-19th century overland journeys in writings and paintings of the period. These extolled the grandeur of the land and created a sense of national purpose, which 

The Big Rock Candy Mountain
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