Nobles Emigrant Trail – History

Hey all, and welcome back! Time to dive into the Nobles Emigrant Trail. Let’s start with some basic background – the who, what, where, when, and why.

The Nobles Emigrant Trail was a pioneer wagon road that brought settlers into northern California. It was established in 1851 by William Nobles as a shorter, less-arduous option to the Lassen Trail, running from the Applegate Trail in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada to Shasta City near present-day Redding, California. What made it less arduous? It went through the lowest mountain pass of all the California Trail segments, had better water access than most other routes, and consequently plenty of grazing for the oxen teams and cattle that the emigrants brought along. Even so, it couldn’t be used year-round – there was just too much snow. But for those who timed it right, it was a shorter, easier route into northern California.

Northern California in the 1840s

European-Americans had already been trickling into northern California before the discovery of gold. Manuel Micheltorena, governor of the Mexican territory of California, had been distributing grants of former church lands. John Sutter was Micheltorena’s alcalde (municipal magistrate), and he assisted several of his friends and former employees in applying for grants. In the Upper Sacramento Valley, this included the Rancho Buena Ventura grant to Pierson Reading, near present-day Redding, and Peter Lassen’s Rancho Bosquejo, between present-day Red Bluff and Chico. Reading, Lassen, and other early settlers used their grants for ranching and small agricultural endeavors and offered hospitality and services to travelers in the area before roadhouses and inns were established.

Pierson B. Reading (courtesy Shasta Historical Society)

Eureka!

Once placer gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848, people fanned out to check other streams throughout the foothills surrounding the Sacramento Valley. Pierson discovered gold near his rancho on Clear Creek, the second major gold discovery in California. Once word got out, the area was flooded by others looking to get rich quick. Several tent cities sprang up, one of which evolved into Shasta City by 1850.

Shasta State Historic Park welcome sign and map

Lassen’s Trail

To access the gold fields near Shasta and others in the Siskiyou and Trinity Mountains, ’49ers would either come up the Sacramento River or overland from the east. This far north, the earliest trail was the one mapped and promoted by Peter Lassen, established in 1848, that terminated at his rancho. The Lassen Trail branched off the Applegate Trail to Oregon, but it was a tough route with little water, and wound up being longer than the Truckee and Carson routes near Lake Tahoe.

Peter Lassen (courtesy Immigrantmuseet)

Nobles’ Shortcut

William Nobles was a blacksmith and machinist from Minnesota who joined the Gold Rush to California in 1850. It’s unclear exactly when he arrived in the area, but he likely came by the Lassen Trail and by 1851 he was exploring the area east of Mount Lassen. Like others, Nobles may have been following rumors of a lake with gold nuggets lining the shore, or he might have been intentionally searching for a better way through the mountains. As far as we can tell, he never found Gold Lake, but he did find a route “more practicable than any other known overland immigrant route into California.”

Nobles Trail plaque at Sunflower Flat, Lassen Volcanic National Park

“Selling” the Trail

To capitalize on his discovery, Nobles arranged a meeting in April of 1852 with merchants in Shasta City who would most benefit from a direct, easier route into their community.  He offered to show them the route for $2000, with nothing paid until they had seen it in person and were satisfied. For reference, a blacksmith stood to make about $1.50 per day in 1850, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, gold panners in the Clear Creek area considered anything under $120 per day barely worth the effort. In any case, the Shasta City merchants took Nobles up on his offer, knowing they could make the money back through toll roads, bridges, and roadhouses along the way.

Nobles Trail plaque, Shasta City

Nobles himself didn’t stay in the area long. He returned to Minnesota in 1853 to promote the trail and was elected to the Legislature of the Minnesota Territory in 1856. He never returned to California. However, he was instrumental in lobbying Congress to provide $300,000 for a professional survey and road upgrades. The first road in the American West to receive such funding, the Nobles Trail then became part of the Fort Kearney, South Pass, and Honey Lake Wagon Road.

Now that we know how the Nobles Trail got its start, and a little of what it was like at the time, we’re ready to hit the trail. Stay tuned for next post and follow along as I retrace the western half of the Nobles Emigrant Trail, starting in Susanville, California. Thanks for joining me!

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