Town Virtual Tour

If you are pressed for time, or just want to revisit the content, this page allows you to view the text and images available on the interpretive panels in the Jumping Off Town room.

Jumping Off

"The roads, in every direction, are lined with wagons of emigrant parties from ... Missouri, and from Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Illinois." - St. Joseph correspondent to the St. Louis Missouri Republican, May 2, 1849

Joseph Robideaux's 1827 establishment of a fur trading post on the east bank of the Missouri River laid the groundwork for a town to come


Leave too early and the prairie grass would not be high enough to feed your animals along the way. Leave too late and mountain passes might be blocked with snow when you reached them. Leaving between mid-April and the end of May made for the best possible conditions for the journey.

Council Bluffs in 1858


Many people outfitted wagons before leaving home, while others waited to reach jumping off towns on the Missouri River like Independence, Missouri. During the gold rush years of 1849-1852, St. Joseph led all other Missouri River jumping off towns in the number of people who outfitted and ferried across here to begin crossing the Plains. By 1853, Council Bluffs, Iowa, became the favored departure point because it shortened the distance to the Great Platte River Road.

“Our streets are crowded, and every house in the town filled. The steam ferry is crossing hundreds daily.” - St. Joseph Gazette, May 5, 1852

1841 - Bidwell-Bartleson party, the first emigrant party, departs from Sapling Grove, Kansas

1846 - First Fort Kearney established at present Nebraska City; Mormons arrive at Winter Quarters near present Omaha; Donner-Reed party departs from Independence

1847 - Mormon pioneer party departs westward from winter quarters

1849 - California gold rush begins

1850 - U.S. mail route established between Independence and Salt Lake City

1851 - U.S. mail route extended from Salt Lake City to California

1860 - First Pony Express rider leaves St. Joseph April 3; First Overland Mail Company stage to California on the central overland route leaves St. Joseph July 1

1860 - Pacific Telegraph Company begins construction of the transcontinental telegraph line west from Omaha in the spring

1864 - Union Pacific Railroad begins construction of transcontinental railroad west from Omaha

U.S. Land Acquisitions
Seeing the Elephant


No one really knows where the expression began. Some believe that it was first used in America in the early 1820s when traveling shows began touring the northeastern part of America, bringing with them exotic animals; one of which was the elephant. These large, strange looking beasts were very popular and people who saw an elephant for the first time found the experience astonishing and awe inspiring.

When asked about seeing the elephant, they found it difficult to describe the experience to others. Eventually the expression, "Seeing the Elephant" began to be commonly used by emigrants who made the journey to California between 1841 and 1869 because the hardships and challenges they faced during their journey and in the gold fields were also difficult to describe.

A startled forty-niner sees a dancing elephant on his way to California. The drawing is from the letterhead of stationary printed in San Francisco.

"Oh, surely we are seeing the elephant, from the tip of his trunk to the end of his tail." - Lucy Rutledge Cooke, 1852

"I Saw The Elephant" was an expression commonly used by the hundreds of thousands of emigrants and gold seekers who made the difficult and perilous two thousand mile covered wagon journey to California during the mid-nineteenth century. It referred to the giant size of the challenges, terrible hardships and life-threatening dangers they faced during the long three to five month passage.

The "I saw the Elephant" sculpture is dedicated to all those who braved the journey and to the thousands who lie in nameless graves along the trail.

It was made possible by a donation to the California Trail Center by Malcolm E. Smith, Jr.

Seeing the Elephant


For those planning to travel west to California, especially during the gold rush (1849-1852), no expression characterized the hardships associated with the experience more than the term "seeing the elephant." Those planning to travel west announced that they were "going to see the elephant." Those turning back claimed they had seen the "elephant's trunk" of the "elephant's tail," and admitted that view was sufficient. 1850 overland emigrant Eleazar Ingalls captures the meaning of the expression "Seeing the Elephant" in describing his experience crossing the 40 Mile Desert in Western Nevada.

“Morning comes, and the light of day presents a scene more horrid than the rout of a defeated army; dead stock line the roads, wagons, rifles, tents, clothes, everything but food may be found scattered along the road; ... The desert! you must see it and feel it in an August day, when legions have crossed it before you, to realize it in all its horrors. But heaven save you from the experience.” From California Trail... The Story Behind the Scenery.

“Let me tell you I have Seen the Elephant in the way of Mountains; … We have experienced a great deal of hard-ships in getting this far through.” – Richard Martin May, 1848

“Some think they see the elephant. If fatigue, weariness, constant excitement, and awful distress among the cattle make the sight, he is surely here.” – John Edwin Banks, 1849

A Trickle, Then a Flood


The whole nation was in motion, and nowhere could you feel the momentum to the west more strongly than the jumping-off towns along the Missouri River. Imagine trying to take care of the hundred last minute details, console homesick loved ones, and keep track of your children in a town swollen with thousands of others just like you.

Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Libraries

“As far as the eye can reach, so great is the emigration, you see nothing but wagons. This town presents a striking appearance – a vast army on wheels – crowds of men, women and lots of children and last but not least the cattle and horses upon which our lives depend.” – Sallie Hester, 16 years old, St. Joseph MO, April 27th, 1849

Jumping Off


Every spring during the peak years of emigration, thousands of people camped on the outskirts of St. Joseph, Missouri, creating a second city that just as quickly evaporated when all had departed.

“St. Joseph resembled in some respects a vast besieged city …. All the principle roads leading to the town were thickly beset with white tents on either side.” – W.S. McBride, 1850

The city thrived as a result of the businesses that supported the needs of gold seekers. Physicians, lawyers, businessmen, merchants, craftsmen, farmers - men from all walks of life and all ages - prepared to head to California, mostly for the single purpose of making money.

Kansas State Historical Society - Bierstadt Collection #3

Noted western artist Albert Bierstadt took this photograph of a wagon approaching the ferry at St. Joseph in 1859.

St. Joseph Museum Inc., St. Joseph, Missouri

St. Joseph had two ferry sites, one at St. Joseph and the other a few miles upstream.

“the streets [are] thronged with strangers, bound for the West, waiting for the first appearance of grass. The landing [is] covered with wagons and other articles of outfit for a trip across the plains.” – St. Joseph Adventure, April 9, 1852 

Riverboat Arabia


John Bidwell and John Bartleson led the first overland party along the route that would become known as the California Trail. Though they knew nothing more than that California lay to the west, the wagon train needed the strength of Bartleson's larger contingent, and so they elected him captain.

John Bidwell, secretary of the party, was a prominent pioneer and settler of American California (California State Library)

May 18, 1841, the party of 77 people, including 15 women and children, set out from Sapling Grove, Kansas, with 15 wagons, four two-wheeled Red River carts, and hearts full of hope. Among them were several members of the extended Kelsey family, including seventeen-year-old Nancy Kelsey, her husband Benjamin, and their infant daughter Ann.

Ben Kelsey (California State Library)

“The account given of the Pacific Coast was so inviting that many resolved to visit it.” – John Bidwell, Reminiscence of 1841

“Where my husband goes, I can go. I can better stand the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.” – Nancy Kelsey, Reminiscence of 1841

Listen to the start of the Bidwell/Bartleson story.



The promise of free land and a better climate drew the James Reed and George and Jacob Donner families to travel the California Trail. The Donners were prosperous farmers and Reed was a successful contractor and furniture maker. Their party included 33 people: 12 men, 5 women, and 16 children.

Each family had three wagons. The Reed family had one particularly luxurious wagon that writers later dubbed the Pioneer Palace Car, outfitted to make Margaret Reed's 70-year-old mother Sarah Keyes more comfortable on the journey. Sarah died of tuberculosis just 17 days after the party left Independence.

James and Margaret Reed (California Department of Parks, Sutter's Fort)

Irish-born James Reed fought alongside Abraham Lincoln in the Black Hawk War of 1832. He and his wife Margaret emigrated to improve the family's fortunes and her health in the better climate out west.

Photographed by Ray Ellenbecker, Marysville, Kansas, 1926

James Reed inscribed his name at Alcove Springs, Kansas, near where Sarah Keyes was buried.

“I am willing to go & have no doubt it will be an advantage to our children & to us.” – Tamsen Donner, 1846

“We are joined to-day by nine wagons from Illinois, belonging to Mr. Reed and the Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen, with interesting families.” – Edwin Bryant, 1846 

Listen to the start of the Donner/Reed story.



Imagine Interstate 80 without any signs. How would you know where you were or which turns to take? Guide books provided distances between campsites with good grass and water, but to use them emigrants needed to accurately measure their mileage. Odometers also allowed them to correctly ration their food and take the correct turns on the many paths that make up the California Trail.

Many kinds of odometers were used on the trail. Some were gear-boxes mounted on the wagon and turned by a shaft attached to the wheel. Others were gravity-operated and attached to the spokes.

“I am 17 years old today. 2,000 miles from my native place. We are now within 500 miles of our destination.” – Welborn Beeson, 1853



Odometers of many designs were used by explorers, surveyors, and emigrants to fill in the blank spots on their imperfect maps. Some people simply counted how many times a handkerchief tied to a wagon wheel went around.

This 'roadometer' was designed in 1847 by Orson Pratt. The mileage is recorded on the large gear, which can be reset by removing a lynch-pin and manually turning it back to zero. The wagon wheel must turn three-hundred sixty times to turn the one-mile gear wheel one complete revolution.

When the wheel goes around six times the peg on its inner-hub turns the worm gear shaft one full revolution. Each full revolution of the worm gear shaft advances the sixty-tooth one-mile gear wheel by one tooth. This gear is marked to show every 1/10th mile of progress. It takes three-hundred sixty turns of the wagon wheel to make the one-mile gear wheel go all the way around. This gear wheel is connected to a larger forty-tooth gear wheel to the right, which is marked to show each mile of progress, and records ten miles in one complete rotation.

Emigrant Wagons


In spite of what Hollywood would have you believe, most covered wagons that headed west were smaller and lighter than the cumbersome Conestoga wagons used earlier in the East. The two common types of emigrant wagons were a straight-sided, box-like structure and the Pennsylvania style wagon, which looked more like a boat with its curved sides and bottoms. The "right" wagon depended on the individual needs and finances.

Some travelers made the journey in simple farm wagons, while others attempted the trek in buggies or carriages. Without a clear idea of what lay ahead, the choice of wagon often came down to what was available rather than what was most suitable for the difficult road to follow.

A Pennsylvania style emigrant wagon (Oregon Historical Society)
Design for a Small Emigrant Wagon (Courtesy of Richard M. Davis)

“Our wagon has square bows, which makes it much more roomy than the rounded bows. Inside the cover on each side are pockets in which odds and ends may be stowed away. There is an ‘upper deck,’ or double floor; the supplies being packed between floors and the bed on the upper one.” – Helen Carpenter, 1857

Working Animals



  • must be supplemented with grain
  • faster
  • tolerate heat
  • most expensive (wide variation in cost)
  • desirable to Indians
  • require expensive harness
  • poor traction in sand & mud
  • generally good temperament
  • tend to run off
  • can be worked to death
  • strong
  • most often used in later trail years (to travel faster)

Mules (A mule is a hybrid offspring of a male donkey and a mare, female horse)

  • must be supplemented with grain
  • faster
  • tolerate heat
  • expensive ($50-$70 each)
  • less desirable to Indians
  • require expensive harness
  • poor traction in sand & mud
  • bad temperament
  • tend to stray
  • will cease working when exhausted
  • not as strong
  • increase use during gold rush (to travel faster and pack)

Oxen (An ox is a castrated male bovine - a steer - over the age of 4 that has been trained to work)

  • eat native vegetation
  • slower (15-20 more days)
  • don't tolerate heat well
  • cheapest ($40 - $50 pair)
  • least desirable to Indians
  • ox yoke, bows, and chain
  • good traction in sand & mud
  • good temperament
  • tend to stay around camp
  • will cease working when exhausted
  • strongest
  • most used draft animal


Oxen accounted for about two-thirds of the draft teams used to pull wagons. Mules made up the balance. Some emigrants brought horses to ride or pull light carts. The use of mules for packing or pulling lighter wagons increased dramatically during the gold rush. Eager to get to California as fast as possible, those who traveled lightly and were more interested in speed than pulling a load preferred mules.

“The mules, stupid as we regarded them, knew more about this business than we did; and several times I thought I could detect them in giving a wise wink and sly leer, as much as to say, that we were perfect novices, and if they could speak, they would give us the benefit of their advice and instruction. A Mexican pack mule is one of the most sagacious and intelligent quadrupeds that I have ever met with.” – Edwin Bryant, 1846

Wagon Living


For four to six months, the wagon was home. If compared to a modern truck in capacity and function, the overland outfit is like loading camping equipment, food, and clothes into the bed of a pickup for an extended trip.

To save space and reduce weight, many wagons had built-in compartments and cupboards. Some emigrants devised items to do double duty, such as a provision box that could be turned into a table. While many people walked the entire way, some wagons had seats in the box so that family members could ride.

Wagon brought across the plains from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Yolo County, California, by John Bemmerly in 1849 (Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

“Some of the emigrants have wagons fitted up in the best possible style, carpeted, with chairs, bed and looking glass, for the convenience of families.” – St. Louis Missouri Republican, 1846

Courtesy of Cornell University Library's making of America Digital Collection Gold Hunters of California - Across the Plains in the Donner Party, by Virginia Murphy, p. 409

"Pioneer Palace Car" in Virginia Reed's 1891 memoir Across the Plains in the Donner Party, originally published in The Century magazine, July 1891. Illustrations by Frederick Remington.

“Mary & I with 3 others sleep in the omnibus. The seats are on the sides & we have boards which we lay across & a cushion & our blankets make a real comfortable place to lie on. Mrs Skader at the corners gave me a pillow which comes real acceptable here.” - Louisa Cook, 1862

What To Take


Wagons became traveling households limited to around 2,000 pounds. Food took up most of the space, but cooking gear, clothing, bedding, tents, medicine chests, washboards, firearms, tools, and spare parts quickly filled the rest. In spite of space and weight limits, many travelers insisted on taking luxuries that would often be discarded when the journey became more difficult than anticipated.

Outfitting a family of four could cost as much as $1,000, not including the cash needed for supplies and other expenses along the way. The most expensive purchase was the draft animals needed to pull the wagons. Those who could not afford to outfit themselves made the journey as hired help or paid to become part of a company.

“This was a busy time, for it was a long, hard trip and there was much planning, provisions to buy, and nothing must be overlooked that was necessary on this six months trip.” – Susan Isabel Drew, 1853

1842 Springfield Musket (Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collections)

Most emigrants took along firearms for hunting and protection. Emigrant guns included nearly every type of civilian and military firearm, including rifles, smoothbore muskets, shotguns, pistols, and revolvers.

A wagon jack was an indispensable item of equipment. (Brookfield Museum and Historical Society)
Every wagon had a tar bucket hanging from the rear axle. (Nebraska State Historical Society Photograph Collection)

The "tar" was a mixture of tar and grease or other lubricant. It was essential for greasing the axles, but it was also used to paint inscriptions on rocks and as a remedy for chapped skin.

“In the way of supplies there was flour, sugar, bacon and ham, tea, coffee, crackers, dried herring, a small quantity of corn starch, dried apples that we brought from Indiana, one bottle of pickles, cream of tartar and soda and that about made up the outfit.” – Helen Carpenter, 1857

Wagon Full of Hope


Each traveler had to make hard choices about what to take and what to leave behind. Necessary items such as food, clothing, and tools pushed the limits on space and weight. Personal items, books, and family mementos often had to be left behind. What would you take or leave if you had to choose?

“When you leave each home with nothing but a wagon full of hope and new baby after each move everything finally gets lost or broken – even your dreams sometimes.” – Elizabeth Duncan

“It was a strange but comprehensive load which we stowed away in our ‘prairie schooner’ and some things which I thought necessities when we started became burdensome luxuries, and before many days I dropped by the road-side a good many unnecessary pots and kettles, for on bacon and flour one can bring but few changes, and it requires but few vessels to cook them.” – Luzena Stanley Wilson, 1849