Red Rock Canyon became a landmark on the California Road, the pioneer trail that led westward from Ft. Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe, New Mexico. During the 1849 California Gold Rush, it was a haven for weary travelers. The canyon provided fresh water, grazing for livestock and a place to rest and repair their wagons.
The discovery of gold in California occurred in January 1848. When reliable news reached Americans in the East and was widely published in newspapers and gazettes in the fall of 1848, the country went wild with gold fever excitement. All across the land people dropped what they were doing and prepared for the adventure west – CALIFORNIA OR BUST!
There were several ways of traveling to the gold country. The sea voyage took prospectors either by way “around the horn” of Cape Horn, Chile, South America, or by way across Panama and Nicaragua of Central America. Both sea routes terminated in San Francisco, the jumping off place to the gold fields. The land voyage took prospectors overland by northern routes such as the Oregon Trail, Morman Trail, and the Santa Fe Trail.
Less well known was a southern overland route called the California Road Trail. The trail started at Ft. Smith, Arkansas, followed the south bank of the Canadian River (South Canadian River today) through Indian Territory (Oklahoma), then across the Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle and on to Santa Fe, New Mexico. There the trail connected with existing Spanish trails traveling west to California.
This southern route along the Canadian River had been known for many years previous to the gold rush. It was an established trade route through Indian Territory. American explorers included Stephen H. Long (1821), Josiah Gregg (1839-40), and Nathan Boone (1843). The Cherokee scout, Jesse Chisholm (1839) was also familiar with routes through western Indian Territory.
Captain Randolph B. Marcy led a party of about 500 settlers west in 1849. He commanded 80 soldiers from the 1st Regiment of Dragoons and the 5th Regiment of Infantry. They used the famous Delaware scout Black Beaver to guide them on their way. This party left Ft. Smith in April and reached Santa Fe on June 28, 1849.
Edward F. Beale used this California Road Trail in November 1858 as he surveyed a proposed route for a railroad to Santa Fe. This railroad was not built because of the Civil War. After the Civil War, the California Road remained an active and important road west until railroads were finally built through Indian Territory in the 1880's and 1890's. The remains of the abandoned Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad roadbed makes up the west boundary of Red Rock Canyon State Park. The roadbed can be seen at the end of this nature trail.
Today, the California Road trail ruts remain as a monument to an important episode in the development of the United States.
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