Emigrants on the Overland Trail: The Wagon Trains of 1848

Michael E. LaSalle


Presenting the “lost” year of the overland emigrants in 1848, this volume sheds light on the journey of the men, women, children, and the wagon trains that made the challenging trek from Missouri to Oregon and California.

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Presenting the “lost” year of the overland emigrants in 1848, this volume sheds light on the journey of the men, women, children, and the wagon trains that made the challenging trek from Missouri to Oregon and California. These primary sources written by seven men and women diarists from different wagon companies, tell how settlers endured the tribulations of a five-month westward journey covering 2,000 miles. These intrepid souls include a young mother, a French priest, a college-educated teacher, and an ox driver. Subjected to the extremes of fear, failure, suffering, and hope, they persevered and finally triumphed.

Tapping into newly discovered archival sources, Michael LaSalle enriches our understanding of the westward movement through his painstaking reconstruction of the experiences of eighteen wagon trains that took to the Oregon and California Trails in 1848. Richly illustrated with photographs, artwork, and maps, his narrative weaves the various “voices” of these pioneer reporters into a compelling day-to-day trail experience that provides insight into this great American adventure.

—Willis M. Conover, Professor Emeritus,
The University of Scranton

Emigrants on the Overland Trail takes a unique and fascinating approach to writing about westward emigration. Rather than just following one group of emigrants, Michael LaSalle follows all the wagon trains that headed west in 1848. As they struggle along each section of the trail, readers develop a thorough understanding of the physical and emotional challenges of the journey. We come to know and care about the successes of these pioneers. This is a “must read” for everyone interested in Overland Trail history.

—Lynda Paznokas, Professor Emeritus, Washington State University


Illustrations, Tables, and Maps

Just Five Months to Get There
St. Joseph, a Rising Star
Load the Wagons

The Talk Before the Walk
A Vast Green Sea
Indian Troubles
Independence, a Star in Decline
Through the Tallgrass Prairie
Black Beasts, Black Faces
Come, Come Ye Saints
The Babylon of the West
The Sweetness of the Sweetwater
Les Mauvaises Terres
The Great Trail Forked
Snaking Through Vulcan’s Workshop
Glory, Hallelujah, I Shall Die a Rich Man Yet!
The Heavenly Scent of Oregon Pine
Time to Pay the Gatekeeper
The End of the Journey

Works Cited


Michael E. LaSalle graduated from the University of California, Davis, School of Law. For the next forty years, he practiced law, farmed, and operated a dairy, often concurrently. He lives in Hanford, California, where he still farms and pursues his interest in tracking down Western history.


This in-depth approach to overland-trail accounts results in a rich synthesis that yields detailed insight into the day-to-day experiences of the participants. Overall, this information-packed volume has much to offer readers interested in the overland emigration experience. With its novel approach to travel narratives, Emigrants on the Overland Trail should also serve scholars as a jumping off point for their own further research.

Caryn M. Davis, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2013

LaSalle’s work is at its best as it recaptures the travails of the long trip.... After the discovery of so many valuable journals and LaSalle’s tireless effort to retrace these settlers’ steps, 1848 can no longer be seen as the “lost” year.

Kansas History, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2013

Many writers of the westward migrations take a linear approach to trail history. They start at the jumping off places and carefully navigate the sturdy band of pioneers past the grand sights and through the trail’s tribulations to reach the Promised Land. Places once passed are no longer needed in the narrative. Time is considered only as a measure of how long it takes to get to the destination. Michael E. LaSalle goes beyond the singular uses of time and place. […] LaSalle demonstrates an understanding of the trail shared by very few. One feels that he cheated and went back in time to travel the trail himself. This book advances the way travel on the Oregon and California Trails can and should be viewed.

—Loren Pospisil, Nebraska State Historical Society, 2013

And in some sense, this is also a guide to the trails...the author provides a series of 20 maps...along with descriptions of how to reach each designated campsite or landmark today...It is these original accounts that form the heart of the book and provide its deserving spot on our shelf of important works about the history of the West.

Judson Grenier, California History, Volume 89.4,  2012

As a tireless researcher, dedicated trail hound, keen observer, and lively writer, retired attorney and practical historian Michael E. LaSalle provides an engaging and useful look at an extremely interesting year in the story of America’s overland wagon roads. His brisk narrative vividly evokes the landscape’s sounds, smells, and characters, and its landforms, rivers, canyons, desert basins, and ranges. His intimate grasp of the trails’ complex geography conveys where wagons went and why they went there.

Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 43.4, Winter 2012

The emigrants of 1848—deemed the lost year by many—have found their voice through Michael E. LaSalle's Emigrants on the Overland Trail: The Wagon Trains of1848. LaSalle pieces together the travels of eighteen distinct trains in 1848 through the writings of seven different emigrants, many of which have been previously unused. Despite the narrow focus on one year of trail travel, this book is an enjoyable overview about western migration prior to the California Gold Rush.

Annals of Wyoming, Autumn 2012

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