In Search of Johnson’s Ranch

In Search of Johnson’s Ranch

If you were to travel to Wheatland today in search of the original Johnson’s Ranch site, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything that resembled that location, considering that in 1846 Johnson’s Ranch was the western terminus of the Overland Emigrant Trail. Thousands of pioneers resupplied there on their way to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento or other settlements north, south, and west. With their last supply opportunity more than a thousand miles back at Fort Hall in Idaho, Johnson’s Ranch was a welcome relief to re-stock, rest and water livestock as the emigrants then scattered across California. Once gold was discovered, a hundred wagons a day travelled through Johnson’s Ranch on their way to the gold fields in the foothills.

In our search for Johnson’s Ranch, we followed the Truckee River trail markers to marker T-69, on the western edge of Camp Far West. It sits just off the road next to another marker that heralded the location of the Graham Hotel, another strategically positioned gathering place for pioneers as they neared Johnson’s Ranch. 

As is illustrated by the markers, getting to Johnson’ Ranch was a huge relief for the emigrants and much like Johnson’s Ranch, the Graham Hotel’s popularity and fame was fleeting.

The last marker, T-70, before losing the trail to Johnson’s Ranch is just off Camp Far West Road.

And that’s where the trail seems to end, just a T-marker along a rural road with no sign of Johnson’s Ranch. We continued our search on our way into Wheatland and found a sign titled Overland Emigrant Trail on the Spenceville Road headed into Wheatland. More frustration. At least we’re within a couple miles of Johnson’s Ranch, but where is it?

We continued into Wheatland and found another formal landmark on Front Street. We knew that Johnson’s Ranch wasn’t located in downtown Wheatland so the search continued. 

When you really need to know the original story on these types of circa-1846 locations, the best strategy is to reach out to historical societies and historians of the trail . Once the www.forlornhope.org website was up, we were lucky enough to attract a member of the Wheatland Historical Society and  the Oregon California Trail Association (OCTA), Bill Holmes.

Ironically enough, Bill was actively working on restoring the original Johnson’s Ranch site. He invited us out to see what was left of the site so we could see it first-hand. It’s located on a private ranch just off the Bear River and for generations had largely been neglected. Bill was working with the current land owner on a plan to preserve and protect the site and make it publicly accessible so it could once again be appreciated by the general public for the important role it played in both being the place the Forlorn Hope party was welcomed and also the launch point of all the relief parties that ventured back to Truckee Lake in their pursuit to save those trapped on the eastern side of the Sierra. 

Through Bill’s contacts with the current land owner and the willingness of them to allow the prominence of Johnson’s Ranch to return as a public monument, our group will be allowed to finish our trek at the original Johnson’s Ranch, following the wagon ruts through the field from T-marker 70, through the ranch to the same ground that William Eddy stood when he was shepherded by the local indians to the Ritchie household. Although our arrival in December won’t quite generate the same buzz that Eddy’s arrival did in January of 1847, our Forlorn Hope 2020 group feels extremely fortunate and grateful for the help of Bill Holmes and the current Johnson’s Ranch land owner in allowing us to finish on the same ground that the Forlorn Hope 1846 did. 

If you’re interested in following the Truckee Trail, the driving guide for the trail and all the T-markers can be found here:

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