Between 1841 and 1869, up to 250,000 emigrants followed the California Trail along the Humboldt River to California. in 1846, the Donner Party traveled along this trail and Donner Party teamster, John Snyder was killed in a dispute with wagon master James Reed east of Winnemucca. Reed was banished from the wagon train, but ironically he and his companion made it over the Sierra and led several rescue efforts to save surviving members of his family and others stranded at Donner Lake.
The Applegate Trail was established in 1846. Emigrants using this route turned of the main California Trail at present-day Rye Patch Reservoir to travel west across the Black Rock Desert on their way to Oregon and California. The Nobles Route cut off from the Applegate Trail in 1852 and was later amended in 1854.
Emigrants started their journey from Missouri River towns in late April or early May and generally reached the Humboldt River in the blazing heat of mid-July and August. By this time, many were running low on provisions. Their animals were weary and undernourished and the grass along the river has been grazed out y the preceding emigrant traffic. Many animals perished, and their corpses littered the trail and decomposed in the river. Emigrant s were often forced to abandon their wagons, discard many of their belongings and fashion packs
to carry the barest of necessities on their own backs or on their animals. Emigrants complained about the Humboldt River in their diaries, as the river they encountered was a far cry from the productive river Native Americans knew prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans.
To the east of present-day Winnemucca, emigrants found vast fields of grass known as "The Island" and camped in a spot known as "Upper Meadows." As early as 1852, whiskey, ginger beer and beef were traded there. By 1863, there was a small settlement near the confluence of the Humboldt and Little Humboldt Rivers called Frenchman's Ford. Emigrants forded the Humboldt River in several places in this area to get better grass.
In the 1860s, the California Trail and associated routes and cutoffs were used to transport freight to regional mines. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 ended most cross-country use of the California Trail, but portions of the trail continued to be used as wagon roads.