After researching this topic and looking at several examples of quilts named Road to California I've come to the conclusion that this name does not represent a single quilt block. Instead it signifies a great migration for the name, Road to California, has been used for several quilt block patterns.
The discovery of gold at Sutter's mill, a sawmill upriver from Sacramento, triggered a massive migration to California in 1849. Although gold had been found in California earlier this find got far more publicity first in San Francisco and then nationally. Thousands of gold seekers rushed westward in hopes of finding riches in gold.
With so many gold seekers and inflated prices many men returned home disappointed. Few women had gone west with the gold rush but some of the men saw other possibilities for earning a good living in the west. Farming, ranching and commercial enterprises inspired many to bring their families to California.
Soon it was not just the menfolk but families, often extended families, traveling the road to California. The incredible increase in population was a big part of why California was made the 31st state in 1850.
Various Patterns Named Road to California
Many of the Road to California patterns I've seen involve triangles. These triangles can represent birds and movement, both themes of the westward journey. There are many patterns that use triangles to represent the flight of birds. The Flying Geese pattern involves a series of triangles going in the same direction representing the migration of geese. It's not surprising that triangles were used to represent the migration of pioneers as well. The Road to California pattern to the left and those above include triangles as an important element. The pattern we often call Jacob's Ladder and at other times Underground Railroad is sometimes called Road to California.
The quilt pattern shown to the right is far different than the other Road to California quilt patterns I found. In her 1929 book Ruth Finely described this pattern as a most difficult one. Finley relates that the small pieces in the example pictured in her book were only one inch square. 2 Although there are no triangles the quilt gives the impression of wheels rolling along toward California. You may know this pattern as Burgoyne Surrounded or Burgoyne Surround.
I looked over several examples of Road to California and designed the pattern in the upper right of this webpage on similar patterns by this name. It was fun to look over these quilts noticing slight variations. This pattern is a reminder to us that creative variations have always been a natural part of making a quilt.
The free pattern can be found at Road to California Quilt Pattern.
© 2007 Judy Anne Breneman (For your personal use only. Please write to me for permission before you copy this for others.)
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1 p14, "Ho for California!: Pioneer Women and Their Quilts ", by Jean Ray Laury
2 p 82, "Old patchwork Quilts and The Women Who Made Them", by Ruth FinleyThe quilt block to the right illustrates a one used in a quilt made by several women while traveling together on a wagon train to California. Go to Road to California: A Pioneer Quilt Made on the Overland Trail to read all about it and see what the full quilt looked like. It's quite likely that this quilt got it's name simply because it was made on the way to California.