With visions of Manifest Destiny in his head, Lansford Hastings, a young attorney from Mount Vernon, Ohio, set out for Oregon. It was 1842. He had met a Dr. Elijah White, who had come through Knox County with a group of emigrants on their way to Oregon. Hastings saw opportunity and became a member of their party.
White’s party was being led by Thomas Fitzpatrick, a frontiersman who had, in 1841, led the Bidwell party on an unsuccessful attempt to bring a wagon train into the Mexican territory of California. Circumstances eventually put Hastings in charge.
He was an ambitious young man whose ambitions expanded after going West. His focus soon turned from Oregon to Alta California – that same province of Mexico that other White men saw as a land of opportunity. In 1843 he led a small party to Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley of California. It had been founded by John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who had gotten a land grant from the Mexican government. Sutter and Hastings became friends.
Both men believed that a British or French takeover of California was a distinct possibility, and preferred to see California in American hands. What they envisioned was Americans heading West to populate California, rid it of Mexican rule, and create an independent republic.
With this in mind, Hastings wrote The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, for the purpose of persuading Americans to uproot and head to California.
In the book Hastings mentioned a possible shortcut along the California Trail. The search for shortcuts, or “cutoffs,” was well-established; Hastings wasn’t the only guide who was proposing one.
The exact route to California depended on a number of factors: starting point, final destination, the time of year one traveled, the state of relations with Indian tribes, and, most importantly, water and grass availability. Travelers and their animals needed water and grass, which is why emigrants sought to travel along river valleys.
The trip typically began in April or May, when grass was growing and trails were dry enough to support wagons. It was set to be completed before the first snow out West.
The overland route to California began – as the Oregon Trail did – in towns along the Missouri River. It would diverge from the Oregon Trail in either Idaho, Wyoming, or Utah to take trails leading to the Humboldt River valley of northern Nevada. The Humboldt River provided a pathway across the Great Basin desert as it headed West.
The river would disappear into what is called the Humboldt Sink – an alkali-laden lake. One of the worst sections of the California Trail would then appear: the so-called Forty Mile Desert. Travelers would be crossing an area with no usable water.
It was at this point that travelers had to figure out how to get beyond the desert and over the Sierra Nevada mountains. The Trail split into two major branches here: the Truckee Trail and the Carson Trail. The Truckee and Carson Rivers drained the Sierra Nevada, flowing eastward. So travelers followed the rivers westward to get across the mountains.
In 1844, members of the Stephens party, some of whom were experienced mountain men, met with a Paiute Indian chief who gave them directions over the mountains. As the story goes, he told them to follow the Truckee River to a pass over the Sierra Nevada. It was the Stephens party that completed the opening of the first overland wagon route to California.
Lansford Hastings had eagerly anticipated the arrival of emigrants to California, and he himself led small parties of emigrants. In April of 1846 he left California and headed east to meet the year’s emigration, sending a message to them by way of an eastbound traveler: if they met him at Fort Bridger (in Wyoming), he would lead them on a new, faster route to California.
Sixty to seventy-five wagons traveled with him on this cutoff and made it safely to California. The Donner party, led by brothers George and Jacob Donner and James Reed, were on the trail after this successful trek.
The Hastings Cutoff, which the Donners had also chosen to take, involved difficulties such as a dangerous descent down Weber Canyon (in Utah), a drive across the Great Salt Lake Desert, and a long detour around the Ruby Mountains of Nevada.
The Donner party – consisting of families with their wagons and draft animals – made it to the mouth of Weber Canyon, which sits in the Wasatch Mountain range. Hastings left them a message that the road ahead was impassable, telling them to send someone ahead for new instructions. James Reed and two others set out.
What they had to do was build a road through the Wasatch Mountains. Creating this path set the Donners back a week. In late August they were able to set out across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Their water ran out, and some of their animals took off, so they spent another week at the base of Pilot Mountain trying to recover animals and prepare for the next leg of their trip. They finally got around the Ruby Mountains and arrived at the Humboldt River – and the regular trail.
The delays had cost them about three weeks.
The Donner party was the last emigrant group of 1846 to get to California. They made it to just east of the Sierra Nevada when an early snowfall began. They were stranded in the eastern Sierras.
The details of what the Donner party faced make for some of the most harrowing stuff I’ve ever read. What those families went through can only be described as a living Hell. The Donner party were men with their wives and children. A number of the children were quite young. Among them were infants.
Roughly half of them didn’t make it. Most of the dead were men.
It was in April of the following year that a rescue party – one of several – brought out the last member of the Donner party, a man named Louis Keseberg.
Some people who chronicle these events lay much of the blame for what happened to the Donners right at the feet of Lansford Hastings. They say he promoted that alternate route through the Wasatch Mountains without having traveled it himself.
It is also suggested that he may have actually taken the route but that he had been on horseback with other men – a far different scenario from being in a caravan of oxen-drawn wagons.
The same year the last member of the Donners was brought into California marked the end of hostilities in California involving the Mexican-American War. The war was concluded there by informal agreement, the Treaty of Cahuenga. The Californios (Californians of Mexican descent) agreed to lay down arms for the duration of the war and conform to the laws of the United States. In six months, U.S. naval forces had seized and “pacified” the entire area of what is today California.
Lansford Hastings had dreamed of holding high office in an independent Republic of California, but his aspirations were to go nowhere. The “Capitulation of Cahuenga” saw to that. The following year, Mexico formally gave up Alta California, among other territories, in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Hastings wasn’t quite done with California, though. Pro-South during the Civil War, he favored a plan to separate California from the Union and unite it with the Confederacy. His plan came to nothing.