“Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” — Virginia Reed
The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California
Lansford Warren Hastings (1819-1870?)
Cincinnati: G. Conclin, 1845
On April 29, 1847 the nearly three month-long rescue of survivors of the now-infamous Donner-Reed Party ended. The last surviving member arrived at Sutter’s Fort more than a year after the original party had departed from Springfield, Illinois. The first of the lost souls, located near Truckee Lake in the Sierra Nevada, had been found on February 18. Dan Rhoads, one of the rescuers wrote, “They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated and said ‘are you men from California or do you come from heaven?'”
To get from Illinois to California, the Donner-Reed party had relied, in part, on a bestselling book called The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. The author was Lansford Warren Hastings, a young real-estate entrepreneur from Ohio who had financial and political interests in California. Hastings, at age twenty-three, had made a trip west in 1842.
The book had almost no practical advice, in spite of the crowing in its preface of providing “a description of the different routes; and all necessary information relative to the equipment, supplies, and the method of traveling” with the caveat that “all excrescences have been cautiously lopped off, leaving scarcely any thing more than a mere collection of interesting, important and practical facts.”
To make up for the lack of “excrescences,” Hastings regaled the reader with lengthy and snarky anecdotes regarding “Californians,” gamblers and drunks all. “How different are the priests of California from those of the same denomination of christians in our own country?”
In his “guide” he depicted Indians as lazy and Mexicans as dishonest, blaming much of the latter on the priests of the Roman Catholic Church.
“At times, I sympathize with these unfortunate beings, but again, I frequently think, that perhaps, are thus ridden and restrained and if they are thus priest ridden, it is, no doubt, preferable, that they should retain their present riders. ”
As for Indians, Hastings’ wrote, with no irony, that they “in numerous instances, abandoned their old haunts, and re-established in other portions of the country, but for what cause, it is difficult to ascertain, with any degree of certainty, for the sites which have been thus abandoned, appear in many instances, to possess advantages much superior, to those which have been subsequently selected.”
Hastings’ “little work,” as he called it, was inspirational to those wishing to escape the crowded conditions and poor economy of the east and Midwest. Hastings’ book promoted the land and climate of California as ideal companions for hardworking “Americans.” His book was read by one of the drivers of the Donner family wagons. A copy of the book, owned by Jacob Donner, much-handled, was found in the saddlebag of one of the travelers.
Hastings’ guidebook had bad information and good.
Good: In Chapter XV Hastings discussed “The Equipment, Supplies, and the Method of Traveling.” First, “All persons, designing to travel by this route, should, invariably, equip themselves with a good gun.” (Indians and/or buffalo.) Second, “It would, perhaps, be advisable for emigrants, not to encumber themselves with any other, than those just enumerated; as it is impracticable for them, to take all the luxuries, to which they have been accustomed; and as it is found, by experience, that, when upon this kind of expedition, they are not desired, even by the most devoted epicurean.”
The Reed family brought with them an invalid grandmother, a piano and an iron cookstove.
Bad: Hastings, eager to sell land in California, encouraged travelers to forget about Oregon and make their way to California, suggesting a cutoff through the Wasatch Mountains, passing to the south of the Great Salt Lake and then across the salt flats to rejoin the California Trail at the Humboldt River. Hastings, who had not, in fact, traveled this route, was sure the shortcut would save travelers valuable time. The passage in Hastings’ guidebook was short and carried no description: “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco, by the route just described.”
The Donner-Reed Party, stopping at Fort Bernard, were warned not to take the route. Still, they had been delayed for one reason or another almost from the start and needed to make up time. The shortcut would enable them to do so. A meeting with an emissary of Hastings, on his way back to Ohio, convinced the Donner-Reed Party even more of this need. In a letter, Hastings warned of the war between the United States and Mexico and advised travelers to take his shortcut of about two hundred miles, promising to meet the emigrants at Fort Bridger and to guide them over the deserts and mountains of his new route, crossing what would become the states of Utah and Nevada. It was a convincing proposal. Hastings never met them. The party found another guide to take them as far as the salt plain west of the Great Salt Lake. Again, others warned against taking this route.
At the mouth of the Weber Canyon the Donner party found a note from Hastings, now guiding another group, advising them that the canyon was impassable with wagons and offering to provide them with yet another route. The company waited while James Reed rode ahead to meet Hastings, who refused to act as guide but showed Reed a potential route to follow. No one in the party saw Hastings again, although they heard from him one more time in the form of a wind-ripped note that warned of two days and nights of hard driving across the desert to reach water. The company plodded on, ignoring a sentence buried only pages away from the cutoff passage in the Hasting guide: “…for, unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained, by impassable mountains of snow, until the next spring, or, perhaps, forever.”
Thank you, Friends of the Library, for your many gifts to Rare Books over the years, including this historic guide.
Wallis, Michael. The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017
General Collection, Level 2
F868 N5 W36 2017