Roger M McCoy
The story of this trail concerns a certain Lansford Hastings who saw California as a land of opportunity. This enterprising man visualized the area becoming the ‘Republic of California’ with himself as president. Hastings hoped to cement this plan by inducing large numbers of people to emigrate there. To this end he wrote a book called The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California (1845). Hastings described California and Oregon in glowing terms and gave advice on equipment, supplies, and routes to overland travelers. The primary route to California that he outlined separated from the Oregon Trail west of Fort Hall in present day Idaho and followed the Humboldt River as described here in an earlier blog, The California Trail Part 1 (5/30/2019). His book gave many details about the route and persuaded many Americans to migrate west. In his guidebook Hastings also gave brief mention of a cutoff, or alternate route, that left the Oregon trail in the present day state of western Wyoming near Fort Bridger, crossed Utah with its formidable salt barrens, known today as the Bonneville Salt Flats, and eventually rejoined the California trail west of Wells, in northeastern Nevada. [The table-like surface of the Salt Flats is part of the bed of prehistoric Lake Bonneville which covered nearly 20,000 square miles mostly in present day western Utah.]
Hastings’ made it sound extremely easy, however he mentioned the cutoff before actually traveling the route himself, and he was probably unaware of the difficulties in crossing the roadless Wasatch Mountains and the barren, waterless salt flats of western Utah. In 1845 Hastings led a party of wagons over the cutoff and arrived in California safely after a difficult trip. The following year the unfortunate Donner party chose to travel the same route. Their misfortune came because of serious delays crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert, which includes the Bonneville Salt Flats.
One later migrant, Dexter Tiffany, had a fairly positive first impression of the Great Salt Lake Desert as, “entirely destitute of all vegetation so much as your parlor carpet and perfectly white.” He also mentioned that the surface of the salt plain is hard and makes a fine road. Unfortunately their loaded wagons soon broke through the salt crust and became mired in thick mud.
Dexter Tiffany later wrote a much worse view of the Salt Flats. “The surface was about the consistency of wet mortar into which the feet of our horses and mules sank in some places just over the hoof. The wagon wheels sank some six or eight inches.” Tiffany continued with his description of crossing the Salt Flats, “Exhausted oxen littered the trail’s next twenty miles.” At the end of the Salt Flats they found Pilot Spring with “fine springs and fine grass” at the eastern base of Pilot Mountain. Migrants usually rested a day or two at Pilot Springs before continuing west. Tiffany aptly explained the need for rest. He wrote, “I felt sick and weak and slept and dozed all day and thought I should have the fever and could not go on but I did.”
After a few more days of travel beyond Pilot Springs, the Hastings Cutoff makes another time consuming detour around the Ruby Mountains in northeastern Nevada. The Hastings route crosses the Ruby Mountains at Overland Pass near the south end of the mountains. This pass is easy to cross, but a little reconnaissance by Hastings would have shown that the migrants could have traveled a shorter distance by heading directly toward the springs at the head of the Humboldt River near present day Wells, Nevada without going around the south end of the Ruby Mountains. The Hastings route meandered 150 miles to travel westward only fifty or sixty miles from Pilot Springs to the head of the Humboldt River.
The detour around the south end of the Ruby Mountains added five or six days, but was not the only problem causing delays on the Hastings cutoff. The greater delays were also caused during the crossing of the Wasatch Mountains, which required road-building by the migrants, and the Salt Flats, which slowed their pace considerably. These delays were largely responsible for the Donner group reaching the Sierra Nevada mountains about a month behind schedule. There they were stopped in October by an early onset of winter for which they were unprepared. After becoming snowbound, many died of starvation and some of the emigrants resorted to eating their animals and, tragically, the deceased members of the group.
Few migrants followed the Hastings Cutoff after the Donner disaster because the news was spread rapidly by other travelers and writers. One example was written by migrant O.J. Hall: “Those who took the Hastings Cutoff went 60 miles without water, many died—some that reached water were past speaking, with black tongue, blood ran from their mouth. When they revived, they took water back to others. It was a horrible scene. Wagons and property lay in piles along the trail.” Captain John McNulty wrote, “They suffered much--reduced to the necessity of drinking their mules’ urine.” McNulty further described the Hastings Trail, “…a route in my humble opinion which will consign many emigrants and their animals to the wolves, and the rest to much suffering.”
Virginia Reed, a surviving member of the Donner Party, wrote this succinct instruction in an 1847 letter home. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody and never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”
Alas, Hastings’ hope for a Republic of California faded when Mexico ceded California to the United States in 1848 following the Mexican-American war.
These pioneer diaries often read like the great heroic sagas or epic poems in which the hero goes through repeated life-threatening trials interspersed by brief periods of relief. Indeed the men and women making these trips had no idea of the hardships awaiting them and their lives were unwittingly heroic.
Bagley, Will. With Golden Visions Bright Before Them: Trails to the Mining West 1849-1852.
Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2012.
Davis, Robert E. Following Sarah: Sarah Davis's 1849-1850 Journey from Michigan to
California. Quiet Spring Publishers, 2013.
Morgan, Dale L., The Humboldt: Highroad of the West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska