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How the Donner Party Was Doomed By a Disastrous Shortcut

The pioneers hoped to shave 300 miles off their journey. But the route they took to California had never been tested.

After it was all over, Virginia Reed wrote a long letter to her cousin. A member of the infamous Donner Party, the 13-year-old had recently suffered through one of the most grueling—and gruesome—overland crossings of all time. Though Virginia said her family had not eaten human flesh to survive, other members of the party had.

“O Mary I have not wrote you half the trouble we have had,” she lamented in 1847 of the tragic expedition to California that had descended into cannibalism. Then she offered a bit of advice only a member of the Donner-Reed Party could have given: “Never take no cutofs and hury along as fast as you can.”

A group of California-bound American emigrants known as the Donner Party, who after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1847, resorted to cannibalism.

A group of California-bound American emigrants known as the Donner Party, who after becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1847, resorted to cannibalism.

Virginia Reed and the other members of the Donner-Reed Party had been suckered into a supposed shortcut to California that had led them to disaster. Hastings Cutoff, as it was known, was briefly touted as a better way for pioneers to get to Cal—even though its main promoter had never traveled the treacherous route.

Lansford Hastings was an ambitious attorney who saw the promise in California and Oregon years before the Gold Rush sent thousands of fortune-seekers out west. In the early 1840s, he spent time in the future states. “In the process,” writes Donner Party historian Daniel James Brown, “he hoped to build a reputation, and perhaps a political career for himself in one of the new lands.”

To further those goals, Hastings published The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California in 1845, a book that billed itself as a one-stop guide to traveling West. He wanted to promote white settlement in California, which he hoped would become an independent state, and also to profit from his travels.

Lansford Hastings.

Lansford Hastings.

The book contained a passing reference to a route that would save more than 300 miles over the traditional California Trail that previous emigrants had used, which took travelers across Wyoming and into southern Idaho before crossing down into Nevada to reach California.

“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 St. Francisco,” Hastings declared. The description was brief, but to those who dreamed of settling California, the route through Utah teemed with promise.

There was just one problem: Hastings had never tested out the route. Only in 1846, after the book had been in print for a year, did he get a chance to try it. The self-styled guide to all things California took the route from Salt Lake to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. The weather was mild and because he wasn’t headed toward the Sierra Nevadas, time was not of the essence.

Once Hastings got to Fort Bridger, he spread the word that his overland route was faster and better than any other. “It was Hastings’s renown as an author and trail leader, coupled with his presence on the trail…that helped persuade the emigrants to undertake the cutoff that now bears his name,” writes historian Thomas F. Andrews. To further publicize his route, Hastings wrote open letters claiming that his route would save pioneers’ time, and that he’d meet anyone interested at Fort Bridger to lead them to California.

Either the passage or Hastings’ self-made fame were enough to convince a group of pioneers led by the Donner and Reed families to take his shortcut.

Wasatch Mountains

Weber Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, circa 1868.

Instead of passing through Idaho, Hastings’ route swerved into Utah. It involved trekking through Weber Canyon, a steep, dangerous path that involved walking through a quickly-moving river to get between sheer walls of quartz rock. That was just the start. Once Hastings’ followers got further into Utah, they would have to cross the salt flats surrounding the Great Salt Lake, a salt desert that involved trekking for 80 miles with no water.

While the route was appealing on paper, it had its share of detractors, including James Clyman, a mountain man who had accompanied Hastings east from California. Another skeptic was journalist Edwin Bryant, who was concerned that the shortcut was too risky. But his warning letters never made it to the party.

Clyman was also an old friend of James Frazier Reed, one of the Donner-Reed party’s organizers. When they ran into one another at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, Clyman warned his friend not to take Hastings Cutoff. "I told him to 'take the regular wagon track and never leave it — it is barely possible to get through if you follow it — and it may be impossible if you don’t,'” wrote Clyman. “Reed replied, ‘There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.’ I admitted the fact, but told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.”

The allure of a shorter route was clear. The Donner-Reed party was large—with nearly 90 people—and had already taken plenty of time on the trail. By the time they got to Fort Bridger, they were determined to take the new route. Despite Hastings’ promise to guide their party along the route, he was not there to escort them: he had gone ahead with another party.

The trail presented problems from the start. Unlike the California Trail, which had already been well worn by travelers, Hastings Cutoff lacked clear markings or wagon ruts to follow. Ahead of the Donners, Hastings’ party ran into serious trouble when they tried to traverse Weber Canyon. He left a note encouraging the Donners and Reeds to go a different way.

Members of the party rode ahead to catch up with him, but Hastings didn’t come back with them. Instead, he told them about his proposed alternative route. Back on the trail, the party had to make the hard decision to follow through with his recommendations.

Disaster ensued. The men of the party had to hack through the Wasatch Mountains themselves, moving trees and cutting down brush to make it possible for the party’s enormous wagons to get through. After weeks of wasted time in the mountains, they finally made it to Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert.

Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party, seen in Summit Valley circa 1866.

Stumps of trees cut by the Donner Party, seen in Summit Valley circa 1866.

It was a perilous journey. The salt flats had turned into mud that made their wagon wheels practically useless. As the Donner Party slowly dragged their wagons across the Great Salt Lake’s flats, they began to offload everything they could, dumping their personal belongings overboard as they coaxed their oxen and their primitive vehicles forward. Oxen became dehydrated and died or ran away; members of the party began to see mirages of lakes and even Hastings’ party.

“Anguish and dismay now filled all hearts,” wrote Virginia Poor Donner Houghton, the youngest child of John Donner. “Some cursed Hastings for the false statements in his open letter and or his broken pledge at Fort Bridger.”

When the party finally made it across the salt flats, they rejoined the trail usually taken by emigrants. Now they were running a month late, and many of their oxen had run off or died on the salt flats. The worst was yet to come. Because of the time lost taking Hastings Cutoff, the party ran into a catastrophic—and fatal—snowstorm. Only 48 of the original 87 party members would survive getting snowbound in the Sierra Nevada that winter, and hunger and desperation would turn some of them into cannibals. 

The doomed party’s wagon ruts can still be seen on Utah’s salt flats—a mute reminder of what happened when the party trusted an impresario’s words about how to travel to California. 

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