If I could blame one man for the deaths of 41 people in the Donner Party it would be Lansford Hastings, the creator, founder, director of the Hastings Cutoff disaster, circa 1846.

Lansford was born in Ohio to wealthy parents who could trace their American origins back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He trained as a lawyer, but he had bigger dreams than staying in the Midwest and practicing his trade. Lansford wanted to rule the world—starting with California. At age 23, and only four years before he met up with James Reed of the Donner Party in Nevada’s Wasatch Mountains, Lansford traveled the Oregon Trail, and firmed up his plans for the U.S. to take over California from Mexico, feeling that he could easily hold political office in this new country. To his dying day in the Virgin Islands at age 51, Lansford never gave up his dreams of ruling the world, as he set his sights on Brazil, the proposed future home for all of his disgruntled Confederate friends.

A good-looking, charismatic young fellow and a decent writer, Lansford wrote the Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California in 1845 as a way to get nice Midwestern folks over to California so he could build his empire. The Hastings Cutoff is only a line in the book and he DID NOT promote his Cutoff through this book (a common misconception), BUT he should have at least traveled the route once before he wrote about it with confidence. “The most direct path would be leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west-south west, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco.” (Hastings, pp. 137–138). The only time Lansford traveled the route was with the wagon train that came through right before the Donner Party did in the summer of 1846, and they had an extremely hard go of it through Weber Canyon (which the Donner Party didn’t take).

The Donner brothers (George and Jacob), as well as James Reed fell in love with Lansford’s book and soaked up every word as they prepared to set off with their wagons in 1846 from Springfield, Missouri. They were determined to take the Cutoff even after an experienced mountain man and fellow Black Hawk war buddy, Jim Clyman, warned Reed not to. Reed didn’t want to listen to any good advice. He wanted to believe that the Cutoff would save time and get them all to California before all of the land there was sold to other folks. Reed also was sick and tired of being around his Donner Party frenemies and couldn’t wait for the journey to end. Many shared his sentiments. On a map, it DOES look like it’ll be shorter because it’s a straight line, but there was a reason the wagons did loop-de-loops. Wagons were driven by oxen, and oxen had to follow water and grass, so you followed the waterways, which don’t line up straight on a map.

Jim Bridger of Fort Bridger (he was portrayed as a squirrely individual in The Revenant (2015) film) loved Lansford’s book because he needed these wagon trains to come through his fort and buy his supplies instead of using the Greenwood Cut-off on the way to Fort Hall, the regular and proven route. Fort Bridger had become a ghost town because as wagon trains veered off north to Fort Hall, and so they bypassed his supply depot. Were there pay-offs? Probably, although nothing has ever been proven. But we know one thing: Edwin Bryant, a smart journalist, who traveled ahead of the Donners with others on mules left letters imploring his former Donner Party traveling buddies NOT to take the Hastings Cutoff. Unfortunately, Bridger and his partner, Louis Vasquez, purloined these letters so the Donners were left in the dark. There’s a good reason no one ever traveled the Hastings Cutoff twice. The poor Donners had to a blaze a trail without dynamite and ride through craters and brush on bulky wagons. The “short cut” added extra thirty days of slogging through the mountains, cliffs, and desert costing them food, water, energy, and later their lives when they failed to reach the Sierra Nevadas before the snows covered their one accessible path.

Lansford’s advice wasn’t all that bad. He did warn them. “Unless you pass over the mountains early in the fall, you are very liable to be detained, be impassable mountains of snow, until the next spring, or, perhaps, forever.”

And thanks to the Donners, the Mormons had less of a hard time blazing their trail when they traveled through the Hastings Cutoff the next summer. So there’s that.

Virginia Reed, James Reed’s oldest daughter who was 13 at the time, was probably thinking her dad was the biggest idiot, and Lansford Hastings her mortal enemy. If Virginia had a kill list like Arya from Game of Thrones, he’d surely be at the top. I love Virginia Reed’s quote in a letter she sent to her cousin back East: “Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.”

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