“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail


Today most of the seven-hundred-mile trail from Fort Bridger to Sutler’s Fort can be followed with good maps, guidebooks, and a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle. The glamorous spots along the emigrant trails have tended to be the well-known sites in Nebraska and Wyoming: Scotts Bluff, Fort Laramie, and South Pass. Yet some of the most haunting places on the way West are to be found on Hastings’ Cutoff, along the glorious, desolate wastes of the Great Basin or high in the Sierra Nevada.

High atop Big Mountain in the heart of the Wasatch, you can stand where Lansford Hastings sketched routes in the air with his finger for James Reed as they stood peering out across the tangled chaos of canyons that recede into infinity. From Hastings’ Pass in the Cedar Mountains west of the Great Salt Lake, you can gaze, as the emigrants did, out over the fearful white expanse of the Salt Desert—“the most desolate country perhaps on the whole globe,” James Clyman wrote. You can drive where the Donner Party wandered for days through the endless basin-and-range country of Nevada—jagged mountains ringing the horizon like “broken crockery,” one emigrant wrote, “uninspiring unless you were desperate to be inspired.” You can ascend into the rugged, twisting valley of the Truckee River that led the doomed company up past Truckee Meadows (now Reno, Nevada) higher and higher into the mountains—to the clear lake that lies a thousand feet beneath the dark, brooding summit of Donner Pass. Here the miserable party huddled in two makeshift winter camps. Here many of them died, and here, when there was nothing else they could do, many ate the bodies of the dead.

For many overlanders the journey was, if not a lark, certainly the greatest adventure of their lives.

Of the eighty-seven members of the Donner Party, forty-six finally made it through to California. By April 1847 the last of the survivors had been brought out of the mountains and down into the Sacramento Valley to Sutler’s Fort.

The old trading post still stands today, a few blocks from the California State Capitol in the heart of downtown Sacramento. There is much of note to see there, but the most moving artifact is a tiny four-inch doll on display in a sealed glass case. When James Reed’s eight-year-old daughter Patty finally got to California after the long ordeal, she had pulled from her ragged dress a little bundle. In it were a lock of her grandmother’s hair and a tiny doll she had carried with her all the way across the continent from Springfield, Illinois.

Most of the journeys West did not end as the Donner Party’s did. Most of the men, women, and children who left Independence and the other starting points arrived safely at their destinations. Indeed, for many overlanders the journey was, if not a lark, then certainly the greatest adventure of their lives. But the happy endings tend to disguise, or at least diminish, the risk, the hardship, the pain—and with those the greed, ambition, and folly—that went into the great westward migrations. The trail of the Donner Party shows us how extraordinarily precarious the emigrant experience was for all those who went West, whether they fully understood it or not—how easy it was for things to go wrong and how easily they could have gone wrong for anyone.

And yet they came. Perhaps what the geography of the overland trails shows most movingly is how powerful, if also how blind, the forces were that drove Americans West, how strong the urge was to leave everything behind and start over again. Francis Parkman may have been certain that “multitudes bitterly repent the journey, and after they have reached the land of promise, are happy enough to escape from it,” but he was simply wrong. Some men and women gave up and turned around, but many more did not, and most did not repent the journey at all. Even those who underwent the worst adversity often found a positive, sustaining meaning in what they had been through.

In May 1847 James Reed’s thirteen-year-old stepdaughter, Virginia, wrote a long and harrowing account to her cousin Mary back in Illinois of the troubles they had encountered on the way. “O Mary,” she declared, as her narrative came to an end, “I have not wrote you half of the truble, but I hav Wrote you anuf to let you [k]now what truble is but thank god [we are] the onely family that did not eat human flesh we have left everything but I don’t cair for that we have got [through with our lives].”

Here the young girl, anxious not to discourage those who might come after, and eager to find the moral of it all, appended an astonishing remark. “Don’t let this letter dishearten anybody,” she wrote, concluding: “Never take no cutofs and hurry along as fast as you can.”