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“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail
The first caravans lumbered across two thousand miles of dangerous, inhospitable wilderness in 1843, the year of the Great Migration. To a surprising degree it’s still possible to follow something very like their route.
May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
The large company the Donners and Reeds joined included Edwin Bryant; the ex-governor of Missouri, Lillburn Boggs; and several of Daniel Boone’s grandsons. They chose for their captain an amiable, bombastic Kentuckian named William (“Owl”) Russell, who called himself colonel and had once been secretary to Sen. Henry Clay.
There were three hundred emigrants in seventy-odd wagons when the Russell Party began to move. The train included clergymen, lawyers, physicians, schoolteachers, painters and printers, a jeweler, a stonemason and a blacksmith, mechanics of every trade, and representatives from almost every state in the Union. “The majority,” Jesse Quinn Thornton wrote, “were plain, honest, substantial, intelligent, enterprising and virtuous.”
The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of St. Francisco. The entire distance by this route, from Independence is about twenty-one hundred miles; and the usual time required in performing the journey, to either of those countries, will be found to be about one hundred and twenty days—exclusive of delays.
—Lansford W. Hastings The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California
In 1846 the Oregon Trail wound its way west from Independence following the gentlest slope the continent could afford and the availability of water: west along the Kansas River, northwest up the Vermillion, the Big Blue, and the Little Blue to the Platte, along the North Platte to the Sweetwater, then up and over the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains at South Pass, in what is now central Wyoming.
West of the divide—the approximate halfway point of the journey—emigrants bound for California had to make a crucial decision. They could stick to the “old road,” which meant staying on the Oregon Trail all the way up into present-day Idaho, then dropping down to follow the Humboldt River across present-day Nevada, and then—finally—crossing the rugged Sierra Nevada and descending into California. Or they could avoid the long, tedious detour north of the Great Salt Lake by taking a shortcut that had just been discovered the previous year but that no train of covered wagons had ever before attempted. This new route left the Oregon Trail just west of the Continental Divide, not far from an isolated trading post called Fort Bridger. From there it ran straight west through the Wasatch Mountains, skirted the south end of the Great Salt Lake, crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Ruby Mountains, and finally came to the Humboldt River, where it rejoined the main California Trail for the rest of the way.
The new route was called Hastings’ Cutoff, for an ambitious young promoter named Lansford W. Hastings, who was eager to swell the number of American settlers in the troubled Mexican province of Upper California—and even more eager to benefit from the revolution he was sure those settlers would spark. Hastings had published a guidebook in 1845 called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California , hoping it would encourage American emigration to the Far West. It did. Then, in December 1845, when members of John Frémont’s Topographical Corps found a new straight-line route across the Great Basin to California, Hastings quickly adopted it as his own.
On paper the cutoff promised to save 350, maybe 400 miles—an almost irresistible prospect for bone-weary overlanders only halfway through their journey and with more than 1,000 miles still to go. When spring came, Hastings headed out onto the Oregon Trail to persuade as many people as possible to take his route. His machinations that summer would make Hastings’ Cutoff perhaps the most notorious trail ever carved through the American wilderness.
Nothing I have ever seen in nature, can exceed the beauty and sublimity of the prairies where we now are. I would go thousands of miles for no other purpose than to look upon the glorious landscapes fashioned after God’s own taste. Perfumed and ornamented by myriads of brilliant flowers, and studded and relieved by beautiful parks, ponds, and rivulets, bounding in some instances the far-off horizon. —Edwin Bryant
Seventeen and nine-tenths miles west of Courthouse Square in Independence the Oregon Trail crosses State Line Road on its way out of Missouri and into Kansas. Here in 1846 the emigrants left the United States behind and entered Indian Country—the vast unorganized territory “given” to the Indians, who thought they already owned it, in 1830, after Congress and Andrew Jackson agreed to drive them out of the Eastern United States.
“The emigrant who left Missouri at this point,” Aubrey Haines, an authority on the Oregon Trail, once wrote, “also passed beyond the limits of law and order—other than that of his making—when he went over this line.”