“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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South Pass, in all its windy, magnificent desolation, is still very much as Edwin Bryant described it 147 years ago. Today two small stone monuments set in an endless sea of sage mark the place where the trail reaches the summit. One of them, erected by Ezra Meeker in 1906, says simply, “Old Oregon Trail/1843–57.” The other commemorates Narcissa Whitman and Eliza Hart Spalding, who on July 4, 1836, became the first white women to cross the Continental Divide and enter what the mountain men called Oregon Country.

A few miles west of South Pass the trail comes to a crucial juncture: the Parting of the Ways. To the right the road continues on toward Oregon and to where the original route to California drops south from Fort Hall in Idaho. To the left a track veers off toward Fort Bridger and the entrance to Hastings’ Cutoff, a hundred miles away. Not far from here, on July 21, 1846, at the Little Sandy River, the Donners and the Reeds and a handful of other families took the left-hand turn that would seal their doom.

One week later the new company, now officially called the Donner Party, rolled into Fort Bridger: Two log cabins and a corral perched on the westernmost rim of the Great Basin in what is now the southeastern corner of Wyoming. The tiny way station had been built in 1843 by the celebrated mountain man Jim Bridger, who ran it, with his partner, Louis Vasquez, as an emigrant trading post. In 1853 the Mormons bought the fort, then burned it to the ground in 1857, hoping that would slow the U.S. Army on its way to Salt Lake City to try to force the Saints to submit to federal authority. A reasonably authentic replica of Bridger’s original fort was recently erected behind the old Army compound. Both are well worth visiting today.

The emigrants had been told that Lansford Hastings would be waiting at Fort Bridger to guide them in person over the new trail. When they arrived, they found Hastings wasn’t there. He had started off a week earlier at the head of another group of wagons, leaving word for the Donner Party to follow along.

The Great Basin

“The new road, or Hastings’ Cut-off,” James Reed wrote from Fort Bridger in late July of 1846, “is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles in going to California, and a better route. The rest of the Californians went the long route—feeling afraid of Hastings’ Cut-Off. Mr. Bridger informs me that the route we design to take, is a fine level road, with plenty of water and grass. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Capt. Suter’s Fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day.”

On July 31, 1846, the Donner Party left Fort Bridger and entered Hastings’ Cutoff. The night-marish journey they embarked upon that day could not have differed more completely from Reed’s brisk, confident expectations. It is in fact about seven hundred miles from Fort Bridger to John Sutler’s trading post in the Sacramento Valley of California, but those miles would take the Donner Party across some of the most dangerous and inhospitable wilderness on the continent. Nothing they had experienced so far could have prepared them for the Great Basin. And Lansford Hastings, whose word and advice they were counting on, upon whom their very lives depended, would fail them at every turn.

 

It took them almost a month to hack a road through the Wasatch Mountains that Hastings had said could be negotiated in a week. Next, they had to cross the deadly Salt Desert west of the Great Salt Lake. It took them five days and nights to stumble over the eighty-mile desert Hastings had assured them was only half as wide. Several emigrants almost died of thirst along the way, dozens of oxen were lost, and wagons full of vital provisions had to be abandoned. After that they wandered for days up and down the Ruby Mountains of eastern Nevada, in a frenzy of fear that they had lost their way completely. Finally, on September 26, they reached the junction of the Humboldt River where Hastings’ Cutoff rejoined the main California Trail. The “shortcut” turned out to have been not only more treacherous than the older trail but 125 miles longer as well.

And still it took the battered party—plagued by bad water and worse morale and by Indians, who each night attacked the dwindling supply of livestock with poisoned arrows—another month to stumble down the Humboldt River across the width of present-day Nevada. In the end it took not seven weeks but twice seven weeks merely to reach the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, where on the last day of October in 1846 the Donner Party was trapped just east of the summit by the first blizzard of what would prove to be the worst winter ever recorded in the California mountains.

The five months the Donner Party spent snowbound at the foot of what came to be called Donner Lake would culminate in starvation, madness, cannibalism, and death for half the party—and give rise to one of the most harrowing tales to come out of the westward migrations.