“Never Take No Cutoffs“—on the Oregon Trail

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A couple of miles south of Marysville, Kansas, not far from the east bank of the Big Blue River, lies one of the most moving places on the Oregon Trail. Back in a shadowy sanctuary of oak and ash and cottonwood trees, just a few hundred yards from where the emigrant trail used to run, a cold black spring sparkles from the ledge of a little rock alcove and pours into a stony basin ten feet below. It’s a beautiful place, impressively quiet and a little gloomy. Edwin Bryant, a literate traveler from Massachusetts and Kentucky on his way to California in 1846, thought so when he chanced upon this wild green tabernacle of tangled shrubs and trees in late May. “Altogether it is one of the most romantic spots I ever saw,” he wrote. “So charmed were we with its beauties that several hours unconsciously glided away in the enjoyment of its refreshing waters and seductive attractions. We named this the ‘Alcove Spring;’ and future travellers will find the name graven on the rocks, and on the trunks of the trees surrounding it.”

 
 
Historians and trail buffs have located with remarkable precision most segments of the main route.

Future travelers will indeed find the name where one of Edwin Bryant’s companions, George McKinstry, carved it on a rock at the top of the falls, 147 years ago this spring. Nearby, on a large sloping stone in the middle of the pool, a second rough engraving, covered with moss and eaten away by water and the years, can still be made out: “J. F. Reed/26 May/1846.”

 

The haunting graffiti at Alcove Spring call forth, as many grander monuments do not, the essential human mystery of the great overland migration. Here in 1846, three years before the gold rush, a large party of emigrants bound for Oregon and California came to a halt in the last week of May on the east side of the Big Blue River, too swollen by rain to be forded. As the emigrants made camp and waited for the waters to subside, a wealthy Illinois businessman named James Frazier Reed whiled away an afternoon on the lush Kansas prairie, leaving his mark for posterity by a wilderness stream. When Reed’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, died of consumption three days later, her family buried her here under the spreading boughs of a huge oak tree.

The modest stone carved for her grave vanished long ago, but a later monument put up by the Daughters of the American Revolution—Sarah Keyes was born in 1776—still stands, a hundred yards from the spring. It reads: “God in his love/and charity has/called in this/beautiful valley/a pioneer mother/May 29, 1846.”

The year 1846 would prove to be the big year of America’s westward expansion, the year of decision, as the historian Bernard DeVoto called it. The emigrants moving west that spring were part of a vast army of Americans fulfilling what they had only just been told was their manifest destiny to overspread the continent. In 1846 the Mexican War began, Britain ceded Oregon, and before the year was over, all of California, New Mexico, Oregon, and Texas—almost two million square miles—would belong, de facto if not quite de jure, to the United States.

Of course, no one waiting to cross the Big Blue that spring knew any of this was coming, and for each member of the party the future remained as inscrutable as it is to any of us. Edwin Bryant, as it happened, made it to California and wrote one of the most eloquent and perceptive accounts of the overland trail ever published, What I Saw in California . James Reed got there too, in the end, but not before he and his friend George Donner decided on an untried route across the Great Basin to California—a shortcut to paradise that would lead to the most nightmarish disaster of the pioneer period.

 

Why did they go? What were they after? The homely signs of human passage scratched into the landscape at Alcove Spring provide some clues—testifying, if nothing else, to the primordial human instinct to sign one’s name on nature. They speak too of the hopefulness and pride, the faith and sorrow and loss that went into the overland migration, along with the self-assertion, the recklessness—the hubris—it called forth.

And yet, as one stands in the glory of the morning prairie, a hundred and fifty years on, the wonder remains: What made these people—middle-class, comfortable people, most of them traveling in families—leave everything they knew behind and start out for a new life in a new land thousands of miles away, with scarcely more than hearsay and gossip to go on?

If these people are a mystery to us, they were in many ways a mystery to themselves too. On July 15, 1846, a fifty-four-year-old mountain man named James Clyman, on his way home to Illinois from California, crossed the Big Blue River traveling west to east and came upon Sarah Keyes’s makeshift grave. A few weeks before and five hundred miles to the west, Clyman had met up with a party of emigrants pausing to recruit and freshen up at Fort Laramie. Among them he had found an old friend from Illinois, James Reed. Clyman, who had just come over the shortcut Reed was eager to take, thought it would be suicide for any large train of covered wagons to attempt the route. He tried to talk Reed out of taking the fatal trail—to no avail.

Now, near the place Edwin Bryant called Alcove Spring, Clyman stood over the grave of his old friend’s mother-in-law, wondering what drove his countrymen and women West. Then he made an extraordinary entry in his diary: “Here I observed the grave of Mrs. Sarah Keyes, aged 70 years, who had departed this life in May last. At her feet stands the stone that gives us this information. This stone shows us that all ages and all sects are found to undertake this long tedious and even dangerous Journey for some unknown object never to be realized even by those the most fortunate. And why? Because the human mind can never be satisfied, never at rest, always on the stretch for something new, some strange novelty.”

Westward Ho!

On March 18, 1846, a wealthy farmer from Springfield, Illinois, placed an advertisement in the Sangamo Journal : “ WESTWARD HO ! For Oregon and California. Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men, of good character, who can drive an ox team, will be accommodated by gentlemen who will leave this vicinity about the middle of April. Come on Boys! You can have as much land as you want without costing you anything. The first suitable persons who apply will be engaged.”

The notice was signed “G. Donner and others.” Three weeks later the nine wagons and thirty-two men, women, and children that formed the core of what came to be called the Donner Party said good-bye to their family and friends and headed West.

To a surprising degree, given all the intervening years, it is still possible to follow something very like the route that George Donner, James Reed, Edwin Bryant, and the other “Californians” took in the summer of 1846. Manifest destiny in its subsequent waves—farms and factories, railroads and highways, telephone lines and high-power wires, and towns and malls and subdivisions—has overtaken and obliterated many physical traces of the old trails. But historians and trail buffs have been able to locate with remarkable precision where all but a few short segments of the main routes ran, and fully 15 percent of the Oregon and California trails remain intact and pristine today.

Perhaps inevitably the inaugural year of the Oregon Trail is harder to pin down. Some have chosen 1836, the year Narcissa Whitman and Eliza H. Spalding became the first white women to walk over the Oregon Trail. Some have selected 1841, the year the first real wagon train made it through. On May 22, 1843, the first of a thousand pioneers left Elm Grove, Missouri, for Oregon—making 1843 the year of the Great Migration, and the year most often chosen as the beginning of the Oregon Trail. This May the official sesquicentennial year of the Oregon Trail is being jointly celebrated by the six key states whose territories the path blazed: Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

 
The shallow, lazy Platte was not a river at all, one emigrant complained, but “simply moving sand.’

But by many yardsticks the really crucial year of the pioneer movement—DeVoto’s year of decision—was 1846, the year the theory of Manifest Destiny was put into practice with a vengeance. That was the year of the Mexican War and the cession of Oregon, of the Mormon exodus and the Bear Flag Revolt. It was the year Stephen Foster wrote “Oh! Susannah,” the great anthem of the migration West, and it was the year the Donner Party tried to get to California. No other episode from the pioneer period has so haunted the American imagination, and to this day the unfolding of their terrible fate remains the most frequently retold story of the Oregon and California trails.

Now, 147 years later, it seems worthwhile to trace the route taken by the California-bound emigrants James Clyman couldn’t persuade to follow the safer path: to see what history there is for the finding along the way, what the road can tell us about who they were and what they wanted, and what the journey was like and why they went. Beyond question, the only way to even begin to grasp the magnitude and mystery of the overland migrations is to get into a car, head for Independence, Missouri, the main jumping-off point for the Far Western trails, and go.

Going to the Moon

The wonder is that anyone went at all. In 1846 the western third of the continent was a largely unexplored, largely foreign wilderness to which white Americans had little or no legal claim and about which they had very little accurate knowledge. Pundits of the day entertained serious doubts whether transcontinental travel was practicable at all, and the men and women who made their way West did so against the grave admonitions of innumerable newsprint Cassandras, convinced that migration to Oregon and California was complete folly.

“What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts,” Sen. Daniel Webster demanded in 1845, “of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs? To what use could we ever put those endless mountain ranges? What could we do with the western coast line three thousand miles away, rockbound, cheerless and uninviting?”

“It is palpable homicide,” Horace Greeley warned the readers of the New York Tribune in 1843, “to tempt or send women and children over this thousand miles of precipice and volcanic sterility to Oregon.” The Edinburgh Review likewise flatly asserted that “Oregon will never be colonized overland from the Eastern United States”—an oddly categorical statement in a year that saw more than a thousand emigrants safely through to Oregon by covered wagon, but one with which, three years later, many Americans still agreed. Thus the Newport Herald of the Times could declare as late as 1846, “We might as well attempt to march an army to the moon, as to march one overland to Oregon.”

Lunar analogies crop up frequently in editorials of this kind, and in 1846 transcontinental emigration did seem to most people like going to the Moon. In our own time, when travel between Independence, Missouri, and San Francisco, California, has dwindled to three hours, it may be impossible to grasp the magnitude of the journey any other way.

The distance alone was mind-boggling: two thousand miles in all, not counting however far you had to go to get to Independence, where the wilderness began. Once beyond Independence, you were stepping off into the unknown. All that most of the emigrants knew was that the long and dangerous journey to Oregon or California would take them over a vast windswept plain—ominously labeled “Indian Country” or “Great American Desert” on most maps—three great mountain ranges and half a dozen scorching deserts, broken only by a handful of isolated trading forts scattered here and there in the wilderness. Most overlanders would be crossing the continent on foot, walking beside their ox-drawn wagons at the rate of one mile an hour, hour after hour, day after day—making perhaps sixteen miles on a good day—four, five, sometimes six months in all, over some of the most astonishingly beautiful and frighteningly dangerous geography in the world.

The grueling trip couldn’t begin until the spring rains had subsided, and it had to be over before snow blocked the heights. In the 1840s the routes themselves were still being established and tinkered with, and each year new trails—new cutoffs and shortcuts that promised to shave time or miles or toil from the journey—were promoted by rival boosters for Oregon or California, who competed fiercely for the emigrant traffic.

In the end going to the moon probably conveys a pretty fair idea of what heading West felt like in the 1840s—how completely the emigrants felt they were leaving behind a world they knew, how unknown was the one they were traveling toward.

And yet they came. By 1846—despite the Great American Desert, despite burning wastes, howling tempests, savage Indians, and towering mountains, despite Daniel Webster, Horace Greeley, and the Edinburgh Review —families had been making the overland journey to Oregon and California in covered wagons for five years. The crash of 1837 and the deep depression that ensued had something to do with it. So did outbreaks of cholera and malaria in the Midwest and a general feeling that the Mississippi Valley was filling up. For a decade word had been filtering in from missionaries and traders of the fertile soil and mild, salubrious climate along the coastal valleys of the Pacific Far West.

Then, in 1843, the explorer John C. Frémont—part “Pathfinder,” all public relations man—published his Topographical Report with its vivid depiction of the wonders of the Far West and its breathtaking revelation that the Rocky Mountains could be surmounted at South Pass with no “toilsome ascents.” Fremont’s Report took Congress and the country by storm, and ten thousand copies were soon in print. Josiah Royce, the son of an Indiana farmer, remembered his father reading passages from it out loud at night after the chores were done. He was, he wrote, “inflamed with a love for action, adventure, glory and great deeds away out yonder under the path of the setting sun.”

In 1840, 13 intrepid pioneers made it over the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. In 1841, 58 more settlers arrived in Oregon and California, and a year later 125 more. In 1843, the year of Fremont’s Report , 913 American emigrants went West—in 1845, 2,760. By 1846 more than 5,000 Americans had walked overland to Oregon and California, and that year thousands more were on the move again.

Independence

April 28, 1846. Independence. The wagons that have passed through since I have been here—and they are numerous—are all for California! It is truly astonishing to notice the enthusiasm that has seized upon people, from all parts of the country. The word is California. I have seen but one wagon for Oregon. —George L. Curry

 

By 1846 Independence had become the principal outfitting point for traders on the Santa Fe Trail and for the increasingly numerous emigrants bound for Oregon and California. By late April of that year, thousands of emigrants were converging on the bustling frontier town, which sat at the extreme western edge of the formally constituted territories of the United States.

 

An emigrant named Jesse Quinn Thornton, on his way to California that year, called Independence “a great Babel upon the border of the wilderness.” The unpaved streets were jammed with emigrants, Santa Fe traders, Kansas Indians, black slaves, Spaniards, Mexicans, Frenchmen, merchants, stevedores, drifters, gamblers, hunters, mountain men, adventurers, speculators, and teamsters, and an endless cavalcade of wagons, oxen, horses, and mules.

Adding to the cacophony and hubbub that spring was a disproportionate number of literary men and scribblers: newspapermen come out to cover the great migration, emigrant littérateurs engaged to correspond from the trail, and a patrician Harvard graduate, determined to see the Indian tribes before the tide of civilization swept their cultures from the Great Plains.

“I have often perplexed myself,” Francis Parkman wrote, surveying the crowd of emigrants thronging Independence that spring, “to divine the various motives that give impulse to this strange migration; but whatever they may be, whether an insane hope of a better condition in life, or a desire of shaking off restraints of law and society, or mere restlessness, certain it is, that multitudes bitterly repent the journey, and after they have reached the land of promise, are happy enough to escape from it.”

It’s a wonderful irony, often remarked, that the greatest historian of the Oregon Trail—a man equipped not just with the intellect and literary skill for the job but with the reporter’s luck to find himself out on the trail during the critical year, 1846—had no real interest in the great migration taking place all around him and little empathy for the migrators themselves. Dismayed by the vulgarity of the emigrant crowd, Parkman pitched his tent as far as he could from the overlanders and kept to himself.

 
Every passing diarist took note of these formations, and for most they inspired a kind of metaphoric rapture.

A thousand people lived in Independence in 1846. Today the town is part of an extended prairie metropolis that includes Kansas City, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas, and holds a combined population of more than a million. The quondam frontier outpost lies buried in the heart of the country, and the old emigrant highways that once went in and out of town were long ago lost amid the concrete congeries of streets and sewers and sidewalks and buildings.

Today few tangible links connect the past and present in Independence. You can overlook the Missouri River where the Radnor docked and disgorged its motley human cargo, young Francis Parkman among them, but Independence Landing itself is long gone. You can stand at the intersection of Liberty and Lexington streets, on the southwest corner of Courthouse Square, taken to be the origin, ground zero, of the Oregon Trail. The courthouse that was there in 1846 was pulled down years ago, and the one erected to stand in its place survives, with embellishments. It is still worth pausing for a moment where a fair fraction of the half-million overland emigrants started their long journey West.

Then it’s time to grab your maps and head west out onto the prairie, where by early May of 1846 the huge, chaotic crush of emigrants and animals and wagons was beginning to organize itself into trains for the long journey. “We were joined to-day,” Edwin Bryant wrote on May 19, “by nine wagons from Illinois belonging to Mr. Reed and Messrs. Donner, highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen with interesting families. They were received into the company by a unanimous vote.”

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

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.

The Prairie and the Platte

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.”

Then, as now, springtime on the prairie could be magnificent: changeable, glorious, violent, sometimes terrifying. “A terrific thunder-storm roared and raged, and poured out its floods of water throughout a great portion of the night,” Edwin Bryant noted one night. “The whole arch of the heavens for a time was wrapped in a sheet of flame, and the almost deafening crashes of thunder … seemed as if they would rend the solid earth, or topple it from its axis. A more sublime and awful meteoric display, I never witnessed or could conceive.”

“The clouds in this region,” Francis Parkman observed more economically, “are inflicted with an incontinence of water.”

Fifty miles out of Independence the Oregon Trail angles northwest and begins climbing up the prairie waters of eastern Kansas, heading for the Nebraska border and the Platte. Here most concrete traces of the emigrant road vanished long ago beneath the farms and highways and county roads. But its meandering course across the shortgrass prairie can still be tracked easily enough with a map in hand, following the undulating green line of cottonwood and willow trees that crowd along the river the road once paralleled.

By 1846 graves were already a routine sight along the trail. “One morning,” Francis Parkman wrote, “a piece of plank, standing upright on the summit of a grassy hill, attracted our notice, and riding up to it, we found the following words very roughly traced upon it, apparently by a red-hot piece of iron:

MARY ELLIS Died May 7th, 1845 AGED TWO MONTHS

Such tokens were of common occurrence.” The mortality rate on the overland trails was appalling: Of the half-million emigrants who went West between 1842 and 1866, perhaps as many as thirty thousand—6 percent—died, disease being far and away the chief killer. By 1866 travelers along the Platte River reported seeing a grave every eighty yards for most of the way.

Three hundred and ten miles out of Independence, in the heart of present-day Nebraska, the Oregon Trail leaves the banks of the Little Blue, jumps up onto the Platte, and continues west along that river’s south bank.

Emigrants tended to greet the Platte with mixed emotions. The broad, shallow, lazy river—“a mile wide and an inch deep”—was not a river at all, one emigrant complained, but “simply moving sand.” Its warm, muddy water was unpleasant to drink and often dangerously contaminated, partaking, one traveler recalled, “of the same laxative properties of the Missouri and Mississippi.”

And yet the Platte was, in the words of its pre-eminent historian, Merrill Mattes, “the great natural migration corridor” for transcontinental traffic east and west. Indians, fur trappers, missionaries, explorers, pioneers, forty-niners, the U.S. Army, the pony express, the stagecoach, the telegraph, the Union Pacific Railroad, and, in our own time, AT&T and Interstate 80 all have exploited the hard, level apron of ground that runs beside the river.

Sometime in June, somewhere along the Platte, home would begin to seem like a dream to the travelers. Somewhere along the endless gleaming river road, the sheer magnitude of the journey, the geographical immensity of the enterprise they had undertaken, began to sink into their souls and, inexorably, to transform them.

They had been traveling for more than two months now, and the anticipated dangers of the journey—Indians, Mormons, disease—had begun to give way to a subtler affliction. Nothing changed. The empty, treeless plains, the endless horizon, the shimmering haze, and the sudden, drenching thunderstorms mesmerized the travelers. Mile after mile, day after day the sun beat down, the wagons rolled up the long slope of the continent, the Platte flowed back behind them, and nothing changed.

“How I wish the Indians would attack,” one emigrant wrote in her diary.

They were in the haunt of the Pawnees and the Sioux. They passed lodges and hunting parties and burial mounds, but no one molested them. “We suffered vastly more from fear of the Indians be fore starting,” James Reed’s stepdaughter Virginia recalled, “than we [have] on the plains.”

They had arrived in buffalo country. “The plains appeared to be one living, moving mass,” James Reed wrote on June 16. He made his debut as a buffalo hunter that day, killing four and riding into camp, where he was acclaimed, by his own report, “the acknowledged hero of the day” and “the most successful buffalo hunter on the route.”

That was a century and a half ago. There are trees now along the Platte, which was once almost completely barren of timber. The big herds of buffalo that once blackened the plain to the horizon, and that sometimes took two days or more to thunder by, are gone. Interstate 80 runs along the flat, mercury-colored river under the blazing prairie sun for what seems like an eternity.

High up on the north fork of the Platte River, in far western Nebraska, the monotonous drone of the prairie landscape at last begins to shift and change. A menagerie of enormous natural forms, monolithic clay and sandstone shapes, rises up along the south bank of the river, the first fanciful intimations of larger upthrustings to come.

 

Emigrants greeted the change in landscape with enormous relief. “We … saw an elevated rock,” Edwin Bryant remarked on June 21, 1846, “its appearance was not unlike that of the capitol at Washington. This, I believe, has been named by emigrants the Court-house. … Its walls so nearly resemble masonry, and its shape an architectural design, that if seen in an inhabited country, it would be supposed some colossal edifice, deserted and partially in ruins.” Bryant, who wanted to touch as well as see this geological curiosity, rode for hours toward the formation without seeming to get any closer, then turned back. “A remarkable peculiarity in the atmosphere,” Jesse Quinn Thornton suggested, “made it impossible to judge with any tolerable degree of accuracy as to the distance of objects.”

Beyond Courthouse Rock other, greater wonders loomed up from the plain: Chimney Rock, the shaft of its inverted funnel sticking in the air like an ancient ensign too cryptic to be deciphered; Castle Rock; Dome Rock; and finally the great saddle-shaped edifice of Scotts Bluff itself, named for a fur trader, Hiram Scott, who had crawled off to die there under mysterious circumstances in 1828. These great natural formations worked on the minds of the emigrants like a talisman or drug. Virtually every passing diarist took note of them, and for most it inspired a kind of metaphoric rapture. “The traveller,” Bryant wrote, “imagines himself in the midst of the desolate and deserted ruins of vast cities, to which Nineveh, Thebes, and Babylon were pigmies in grandeur and magnificence.” Father Pierre-Jean de Smet wrote in 1840, “From a little distance one can hardly persuade himself that art is not mingled in them with the fantasies of nature.”

These mute shapes must have touched something deep in the imaginations of vulnerable travelers who were very far from home by now and who were beginning to understand, as a later age would have it, that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.

And they weren’t. They were in western Nebraska, though they wouldn’t have called it that, and they were about to plunge up into the high sage country of Wyoming, though they wouldn’t have called it that either. From the top of Robidoux Pass, south and a little west of Scotts Bluff, the emigrants of 1846 could just make out Laramie Peak, a hundred miles away. It was their first sight of the Rocky Mountains. For those, like the families of George and Jacob Donner and James Reed, who found themselves at the tail end of the emigration, there was reason to be worried about time. June was running out, and there were still thirteen hundred miles to go. They hurried on toward Fort Laramie, the old rendezvous point of the American Fur Company, high up on the North Platte.

Fort Laramie to Fort Bridger

Six hundred and twenty miles out of Independence the Oregon Trail crosses the Nebraska-Wyoming border and continues to slope steadily northwest along the south bank of the North Platte. Thirty miles into Wyoming, near the confluence of the North Platte and Laramie rivers, it reaches Fort Laramie—the last way station on the Oregon Trail before the Rockies and the point of no return for emigrants on their way to the Far West. Established in 1834 as a trading post for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, the fort was taken over two years later by the rival American Fur Company, which in 1841 erected a large adobe-walled structure. By 1846 it had become a welcome sight to thousands of weary overlanders, who streamed in to make repairs, purchase supplies, post letters home, and rest.

 
Near Guernsey, traffic wore a groove six feet into solid rock; today you can stand there shoulder-deep.

On June 26, 1846, Fort Laramie was the scene of a remarkable convocation of Americans. Six thousand Sioux Indians were camped peaceably around the fort, trading with the overlanders and preparing for war with the Crows. The trading post was brimming with emigrants, including Lillburn Boggs and several of Daniel Boone’s grandsons and William Russell, recently deposed as captain of the wagon train that included the families of George Donner and Jacob Donner and James Reed—who could be found there too, along with Francis Parkman. Parkman, as usual, had nothing nice to say about the overlanders: “June 26. Emigrants crossing the river, and thronging into the fort—a part of Russell’s company, which becoming dissatisfied with their pragmatic, stump-orator leader, has split into half a dozen pieces. Passed along the line of waggons, conversing with the women, etc. These people are very ignorant, and suspicious for this reason—no wonder—they are grossly imposed on at the store.”

 
 

James Clyman was at Fort Laramie too, on his way back to Illinois from California. On the night of June 27, he camped with his old friend James Reed “and continued the conversation until a later hour … Mr. Reed, while we were camped at Laramie, was enquiring about the route. I told him to ‘take the regular wagon track, and never leave it—it is barely to get through if you follow it—and it may be impossible if you don’t.’ Reed replied, There is a nigher route, and it is of no use to take so much of a round-about 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.”

In the end Clyman persuaded most of the emigrants he spoke with at Fort Laramie not to take the “shortcut” Lansford Hastings had been promoting up and down the Oregon Trail all summer. But James Reed, the Donner brothers, and a handful of other families could not be dissuaded. Once over the Continental Divide, they would leave the regular wagon track and take Hastings’s new way. Around a campfire at Fort Laramie, the seeds of what became the Donner Party disaster were sown.

Thirteen miles west of Fort Laramie the road comes to one of the most spectacular sights on the Oregon and California trails. A mile or so south of Guernsey, Wyoming, peculiarities of the terrain forced the emigrant wagons into single file as they passed over a low sandstone hill. Over the years the endless stream of traffic—thousands upon thousands of wagon wheels and millions of ironshod cattle feet—wore a groove six feet into the solid rock. Today you can stand shoulder-deep in the emigrant trail.

West of Casper, Wyoming, the Oregon Trail finally leaves the Platte, its companion of nearly five hundred miles, and joins the Sweetwater, a serpentine ribbon curling ever higher into the Rocky Mountains. As it ascends toward the Continental Divide, the emigrant road passes by a gallery of natural landmarks, the most celebrated of which is Independence Rock, the famous register of the trail: a long, turtle-shaped lozenge “covered all round,” Heinrich Lienhard wrote in 1846, “with names of emigrants and hunters who passed here.” Then, as now, passersby delighted in clambering over the rock and reading the names scrawled on and chipped into it. It was probably christened in 1824, when a party of fur trappers and explorers including Jedediah Smith, James Clyman, and Thomas Fitzpatrick stopped there on the Fourth of July. Ever after travelers were admonished to reach the place no later than Independence Day if they were to reach their destinations in Oregon or California without being trapped by the snow.

The Donners and the Reeds, for their part, reached Independence Rock on July 12, 1846, paused long enough to read some of the names inscribed on it, then quickly moved on, following the Sweetwater up through the cloven portal of Devil’s Gate, past a notched peak called Split Rock, working their way ever higher into the mountains.

Nine hundred and fourteen miles from Courthouse Square in Independence, Missouri, the Oregon and California trails reach the climax of their journey: the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains at South Pass. First seen by white men in 1812, rediscovered by the famous mountain man Jedediah Smith in 1824, popularized by John C. Frémont in 1843, South Pass—the gateway to “Oregon Country” and the approximate halfway point along the trail—was the key to the overland migrations.

The broad, shallow saddle of land—7,550 feet above sea level and 29 miles wide—surmounts the continent in a remarkably discreet, and even demure, fashion. “The ascent to the Pass is so gradual,” Edwin Bryant wrote on July 12, 1846, “that but for our geographical knowledge … we should not have been conscious that we had ascended to, and were standing upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains—the backbone , to use a forcible figure, of the North American continent.…

 
The “shortcut” turned out to be not only more treacherous than the older trail but 125 miles longer as well.

“Just before sunset, I ascended one of the highest elevations near our camp; and we took a farewell look of the scenery towards the Atlantic. The sun went down in splendor behind the horizon of the plain, which stretches its immeasurable and sterile surface to the west as far as the eye can reach. The Wind River Mountains lift their tower-shaped and hoary pinnacles to the north. To the east we can see only the tops of some of the highest mountain elevations. The scene is one of sublime and solemn solitude and desolation.”

 

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.

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.”

WHERE TO FIND SOME PRINCIPAL SITES ALONG THE TRAIL TO PLAN A TRIP