Winterkill, 1846

PrintPrintEmailEmail

To the brothers George and Jacob Donner the way to California seemed clear and simple. Both in their sixties, solid and well-to-do thanks to their own hard work, but beginning now to feel their age and the long Illinois winters in their bones, the two men sat in the glow of the hearthfire that winter of 1845-46 and turned again the wellthumbed pages of The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California . With the snow piled outside and the Sangamon River lying frozen in its bed, the brothers read with wonder the book’s description of a golden land. In California, winter was warmer than summer, said the author—one Lansford W. Hastings. Hollyhocks and sweet william bloomed at Christmastime. Clover stood five feet high and the cattle never had to be fed or housed. “Here perpetual summer is in the midst of unceasing winter; perennial spring and never failing autumn stand side by side, and towering snow clad mountains forever look down upon eternal verdure.”

Oh, yes, Oregon had its virtues, Hastings admitted. It was more like the country most Americans knew: green and wooded. And it was claimed by the United States, not by Mexico. Also, the trail was shorter. But for much of the year Oregon was gray and misty; and the last stretch of the trail—the part that took you through the Cascades—was dreadfully difficult. No, it was better to try for California. Besides, said Hastings, it was possible to shorten the trip.

All you had to do was follow the regular wagon route toward Fort Bridger—the road used by emigrants ever since the first small band of American settlers made its way overland in 1841. You started at the Missouri frontier town of Independence, headed northwest across the grassy plains of what is now Kansas and Nebraska, followed the North Fork of the Platte River to Fort Laramie, and continued westward to South Pass, the broad, gently sloping plain that took you over the crest of the Continental Divide. From there you headed southwest to Fort Bridger.

Then, instead of making the long, northward swing to Fort Hall and down the Humboldt River, you took Hastings’ shortcut: “bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake, and then continuing down to the Bay of St. Francisco.”

What could be more sensible? Anyone who glanced at a map could see that the Fort Hall trail made sense for Oregon but not for California. Was it not reasonable to suppose that there was a more direct route across the still unmapped spaces that lay due west of Fort Bridger? Now here was this man Hastings saying it was so. And in print. Between the polished leather covers of a book!

So George and Jacob Donner made their decision: they would venture the new route and get to California just that much sooner. It was a decision that would have them remembering fondly, before another winter was out, the comforts of their Illinois homesteads.

The trouble was that in 1845, when The Emigrants’ Guide was published, neither its author nor anyone else had yet broken the new route to California. So far, the so-called shortcut existed only in Hastings’ imagination. A restless young schemer from Ohio in whose head swirled dreams of empire, Hastings had written his book and created the cutoff as a means of attracting enough American settlers to California to overthrow the Mexican regime and declare an independent republic. Then, of course, the new government would need leaders and there he would be: Lansford Hastings himself, California’s own Sam Houston.

Unfortunately the abstract logic of Hastings’ new emigrant trail bore no relation to the uncompromising facts of geography. The country that Hastings so blithely swept away with his pen was some of the worst for wagon travel in the United States. Between Fort Bridger and the Great Salt Lake lay the Wasatch Range—boulder-strewn, canyoncut, and covered in many places with miles of tangled scrub forest. And beyond the Salt Lake lay the alkaline wastes of the Great Salt Lake Desert. It was a country that the Rocky Mountain fur trappers had known and avoided for twenty years but had failed to record except in their own heads. The fact was that in the spring of 1846 the general public had plenty of legend but little hard information about the Far West. It was as though no white man had ever trod the Wasatch or the Salt Desert wilderness. No map showed what that terrible country was like. John Charles Frémont, whose widely read accounts were full of wonderful descriptions and adventure stories, inspired any number of restless young easterners to strike out for the far country—or to dream of doing so. But Frémont did not concern himself with opening new wagon routes, nor did he offer much information that would be useful to emigrants on the trail.

Hence the popularity of Hastings’ Emigrants’ Guide . Grossly inaccurate and not nearly so well written as Frémont’s book, it nonetheless seemed to give the emigrants just what they needed—practical information about the Great Trek: how they could prepare for it, what they could expect along the way, and what they would find in the Promised Land. All up and down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys that winter Hastings’ book was being read, talked over, and passed from hand to hand.