TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — If you ever hear about Portuguese-speaking Brazilians dressing up in American confederate uniforms, waving the Rebel flag, wearing Southern-belle skirts, and playing the banjo at a Fourth of July barbecue, one of the people you can blame is Lansford W. Hastings.
Anyone familiar with the Donner Party story will remember Hastings. He is often cast as the villain in this tragic tale. In early November 1846, members of the Donner Party were trapped east of the Sierra Nevada by deep snow. One of the reasons their wagon train was attempting to cross the mountains so late in the season is because Lansford Hastings, a California land promoter and lawyer, had convinced leaders in the Donner group to take his untried shortcut through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.
In 1845 Hastings had published a popular overland trail guide to the Pacific, a book that promoted the virtues of the land, climate, and health found in California and the Oregon Coast. He traveled from Ohio to New York City giving lectures and hawking his book, “The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California.” In New York City he met Mormon leader Sam Brannan who was preparing a ship to carry Latter Day Saints to the West Coast. Hastings tried to persuade Brannan to bring his followers to California's Sacramento Delta where Hastings was hoping to establish a settlement on a Mexican land grant, in the manner of John Sutter's fort.
Hastings' message was perfectly timed as it fit in with a growing political push toward westward expansion, and an almost religious exhortation that inspired frontier families to search out new land. Everyone was swelling with the notion of American Exceptionalism and driven by the concept of Manifest Destiny. In the years between 1840 and 1845, the total number of emigrants who traveled from the United States overland to the Mexican province of California was just 325. But in 1846 alone, at least 1,500 people took on the grueling, often deadly California Trail.
There were plenty of people involved in the Donner Party's trajectory to disaster, but historians often label Hastings as the “bad guy.” Technically, there should have been nothing wrong with Hastings promoting a new cutoff that would save time and distance. Others were also developing alternate routes and parts of the California Trail changed frequently during the 1840s, but Hastings failed to lead the late arriving Donner Party through his cutoff and they were abandoned to their fate. Hastings' tendency to improvise as he went and overstate his knowledge of geography led directly to the Donner Party tragedy and tarnished his reputation.
Hastings arrived back in California just in time to join Major John C. Fremont in the war against Mexico. Fighting in California was short-lived and in 1847 Hastings moved to San Francisco where he practiced law and invested in real estate. In January 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter's sawmill and Hastings was soon plucking nuggets out of the American River. That summer, 29-year-old Hastings married 19-year-old Charlotte at Sutter's Fort. (Hastings' abandoned first wife had either died or divorced him by then.) Over the next eight years, Charlotte Hastings gave birth to five children, four of whom survived. In 1858, Lansford moved his family to Arizona Territory, where Hastings became postmaster, practiced law, and in 1860 was appointed a judge.
Although raised as a “Northern Yankee” in Ohio, Hastings saw opportunity in aligning with the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He devised a scheme to annex Southern California and Arizona Territory with an occupation by anti-Union recruits from the Golden State. After Charlotte died in 1861, Hastings placed his children in the care of friends near San Francisco and traveled to Richmond, Va., where he met Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. For his efforts, Hastings was commissioned a major in the Confederate Army. After the South's military defeat in 1865, Hastings headed for Mexico and then journeyed to Brazil to obtain permission from Emperor Dom Pedro II to establish a colony for disaffected southern families seeking relief from the victorious Union government. After choosing a large land parcel near the Amazon River, Hastings returned to Alabama to publish his next book, “Emigrants Guide to Brazil.”
In 1867, 115 ex-patriots sailed with Hastings to Brazil to develop tropical plantation lifestyles free from interference. In less than a decade, Hastings' colony consisted of 22 families with more than 100 workers. But Hastings' life-long dream of ruling his own settlement was dashed in 1870 when the 51-year-old died at sea while on another voyage from the U.S. to Brazil. Overall, close to 20,000 ex-Confederates immigrated to Brazil where today their ancestors live in the community of Americana. Proud of their heritage, descendants still celebrate Dixie traditions and the Fourth of July.
— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at www.thestormking.com. Check out Mark's new blog at www.tahoenuggets.com.