Mark McLaughlinSpecial to the Sierra Sun

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November 27, 2007
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Lansford Hastings: Donner Party Villain?

People familiar with the story of the Donner Party often label the lawyer and California land promoter, Lansford Hastings, as the bad guy.After all, he was the expert who wrote about a new short cut to California in his popular 1845 guidebook, The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California. Technically, there should have been nothing wrong with Hastings promoting a new cutoff that would save time and miles on the overland trip to California. Others were blazing shortcuts, and sections of the California Trail changed frequently during the mid-1840s. Hastings mistake was that he wrote confidently about a new route he had never seen himself; one that included forcing oxen-drawn wagons down a narrow, rugged canyon in Utahs Wasatch Mountains and then crossing a deadly desert with no water into Nevada. The leaders of the Donner Party ignored at least one stern warning not to take their families and heavy wagons through Hastings shortcut, but they went ahead anyway and paid for it in lost time, abandoned supplies and discarded personal possessions. Early snowstorms dumped snow over Donner Pass in late October 1846. The delays caused by the shortcut cost precious time the Donner-led emigrants needed in their race against the onset of bad weather over the Sierra Nevada. The group became trapped on the east side of the range. Nearly half of the hopeful pioneers died in the deep Sierra snow during the winter of 1847. Lansford Hastings uninformed suggestion that emigrant families could negotiate the cut-off was a reckless gamble and history has never forgiven him. The incident also illustrated one of Hastings most reckless character flaws his dangerous tendency to improvise as he went and overrate his knowledge of geography.So who was this overly ambitious lawyer from Ohio, who dreamed of his own empire in Mexican-controlled California? Born in 1819 in Ohio, Lansford Warren Hastings later graduated from law school and practiced as an attorney; twice he was appointed a judge. In 1842 Hastings decided to travel to Oregon Country in the Pacific Northwest. He apparently left his wife and children in Ohio and joined an emigration party captained by Dr. Elijah White and piloted by the legendary frontiersman Thomas Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick had just returned from California after leading the 1841 Bidwell Party in a first, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to bring loaded wagons into California.

As the party traveled west, Dr. White was overthrown as captain after an altercation involving the killing of barking dogs and Hastings assumed control. Hastings was only 23-years-old, but the young lawyer suddenly found himself captain of the first immigrant party to Oregon, comprised mostly of farmers with women and children. Ironically, Hastings almost didnt survive his first captaincy. When the wagon company reached Independence Rock (Wyoming), they all stopped to scratch their names in the Rocks sandstone surface. Hastings and another man spent so much time on their autograph for posterity that the wagon train moved on without them. A band of hostile Indians attacked Hastings and his companion, stealing their clothes and threatening to scalp them. Instead of killing them, the Indians decided to hold them for ransom for more valuables from the main party. Mountain man Fitzpatrick saved the day, however, by trading some food and shiny trinkets in exchange for the two frightened young men.In early October Hastings party reached Oregon City, where Hastings spent the winter acting as the attorney for Dr. John McLaughlin, the general manager of Fort Vancouver. In the spring of 1843, Hastings led a small party to Sutters Fort in Californias southern Sacramento Valley. John Sutter, a Swiss national, and Hastings (the first trained American lawyer to enter California) became good friends. Both agreed that Alta (Northern) California should shed Mexican rule and become an independent republic. Both were strong-willed entrepreneurs who recognized the region offered tremendous opportunity for men with the vision to grab it for their own. Sutter and Hastings believed that a British or French takeover of California was a real possibility. To defend the region from the threat of a European invasion, they wanted to persuade the native Californios that an alliance with the United States would be in their best interest. The two men also wanted Americans to head west to populate Alta California, where Sutter and Hastings could be leaders of an independent state and provide the American newcomers with jobs and land. It was a grand vision; one that Sutter called New Helvetia or New Switzerland.Sutter, who had arrived in the late 1830s, had been working toward establishing his own republic for several years. After his arrival in California, he had obtained a large land grant from the Mexican government and was in the process of building a substantial fort at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. After seeing Sutters fledgling dream taking root, Hastings decided to establish his own city called Montezuma, located south of Sutters Fort at the juncture of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Before Hastings could start his own dream of Montezuma, however, he sailed to Mexico during the summer of 1844, made an overland crossing to the Gulf of Mexico, and then returned to Ohio to increase the emigration to California. Back in Ohio, Hastings wrote his Emigrants Guide, but he was unable to get it published. He decided to raise money to print the book by giving a series of presentations on the benefits of western emigration. His efforts paid off when the book was released in Cincinnati in early 1845. Sales of Hastings book were surprisingly good. His promotional circuit took him to New York where he met Sam Brannon, a Mormon leader who was organizing a contingent of the faithful to sail for California. Hastings told Brannon about Montezuma and soon began dreaming about a rush of Mormons going west to settle in New Switzerland. In August 1845, Hastings decided to return to Sutters Fort to be in position to meet the Mormons and other emigrants who he anticipated arriving in California. Hastings led a small party of 10 men west along the California Trail with the intention of checking out the shortcut he wrote about in his book. Hastings group, however, decided against taking the cutoff and they stuck to the traditional trail, reaching Sutters Fort on Christmas Day. It wasnt until the following year Hastings finally saw his dysfunctional shortcut as he headed east to meet the 1846 migration. Tragically, Hastings confidence was not shaken at the thought of families breaching mountain canyons and stumbling across parched deserts. It was a reckless decision that led to the Donner Party meltdown and their demise in the Sierra snow. Mark McLaughlin's column, "Weather Window," appears every other week in the Sierra Sun. He is a nationally published writer and photographer whose award-winning books, "The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm," "Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe, Vol. 1 andamp; 2," and "Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly," are available at local stores. A Carnelian Bay resident, Mark can be reached at mark@thestormking.com


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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Nov 27, 2007 12:25PM Published Nov 27, 2007 12:11PM Copyright 2007 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.