Lansford Hastings: Donner Party Villain?

This winter marks the 170th anniversary of the tragic tale of the Donner Party. Many mistakes were made by a variety of people, but historians have labeled California land promoter Lansford Hastings as the villain in the story. Hastings was the man who steered the Donner Party wrong, enticing the wagon train to take a primitive, untried trail through the rugged Wasatch Mountains of Utah as a shortcut to the Pacific Coast. The subsequent delays and loss of supplies, livestock and wagons culminated in the pioneers reaching the Sierra too late to cross due to early snow. Hastings’ role in that decision is well understood, but the leading members of the Donner group also spurned sober advice from experienced mountain man James Clyman who warned them the new route was dangerously risky. Donner Party leader James Reed possessed a similar character flaw as did Lansford Hastings – both men overestimated their own leadership abilities while underestimating the challenge of western terrain.

Lansford Hastings. | Courtesy Frank Titus collection

Mark McLaughlin recounts the lessons from the Donner Party

Hastings was the “expert” who briefly mentioned a new shortcut 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 cutoff that would save time and miles on the overland trip to California. Others were also developing alternate routes and parts of the California Trail changed frequently during the 1840s. Hastings’ mistake was that he spoke confidently about a route that he had never seen himself; one that included forcing oxen-drawn wagons down a narrow, rugged canyon and then crossing a deadly salt desert with no water.

Donner Party leader James Reed possessed a similar character flaw as did Lansford Hastings – both men overestimated their own leadership abilities while underestimating the challenge of western terrain.

Ultimately, early snowstorms hit the Tahoe Sierra in October 1846, trapping the group. Hastings’ uninformed suggestion that emigrant families could negotiate the cut-off was a reckless gamble and history has never forgiven him for it. 

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 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 White-led party traveled west, the doctor was rejected as captain after an altercation involving the killing of barking dogs. Hastings was only 23-years-old, but the young lawyer suddenly found himself captain of a wagon train comprised mostly of frontier farmers with women and children. Ironically, Hastings almost didn’t survive his first leadership role. When the wagon company reached Independence Rock (Wyoming), they all stopped to scratch their names in the 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.

After reaching Oregon City, Hastings spent the winter acting as the attorney for Dr. John McLaughlin, the general manager of Fort Vancouver. In 1843, Hastings traveled to Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley. John Sutter, a Swiss national, and Hastings (the first trained American lawyer to enter California) became friends. Both agreed that Alta (Northern) California should shed Mexican rule and become an independent republic. Both were strong-willed entrepreneurs who recognized that the region offered tremendous opportunity for men with the vision to grab it for their own. 

Sutter and Hastings feared a British or French takeover of California, and 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 northern 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 Sutter’s fledgling dream taking root, Hastings decided to establish his own city called Montezuma, located near the mouth of the San Joaquin River. Before Hastings’ could start building 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 promote American emigration to California. 

Back in Ohio, Hastings wrote his “Emigrant’s Guide,” but he was unable to get it published. He raised 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 was surprisingly good and 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 encouraged him to bring the Mormons to northern California. 

In August 1845, Hastings returned to Sutter’s Fort so that he could meet Mormons and other emigrants who he anticipated traveling to California the following year. In the spring of 1846, Hastings’ headed east along the California Trail and finally saw how dangerous his shortcut was. Tragically, his 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. Just 20 years later, following the Confederacy’s loss in the Civil War, Hastings wrote another guidebook and established American plantation colonies in Brazil, but that’s a story for another day.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. You may reach him at mark@thestormking.com. Check out his blog at tahoenuggets.com or read more at TheTahoeWeekly.com.

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Mark McLaughlin

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.