Lansford W. Hastings | A Man Who Would be King

Lansford Hastings. | Courtesy Frank Titus Collection

People familiar with the Donner Party tragedy during the winter of 1847 have read about Lansford W. Hastings, a man who many historians blamed for the deadly debacle. Hastings is an easy target because he wrote an inaccurate booklet on emigrating to California and Oregon, a how-to pamphlet that endorsed a shorter route than the traditional wagon trail west. He also pitched himself as a seasoned frontiersman who would personally lead wagon companies safely through his cutoff. Hastings, however, had much more in mind for his future than being a trail guide.

Hastings was an Ohio-born attorney and early California land promoter whose popular 1845 guidebook, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California,” relied on the idea that crossing the alkali flats south of the Great Salt Lake was the most direct route from the California Trail to the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada. It was an obvious observation, but fraught with risk, particularly due to the lack of water. Hastings’ grave mistake was that he spoke confidently about this route that he had never seen himself. Members of the Donner Party were among those who trusted Hastings; but the rugged trail proved nearly impossible for loaded wagons. Hastings’ uninformed suggestion that emigrant families could negotiate the cutoff was a reckless gamble and history has never forgiven him for it.

Hastings’ uninformed suggestion that emigrant families could negotiate the cutoff was a reckless gamble and history has never forgiven him for it.

The so-called Hastings Cutoff originated in 1845, when topographical engineer John C. Frémont was leading his Third Expedition to California from Missouri, intent on exploring the Great Basin region west of the Rocky Mountains. Oct. 14 found him camped at the future site of Salt Lake City near the Great Salt Lake, the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere. During a previous expedition the year before, Frémont and his men had skirted the perimeter of a vast expanse of basins where surface water never reached an ocean. In his published government report, Frémont described this unique and immense hydrological region and called it the Great Basin, thus coining the geographical term that we use today.

This time around, however, Brevet Captain Frémont’s military orders were to explore the forbidding but eerily beautiful alkali flats, sandstone formations and dead-end canyons of the sparsely settled country of present-day Utah, as he headed for the Pacific Coast. If Frémont could discover a direct yet feasible wagon route straight across the desert to the Humboldt River, along with sufficient water and grass, it could shave off many miles of travel compared to the current California Trail — a route that detoured far to the north and around the region. Frémont had no wagons or families to hinder him and his rugged frontiersmen crossed 83 miles of waterless playa by horseback in a matter of days. But the loss of 10 mules and several horses indicated that the trail was not a practical wagon road.

Most of the details of Frémont’s Third Expedition are missing; the result of a ban on his men keeping diaries and the loss of his own journal in a fire. Despite the lack of specifics, some information about the trek reached the public domain. Regardless of the obvious potential danger in the desert route, in January 1846, Frémont wrote a letter extolling the benefits of his newly discovered short-cut south of the Great Salt Lake. Frémont’s account made overly optimistic claims for this desert crossing to California; in May his letter was published in the newspapers of frontier communities along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

In St. Louis, Mo., the veteran frontiersman Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick read Frémont’s article that spring. Fitzpatrick was well aware of the barren country being described and he laconically expressed his skepticism by saying, “This I think is a mistake.”

Back in 1842, Hastings had joined a wagon train heading to Oregon, where he spent the winter acting as the attorney for Dr. John McLaughlin, the general manager of Britain’s Fort Vancouver. The following year, Hastings traveled to Sutter’s Fort in the southern Sacramento Valley. John Sutter, a Swiss émigré, 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 politically unstable region offered tremendous opportunity for men with the vision to grab it for their own.

Sutter had arrived in California in the late 1830s and had been working toward establishing his own independent republic for several years. After seeing Sutter’s fledgling dream taking root, Hastings decided to establish his own domain in California. He purchased a half square mile of land from Sutter, the founder of Sacramento. The site was located about 4 miles below the mouth of the American River. Hastings called it Sutterville and he intended for it to be a Mormon community. To encourage more settlers, he traveled to Ohio and Missouri to promote American pioneer movements to the West Coast.

On his arrival in Missouri, the 25-year-old Hastings wrote an audacious letter to John C. Calhoun, then serving as Secretary of State under President John Tyler. Hastings said that arrangements for a revolution were being made in California and professed deep disappointment with the United States’ neglect of American settlers on the Pacific Coast. The brash entrepreneur warned Calhoun that “if the U.S. does not give the people of Oregon and California a government of some kind soon, an attempt will be made at organizing an independent government.”

Hastings then announced to the press that he proposed to produce a guidebook to facilitate a more robust migration. He wrote his guide book, but was unable to get it commercially 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 1845. Hastings’ promotional circuit took him to New York City.

Along the way he met Sam Brannan, a Mormon leader who was traveling to Nauvoo, Ill., the capital of the church at that time. Brannan was organizing a contingent of the faithful to sail for California from New York. Hastings told Brannon about Sutterville and said that he would happily welcome Mormons on his land in California. Brannan shared Hastings vision of a revolution to overthrow the Mexican government. To that end, Brannan wrote that his ship would carry “ambitious youths, who design to be Presidents, Governors, Judges, Legislators, and home and foreign ministers in the new republic. Indeed, I strongly suspect that Captain Hastings aims at the highest executive office himself.”

Unfortunately for Hastings, war and the California Gold Rush ended his presidential dreams.