HASTINGS CUTOFF, UTAH
The Hastings Cutoff was a presumed shortcut of the California Trail extending from Fort Bridger in Southwest Wyoming, through the Wasatch Mountains, along the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake, and across the salt flats to the Humboldt River in Nevada. Interstate 80 follows much of the route today. The shortcut got its name from Lansford W. Hastings, an avid promoter of emigration to California between 1843 and 1846.
Legendary fur trader and explorer Jedediah Smith was the first white American to cross the Salt Lake Desert on his return to the rendezvous in Utah from his first trip to California in 1827. John C. Fremont crossed the desert on his surveying expedition to California in 1845. In May of the next year, Hastings, with James Clyman and James Hudspeth, traveled eastward following Fremont’s directions to the Salt Lake Valley, and then on to Fort Bridger—the latter part known to Clyman from his earlier explorations as a fur trapper in 1826.
The accepted main route of the California Trail swung north from Fort Bridger to Fort Hall in present-day Idaho, then west along the Snake River to the Raft River where it split off from the Oregon Trail. From there it headed southwest to the headwaters of the Humboldt River near Wells, NV.
Hastings, while near Fort Bridger in June, 1846, convinced several emigrant parties to follow him west over his claimed short cut to California. The first were parties mounted on horses or mules, who were assumed to send messages back about the best routes for wagons. Hastings left Fort Bridger on July 20th as a guide for the Harlan-Young group of 40 wagons. Over the next several days, several separate parties followed. On July 31st, the 23 wagons of the Donner-Reed party made up the last of the emigrant parties to follow Hastings.
After some complications trying to follow Hastings’s directions, and after more than two weeks hacking out a road through brush-choked canyons and up and down precipitous mountainsides, the exhausted Donner-Reed company staggered into the Salt Lake Valley on August 22nd. There they were still faced with the even more horrendous ordeal of crossing the salt desert. And they were falling even farther behind.
“We struck a vast white plain, uniformly level, and utterly destitute of vegetation or any sign that shrub or plant had ever existed above its snow-like surface,” wrote Edwin Bryant, who crossed the flats a month before the Donners in 1846. “It was a scene so entirely new to us, so frightfully forbidding in its aspects, that all of us, I believe, though impressed with its sublimity, felt a slight shudder of apprehension.”
“The desert had been represented to us as only forty miles wide but we found it nearer eighty,” wrote Virginia Reed. “It was a dreary, desolate alakali waste; not a living thing could be seen; it seemed as though the hand of death had been laid upon the country. We started in the evening, traveled all that night, and the following day and night—two nights and one day of suffering from thirst and heat by day and piercing cold at night.”
It was too much for the animals, which started giving out. James Reed, George Donner, and Lewis Keseberg had to abandon wagons in the playa. Reed, who went ahead to the spring at Pilot Peak to bring water back to his family, lost all but two of his cattle when they smelled the water and stampeded into the desert, only to be captured, presumably, by Indians.
As the Donner-Reed party was still struggling in the salt desert, Lansford Hastings and the lead parties he led, had safely reached the main trail on the Humboldt. It turned out his “short cut” was actually 10 miles longer than the main trail through Fort Hall, which was a much easier route. There they were intercepted by an excited rider from the west, who brought the news that Fremont had secured California from the Mexicans. Apparently concerned that this development would affect his political ambitions in California, Hastings left the wagons and hurried on to California.
In November, 1849, Howard Stansbury, traveling eastbound toward Salt Lake in the area around the Silver Island outcropping, wrote in his journal:
“. . . We traveled on until past midnight over a level mud-plain, lighted by the rays of the moon, which struggled through a mass of dark and threatening clouds. The wind was fresh and cold, and mud soft and tenacious, making the traveling very slow and fatiguing. During the night we passed five wagons and one cart, which had stuck fast in the mud, and been necessarily left by their owners, who, from appearances, had abandoned everything, fearful of perishing themselves in t his inhospitable desert. Great quantities of excellent clothing, toolchests, trunks, scientific books, and, in fact, almost everything, both useless and necessary on a journey of this kind, had been here left strewn over the plain. Many articles had not even been removed from the wagons. The carcasses of several oxen lying about on the ground satisfactorily explained the whole matter. . .”
Travelers used the Hastings Cutoff until 1850. In July of 1850 Robert Chalmers wrote of reaching the Silver Island outcropping:
“At 4 PM reached the mountains for which we had been so long traveling with the expectation of finding feed and water at their base, but great was our disappointment to learn that we still had to travel 25 miles to reach ‘Pilot Peak.’ All around us were animals dying of hunger, thirst and fatigue, and many men as well as women in nearly the same condition. . . It was with great difficulty that we could urge our animals to go at all and we were obliged to stop again.”
The pioneers who took the Hastings Cutoff route across the salt playa of Western Utah were indeed determined to reach their destinations in California. They etched into the landscape a special and unique chapter in the history of the West.
The above excerpted from:
Hastings Cutoff, Bryant’s Trail to Skull Valley, article by Rush Spedden, Overland Journal, vol.23, no. 2, Summer 2005;
So Rugged and Mountainous, Blazing the Trails to Oregon and California 1812-1848, by Will Bagley, University of Oklahoma Press, 2010;
The Limitless Plain, Part 2, article by Roy Tea, Overland Journal, vol.23, no. 2, Summer 2005;
The Donner Party Chronicles, by Frank Mullen, Reno Gazette-Journal and Nevada Humanities Committee, 1997.
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