Donner Party decisions seal their fate, Part II

Hastings Cutoff map. | Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Author’s Note: To acknowledge the historical significance of the Donner Party and its window into an important era in the West, I will occasionally write a column chronicling the progress and challenges of this cursed wagon train as it made its way to California. The columns will be available in future editions of Tahoe Weekly and my previous columns are available at TheTahoeWeekly.com. Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu.

California promoter Lansford Hastings was wrong when he told emigrant families that his route through the Great Salt Lake Desert was a good road that would save at least 200 miles and they could possibly avoid Mexican troops on the traditional Fort Hall trail.

Read Part I

There were no enemy soldiers that far north, but everyone was aware that hostilities in the Mexican-American War had commenced. Hastings’ popular trail guide to California and Oregon was instrumental in convincing hundreds of pioneers to head west in 1846. Hastings feared a British or French takeover of Mexico’s Alta California and wanted Americans to head west to populate the region where he could provide land and jobs. Hastings recognized the tenuous hold that Mexico City had on the distant region. The highly ambitious attorney was hopeful that on their arrival on the Pacific Coast, the grateful migrants would elect him president of a new California Republic. Mexico’s defeat in the war and the United States’ annexation of the province crushed Hastings’ grand vision.

Not only did experienced frontiersman James Clyman explicitly tell them that Hastings’ cutoff was dangerous and only slightly shorter than the standard route, but so did Joseph R. Walker, another legendary trail blazer who had crossed the desert with topographer John Frémont the year before.

There is plenty of bad luck and unfortunate circumstances in the saga of the Donner Party, but it’s important to understand how complicit the leaders of that company were in their fateful decision to follow Hastings’ propaganda. Not only did experienced frontiersman James Clyman explicitly tell them that Hastings’ cutoff was dangerous and only slightly shorter than the standard route, but so did Joseph R. Walker, another legendary trail blazer who had crossed the desert with topographer John Frémont the year before.

Joseph Walker. | Courtesy Library of Congress

Matriarch Tamsen has doubts
Journalist Edwin Bryant, who, like Tamsen Donner, was chronicling the journey with the intent of publishing a book on reaching California, listened to Walker’s warnings that the shortcut was unsafe for oxen-drawn wagons. Bryant also had a face-to-face conversation with Hastings and was not favorably impressed by what he heard.

Despite his misgivings, Bryant and eight companions who had previously exchanged their wheeled conveyances for pack mules, chose to try it anyway. He later wrote: “Our situation was different from theirs. We were mounted on mules, had no families, and could afford to hazard experiments, and make explorations. They could not.”

Before Bryant left for the trailhead west of Fort Bridger he wrote letters to his friends — including Tamsen Donner — telling them to avoid the new passage. Walker also continued to warn against Hastings’ Cutoff as he made his way east. Tamsen Donner listened to Walker with the same trepidation that she had with Clyman, but her husband, the newly elected captain of the wagon train, as well as the other men in the party ignored it.

Jesse Quinn Thornton, a lawyer and abolitionist who had befriended Tamsen on the trail before making the turn to Oregon, observed: “The Californians were generally much elated, and in fine spirits with the prospect of a better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner, however, was an exception. She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited, because her husband and others could think for a moment of leaving the old road and confide in the statement of a man [Hastings] of whom they knew nothing, but who was probably some selfish adventurer.”

Bridger’s ulterior motives
When the Reed-Donner group and a handful of other late-arriving families that had joined them reached Fort Bridger at the end of July, Hastings was long gone having left a week before leading several impatient companies that refused to wait for the stragglers. Bryant and his pack train departed on July 20. About 66 wagons had entered the shortcut and were ahead of the Donner Party. When George Donner and James Reed visited the trading post, Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vazquez assured the men that Hastings’ route was viable; they knew the directions and it would be easy to follow the tracks of the wagon wheels ahead. With renewed confidence in Bridger’s spurious information, the Donner Party rested for three days, recruited their oxen and horses and repaired equipment. When they departed the fort on July 31, the group was the last wagon company to take the Hastings Cutoff.

Reed wrote to his in-laws in Springfield, Ill. In his letter, Reed called Bridger and Vazquez “excellent and accommodating gentlemen” who were honorable and fair. He related that the two frontiersmen told him the cutoff saved between 350 to 400 miles on the trail to California, with just one stretch of 40 miles without water. Reed wrote that Bridger had informed him the shortcut “is a fine level road with plenty of water and grass” and Reed expected to reach Sutter’s Fort (California) in seven weeks. Reed obviously believed what he wrote, but none of it was remotely accurate.

Bryant had entrusted Bridger with cautionary missives to share among the emigrants, but they were never revealed. Bridger had ulterior motives that were based on economics. He and Vazquez had established their primitive trading post in 1843 to service trappers, traders and the increasing emigrant traffic, all of which was threatened by the new Greenwood Cutoff that diverted wagons directly to Fort Hall and bypassed Fort Bridger. (Caleb Greenwood had led the Stephens Party over Donner Pass in 1844 and opened the California Trail. He also blazed the Dog Valley Cutoff in 1845 that avoided the rock-strewn Truckee River Canyon.)

Bridger reasoned that if the Hastings Cutoff became a popular route, wagon trains would continue to Fort Bridger to rest and re-supply before entering the shortcut. Considering all the other advice they had ignored about Hastings’ route it seems highly unlikely that Bryant’s words of warning would have been heeded by the leaders of the Donner Party. But they certainly would have made Tamsen even more despondent.

Another warning ignored
By the third day into the Wasatch Mountains the Donner Party was beginning to learn just how challenging Hastings’ route would be. On Aug. 6, they found a tattered note from their would-be guide instructing them that the trail they were following was impassable and that they should find another way through the mountains and steep canyons.

A frustrated Reed and two other men rode ahead to locate Hastings and bring him back to guide them. They found Hastings two days later, but he told them that he was obligated to the wagon companies ahead and he could not help them. On the way back to his family, an increasingly agitated Reed used his axe to mark trees for a safer trail that the company could follow.

As the struggling emigrants moved boulders and cut down timber and bushes to hack a rough road through the wilderness, another family joined them. There were now 87 men, women and children traveling with 22 wagons and the Donner Party was complete.