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The Beginning of the End for the Donner-Reed Party

Hastings, L. W. The Emigrants' Guide,  to Oregon and California

Title page to Hastings’ 1845 Emigrants’ Guide.

(Note: The following was written by Cami Spackman, a student employee. I edited the document, but she provided the content and idea for the post.)

The Beginning of the End for the Donner-Reed Party

During the great migration of Americans to the western shores of California and Oregon in the mid-19th century, there were many people ready to make a profit from the eager pioneers who wanted to make their way west. From land agents and emigrants’ guides to the construction of postal routes and forts, the West seemed full of potential for financial gain. Eager to join in the excitement, Lansford W. Hastings published his own guide titled The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (link to the original in Special Collections; opens in a new page), which he hoped to sell to those headed West. Hardly a heartless profiteer, Hastings had fairly extensive experience in traveling the west with emigrant groups.

In this guide, Hastings gave advice on what to bring on the long journey (p. 143-148) and which routes to take (p. 134-136), along with information on settlements (p. 102-112), landscapes (p. 70-82), plants (p. 86-91), and wildlife (p. 92-101). Hastings also shares his personal views of Mexicans (mostly negative) and some of the individuals that might be encountered along the route to Oregon and California (p. 112-131). He also warned of areas noted for robberies and attacks from outlaws, by which he generally meant Indians and “Mexicans” (p. 139-141). Hastings also mentioned a more direct route to California—a pass over Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and the salt flats and desert areas of Western Utah (p. 137-138). Unbeknownst to the readers of this guide, this shortcut had never been tested and was significantly harder than the main route due to the difficult terrain and lack of water along the way. It was this “direct route” that would bring tragedy upon the Donner-Reed Party when they decided to take this “shortcut” and were then faced with many delays because of terrain and other mishaps. These delays would lead them to be trapped for nearly four months in an early blizzard in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. About half of them died from the extreme cold and starvation, eventually leading some to eat their dead. Although this guide might have helped many pioneers in their journey west, it instead became infamous because of the Donner-Reed Party. Few documents better illustrate the risks that pioneers and emigrants to the western states faced. The library has a 1932 reprint in the Social Science/History area of the library on the first floor, F 864 .H345 that can be checked out. It is also available online through the library’s digital collections: The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. The original, which cannot be checked out, can still be accessed for research in Special Collections by filling out a call slip for The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, Vault 917.8  H279  1845.

To learn more about early migration to California, the Donner-Reed Party, or Lansford W. Hastings, here are some interesting resources:

Andrews, T. F. (1970). The Ambitions of Lansford W. Hastings: A Study in Western Myth-Making. Pacific Historical Review, 39(4). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3637783?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Grayson, D. K. (1990). Donner Party Deaths: A Demographic Assessment. Journal of Anthropological Research, 46(3). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3630425?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

Topping, G. (1988). Overland Emigration, the California Trail, and the Hastings Cutoff. Utah Historical Quarterly, 56. Retrieved from http://content.lib.utah.edu/utils/getfile/collection/USHSArchPub/id/7371/filename/7406.pdf

AC 901 .A1a no.6023: Andrews, T. F. (1973). Lansford W. Hastings and the Promotion of the Salt Lake Desert Cutoff: A Reappraisal. Western Historical Quarterly, 4(2).

F 865 .P137 1971: Packard, Wellman. (1971). Early Emigration to California, 1849-1850. Fairfield, WA: Ye Galleon Press.

F 868 .N5 M28 2013: McGlashan, C. F. (2013). History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierras. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

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