Vagneur: The fateful frontier
In a good year, it was 2,091 miles from Independence, Missouri, to Sutter’s Fort in upper California. An odd statistic in today’s world, but if you’re covering the ground in a covered wagon, each mile is significant and mistakes in navigation can be deadly.
In 1846, 500 wagons left Independence headed west, a stunning number if you think about it. The Gold Rush of 1848 had yet to occur, and there were probably as many reasons for heading west as there are infinite designs of snowflakes. The idea of Manifest Destiny, that the land between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was up for grabs and needed to be settled, come hell or high water, held the imaginations of most Americans of the day. It’s a romantic philosophy, at least to those who watch a lot of Western movies, but in retrospect, the idea wasn’t very well thought out. Also, in a country that was founded on freedom of speech and religion, many of the emigrants of the day were seeking to find an environment even more tolerant of religious freedom than the U.S.
It’s interesting to note that in 1846, one had to leave the United States to get to California or Oregon. Those doing the leaving were rightly called emigrants, a suitable term particularly in a U.S. that now is semi-possessed by the notion of illegal immigration. In 1846, emigrants from the United States were traveling to California and Oregon, land controlled by Mexico.
It’s hard to imagine that out of 500 wagons heading west that year, about 80 of them would manage to get fatally lost along the well-worn trail, but that is exactly what happened to a specific group.
History has been more than kind to the men who created the mix-up, one a megalomaniacal lawyer by the name of Lansford W. Hastings, whose grand dream it was to snatch California from Mexican control and deliver it to the U.S., thus guaranteeing himself a distinguished position of some fame and fortune. The other gent will enter our story soon.
Normally, wagons traveled on the Oregon Trail to a point near Fort Hall (in present-day Idaho) and then could either continue on the Oregon Trail or turn south on the California Trail. Impressed with his own vision of self-importance, Hastings had published a journal called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, which described his grandiose idea of a “shortcut” to California, a deviation from the established Oregon Trail that involved an almost impossible jaunt over the Wasatch Mountains, through the Great Basin and across the Great Salt Lake desert to later hook up with the California Trail. This “shortcut” guaranteed that travelers would have no choice but to go to California. Naturally, the biggest problem was that Hastings had not traveled any of this “shortcut” himself, at least not prior to 1846.
The great American icon and mountain man extraordinaire Jim Bridger had a small trading post along the shortcut, conveniently named Fort Bridger. The shortcut assured that all emigrants had to pass by Bridger’s general store, and in generous retrospect, who could blame the money-hungry pioneer from telling deadly lies, saying that the shortcut would cut 350 miles off the trip, that murderous Indians patrolled the trail and that the Mexican government would demand a ransom at some point along the main route? The shortcut actually added 125 miles to the journey.
Most wagons and their trains didn’t fall for these untruths, but one group, known as the Reed-Donner company, inexperienced in overland travel and not seasoned pioneers in any sense, fell victim to this charlatan of an explorer. A fatal mistake.
By the time the Reed-Donner party hacked brush, shoveled dirt and rolled boulders out of their way, all to get through the near-imaginary shortcut — and without Hasting’s promised guidance — the group was a month late getting to the Sierra Nevada, the last mountains to cross before reaching California. On All Hallows Eve, Oct. 31, 1846, early winter snows hit, trapping the Reed-Donner party at the foot of the pass through the Sierra Nevada.
That passage is now called Donner Pass, in honor of one of the wagon-train leaders, and most likely you know the rest of the story, how cannibalism, murder and eating ox hides kept the majority of them alive until they were rescued in February 1847.
As serious as the event was, a gem of wisdom can be gleaned from a letter one of the survivors (Virginia Reed) wrote to her cousin Mary Keyes on May 16, 1847. “Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” And she might well have added, “And never trust a lawyer or a mountain man.”
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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