The Man Who Likely Caused the Donner Party Tragedy

In May of 1846, several groups of settlers decided to set off for what is now California and Oregon to start a new life. Eventually, over 80 of these pioneers would become trapped in the Sierra Nevada Mountains through winter of 1846-47. They would come to be known to us as the Donner Party, due to the name of their first leader.

The members of the Donner Party endured unspeakable tragedy in their fight to survive during a harsh winter with very little provisions. As we now know, some resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. But an even bigger tragedy is that this all could have been avoided. Were it not for the overwhelming ego of one man, Lansford W. Hastings, most of the members of the Donner Party might have survived.

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Hastings had managed to build a reputation for himself as an expert guide through on the emigrant trail to what is now the western region of the United States. To capitalize on his supposed knowledge, he published a guidebook in 1845, called The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. In this book, he touted a shortcut he had discovered that he said would save emigrants a great deal of time on the trip to California. Many pioneers purchased this book and relied on his advice, including some of the leading members of the Donner Party.

The problem with this route was that Hastings had never actually taken it himself. Had he done so, he would have rapidly figured out that it was wholly unsuitable for travel with wagons. It required these wagons, pulled by oxen, to travel down a narrow canyon and cross waterless deserts. Very few travelers could have made this journey, but even less so large groups of families traveling with horses and cattle. Unfortunately, the Donner Party trusted Lansing’s advice, which eventually left them trapped and dying in the snowy mountains of the West.

As it turns out, it was more than book sales that motivated Lansing’s terrible advice. His main motive in publishing the book was to convince settlers to come to California instead of Oregon. The trail he suggested would lead these emigrants right where Hastings wanted them: on land that he and another California resident, John Sutter, owned. Sutter and Hastings planned to make money by selling off plots of their land to the newcomers, something they could not do if they chose to take the easier route that led to Oregon.

Stranger still is the fact that Hastings finally did travel part of his proposed shortcut in the spring of 1846, after his book was published but before families started setting out that year for the western frontier. He soon realized that his shortcut was dangerous, but he did nothing to deter anyone from taking it. In fact, he even encouraged settlers that he met to take the route. Many did, including the 80+ members of the Donner Party. Nearly half of them would die as a result that winter.

Despite his role in causing the deaths of over 30 people, Hastings did not give up on his shameless self-promotion. In the 1880s, he established colonies in Brazil and wrote yet another guidebook. Fortunately for his readers, no one died as a result of his advice this time.

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