The Road No One Should Have Taken
The Hastings Cutoff is not a familiar landmark, and it is a road few had traveled by the summer of 1846. Looking at a modern picture of where the Cutoff diverges from the main California Trail makes me think about Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” which speaks of the author’s finding a fork in his path and wanting to see what both paths might lead to, but choosing the less-traveled one just to see where it goes. The poem mourns the loss of unexplored possibilities with a wistful sigh of acceptance. But I don’t think about the Hastings Cutoff without considering the tragedy it brought. It is clearly a road no one should have taken.
The great migration and Manifest Destiny became a part of the American consciousness in the late 1830s, and thousands of families emigrated west on the Oregon and California Trails. Wagon ruts are still visible in some areas of the Midwest today.
Some who successfully made the trip to settle in Oregon and California published guides for greenhorns so they would know what to expect. One of those books, published in 1845, was promoter Lansford Hastings’s The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California. One obscure sentence in Hastings’s book alluded to a cutoff that might cut over 200 miles off the trip. This was bound to appeal to families nearing the end of a 2,000 mile trek. What Hastings didn’t mention is that he’d never taken the cutoff the whole way. It went right through the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountains instead of around them to the north. No big deal if a party was taking off from Independence, Missouri in May—not so great in late June of 1846 with a large, slow-moving group like the Donner Party.
George Donner was a natural leader. He and James Reed, along with a few other parties, joined their families together to pool their resources. (Families on the Oregon Trail frequently blended and split apart as need and management style dictated. It made protection, daily chores and childcare much easier). Reed considered Hastings’s guide seriously, and suggested to Donner that they consider the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings himself had promised to escort them over the new path, so even though the Cutoff was barely mentioned in The Emigrant’s Guide, their plan seemed foolproof. Hastings would meet them at Fort Bridger, and they’d make a plan from there.
When they got to Fort Bridger in September, they found a message from Hastings that said he’d gone ahead to escort another group. The Donner-Reed Party were supposed to get started on the Cutoff without him, and he would come back to guide them after he got the others safely to Sutter’s Fort. So Donner and Reed, along with 81 others (mostly women, children and elderly people), faced a literal fork in the road: to go north and follow the well-worn path of the California Trail and get to Sutter’s Fort in about three more months, or take the Hastings Cutoff, which was supposed to cut a month off the trip. They had gotten a late start and had many delays, so they needed to make up some time. Besides, they had made a commitment to Hastings. The Donner Party may not have felt their destinies close at hand when they approached the road not taken, but for most of the party it was a fatal decision.
Only one group had gone before them on the Cutoff, so the Donners relied solely on secondhand information and scanty directional advice. After lots of bushwhacking, they stumbled on a note stuck to a tree branch. It was from Hastings, who said he would be delayed but that they should press on. He never did come back for them. The party had to cut down large trees and clear many bushes and scrub to make their way, lifting their wagons over obstacles they couldn’t clear, then abandoning what they couldn’t move or carry. They finally made it through the Great Salt Lake Desert with seriously depleted reserves, not expecting to be in such dire circumstances as they reached Truckee Lake in early November. Much of their livestock had run off in the desert due to extreme thirst, Reed had been banished for killing a guy, and the party was split as the Donners lagged six miles behind the main group due to a broken axle on their main wagon. And then it started to snow.
You may recall the three El Niños that have come across the Pacific recently, dumping more than 36 feet of snow within three days in some areas of the Sierra Nevadas. Some parts of that range get 100-200 inches annually, so you might have some idea of what the Donner Party faced. Once the snow started falling, it didn’t stop—so the party was faced with freezing cold wind and horizontal biting snow when they were barely able to travel under normal conditions. They were trapped.
Sometime near Christmas a group of 15 stalwart souls from the party decided to hike the rest of the way to Sutter’s Fort to get help. Known today as the Forlorn Hope, they made their way through blizzard conditions, starved and underprepared, to a local farm near Sutter’s where only seven survived to tell of their plight. They didn’t know if anyone back at the cabins was still living, but they pleaded for someone to help. After some failed attempts due to the heavy snowfall, a rescue party was finally launched, and it was early March before the first party reached the camp.
James Reed, earlier banished but in charge of the first rescue party, hiked into the main survivors’ camp to find his daughter Virginia sitting on the roof of a makeshift cabin, dangling her feet in a snowbank. Reunited with his family, Reed was the only rescuer whose family remained intact throughout the ordeal. Food had run out, and the party had resorted to cannibalism. Harsh judgement from outsiders, exaggerated historical references, and cruel jokes have been made about the cannibalism of the party, but remember, it had been at least two months since their animals perished, and wild game was scarce. These poor people have been castigated and mocked over the years for consuming those who had already died (no murders happened at the camp), but they had no choice.
Things were much worse at the Donner camp six miles away. Their living conditions were horrible since they didn’t have any time to erect much more than a makeshift wigwam before the heavy snows prevented any outside work, and they had been living in this makeshift shelter for almost three months. Their cattle had been buried in drifts after just a few weeks, all their men except for George were dead (he could barely move due to a gangrenous wound), and the women could barely even venture out for firewood. Later archaeology notes axe marks 20 feet up tall trees, an indication of how deep the snow was.
Of the 83 members of the party, only 48 survived. If it weren’t for the efforts of the Forlorn Hope, and for the four rescue parties from Sutter’s Fort, no one would have made it out alive.
I wonder how many times the survivors wished they had not relied so heavily on that shortcut, and had taken the well-traveled trail instead. Because only Patrick Breen’s diary, filled mostly with weather reports, was kept during their ill-fated confinement, we will never know of the day-to-day struggles the Donner Party faced once they got stuck. Other pioneers in the ensuing years took the Hastings Cutoff, following the trail blazed by the Donners, but the Cutoff never became the trail of choice. It’s too bad the Donners couldn’t “keep it for another day.” Thinking of their ordeal makes me consider Frost’s poem with a bit of melancholy:
The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost (1920)
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.