THE HASTINGS CUTOFF

A short-lived shortcut through Utah on the long California Trail, this was an apparently good idea which didn't work out.

Lansford Warren Hastings (ca.1818-1868) helped pioneer the Oregon Trail in 1842. He gravitated to California the next year and, along with John Sutter, saw opportunity in promoting settlement there.

No wagons had reached California, but all agreed that the way was passable if they could cross the Sierra Nevada before winter. Encouraged, Hastings published a book, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, advocating American colonization. It suggested a shorter route south of the Great Salt Lake, but gave no specifics beyond the sentence: "The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco."

In 1845 wagons went through, but followed a northern course to avoid the mountains and desert. Meanwhile, Captain John C. Frémont's 1845 expedition had actually used the hypothetical route from the Salt Lake Valley across the desert to Pilot Springs (north of Wendover), and on to the Humboldt River.

Learning this, Hastings undertook to divert emigrants to California. In 1846 he backtracked Frémont's course to intercept the thousands he knew would be on the Oregon Trail. Missing the path at present Salt Lake City, he crossed the Wasatch Range via Emigration Canyon and Big Mountain to Echo Canyon, thus happening upon the shortest feasible route to Fort Bridger.

He persuaded four companies to take his shortcut, guiding one himself. Three descended Weber Canyon, where the streambed was clear of brush and trees, but boulders and deep water proved hard on animals and wagons. Hastings advised the fourth company, the Donner-Reed party, to cut a road through Emigration Canyon. Having crossed the salt desert on horseback, he did not foresee difficulties in the soft surface; however, the heavier wagon trains encountered problems there.

The mountain portion of the cutoff became the Mormon road into the Salt Lake Valley. After the Donner-Reed party's experience, the desert crossing lay virtually unused until the automobile road was built across the desert in 1924.

See: Charles Kelley, Salt Desert Trails: A History of the Hastings Cutoff (1930, 1969); and Dale L. Morgan, ed., Overland in 1846 (1963).

Dale Beecher