California was the “Promised Land” in the mythos of the American West. In the mid-nineteenth century, reports of its beautiful open lands and precious metals captivated would-be settlers seeking prosperity and renewal. From 1846 to 1854, the non-native population swelled from 8,000 to 300,000. After 1848, gold mania was the largest contributor to the boom, but in earlier years, the catalyst was a single individual: young Ohio-born lawyer Lansford W. Hastings.
Prior to 1846, Oregon, not California, was the apple of the pioneer’s eye. The Oregon territory, then disputed by Britain and the United States, was popularized by the famed Oregon Trail and considered to be a more stable alternative to Mexican rule in California. Hastings abandoned his old life and career for Western adventure just as earnest debate over the relative merit of the two regions was beginning. The young newcomer led overland expeditions into both Oregon (1842) and California (1843), reinventing himself as a trusted authority on western migration.
In 1845, Hastings published one of the earliest overland guide books, The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. To cover publication costs, he traveled across the Midwest giving temperance lectures, one of many testaments to his astounding knack for travelling. Hastings ultimately “chose” California as the place he recommended personally to travelers beginning their journeys on the Missouri frontier. According to one Western historian, Hastings and his guidebook “had focused attention upon California as no one had before.” The result was the “overland exodus of 1846,” the first mass migration since 1841 to focus exclusively on California.
Bringing up the rear of the 1846 wagon train was a small group headed by the families Donner and Reed. Because of a series of delays after setting out from Fort Bridger, Wyoming in late July, the pioneers became trapped by winter snowfall in the high Sierra Nevada mountains. Before their rescue the following March, many of the group resorted to cannibalism. Lansford Hastings’s supposed role in this tragedy villainized him to the point where even persuasive attempts at rehabilitating his character have been ignored by recent historians.
It was not uncommon for California and Oregon emigrants to carry Hastings’ guidebook among their belongings. Jacob Donner (who died in the ordeal) was said to have kept a marked-up copy in his saddlebag, though the item was never recovered by rescuers. Storytellers continue to assert that the Donners fell behind because they took a disastrous shortcut “promoted” by the book. This so-called “Hastings Cutoff” directed emigrants to leave the main California Trail at Fort Bridger and travel southwest around the Great Salt Lake, saving 400 miles of journey.
The claim of the guidebook’s influence is based on weak evidence. Only one sentence in the text references a Salt Lake shortcut, and represents only the author’s speculation, not his personal experience: “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.” Vague references to a “route via Salt Lake” were common in American travel literature during the time.
That spring, after learning that military officer John C. Frémont had actually explored a viable Salt Lake cutoff, Hastings resolved to personally guide wagons from Fort Bridger through this alternate route. Under his leadership, the Harlen-Young party painstakingly trail-blazed a real “Hastings Cutoff” and pushed into California. The Donners, however, arrived a week too late to travel with Hastings. The explorer pinned notes to rocks and trees to advise the stragglers, but the party fell more and more behind amidst the grueling and unsafe terrain of the Wasatch Range and the western Utah salt flats.
It is said that surviving members of the Donner Party cursed Hastings’ name when they emerged traumatized from the mountains the following spring, despite the fact that several others (including famed mountain man Jim Bridger) had also encouraged the party to take the shortcut. The vitriol has continued into the present day: Frank McLynn, author of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails (2002), calls Hastings an “irresponsible liar and fantasist.” He has also been dubbed “the Baron Munchausen of travelers” and “the Sam Houston of California.” The latter charge originates from a single hearsay account that Hastings met with Sam Houston in Texas for advice on how to establish California as an independent republic under his own rule. In 1970, historian Thomas F. Andrews proved that it was extremely unlikely Hastings and Houston conspired together, but the rumor persists in current accounts. In depicting Hastings as a man who put ambition before safety, Donner Party storytellers have a convenient scapegoat for “the most bizarre and spectacular tragedy in Californian history.”
Western history’s obsession with the Donner Party has distracted almost everyone from the actual consequences of Lansford Hastings’ existence. His role in directing significant pre-Gold Rush settlement to California marked a turning point in Western migration, and his maligned cutoff was eventually used again by early Mormon pioneers, permanently swaying the social demographics of the region. Yet the misconceptions do not always correct in his favor. Hastings was also an opportunist, a contrarian, and a scoundrel, but for far more interesting reasons than are commonly parroted in Donner Party accounts. Later in his life, Hastings became one of American history’s strangest enigmas: the non-Southern Confederate.
In 1864, Hastings, born a “Northern Yankee” and friend of some of the West’s staunchest Unionists, traveled to Richmond, Virginia to meet with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. The “schemes” that the explorer could be acquitted of in the 1840s were now a real ambition: he hoped to capture “the most valuable agricultural and grazing lands” of the California and Arizona territories and annex them into the Confederacy under his leadership. The War Department never granted funds for the plot, but Hastings was commissioned as a major in the Confederate army as consolation.
The war ended just a year later, but Hastings surprisingly stuck to the “Lost Cause” for which he had no natural or coherent attachment. In 1866, with the permission of Emperor Dom Pedro II, Hastings recruited disgruntled Southerners to migrate to Brazil and set up new communities. The explorer chose Santarém, Para, near the Amazon River, as his personal domain for the new “Confederados.” He then returned to the United States to publish a new book: The Emigrants Guide to Brazil. Under Hastings and others like him, 20,000 ex-Confederates sailed to various settlements in the South American rainforest to start anew. Hastings attempted a second voyage in 1870, but died of a fever at sea.
Hastings’ plan for Brazilian migration directly mirrored the one for California two decades earlier, down to the identical titles for his guidebooks. As in California, Hastings’ followers lingered at their new land. In 1940, a writer was able to track down three of the original Santarém emigrants. Thousands of descendants there and at other “Confederado” settlements remain today. All have assimilated completely into Brazilian culture except for one thing: an affection for the Confederate battle flag. At Santarém, and more famously, a town called Americana, bars and homes proudly display it.
Once in a while, a character surfaces in history who almost needs to be seen to be believed. Lansford Hastings was one of these riddles, and the lesser-known aspects of his life are arguably more fascinating, impactful, and even sinister. Critics of Hastings continue to misplace their attentions on the Donner Party incident when rendering judgment on his character. This judgment, even if near the mark, cannot be made without an examination of the fuller picture.
Thomas F. Andrews, “The Ambitions of Lansford W. Hastings: A Study in Western Myth-Making,” Pacific Historical Review, 39:4 (1970), 473-491
Thomas F. Andrews, “Lansford W. Hastings and the Promotion of the Salt Lake Desert Cutoff: A Reappraisal,” Western Historical Quarterly, 4:2 (1973), 133-150
Cyrus B. Dawsey and James M. Dawsey, eds., The Confederados: Old South Immigrants in Brazil (University of Alabama Press, 1995)
Frank McLynn, Wagons West: The Epic Story of America’s Overland Trails (New York: Grove Press, 2002)