Lansford W. Hastings
By Douglas Love, Past President, Napa Parlor #62
The 1820’s were a period of rapid change in the United States. After the victory in the War of 1812, the Treaty of Ghent and the Convention of 1818, the United States was safe, secure and ready to explode onto the world scene. The subjugation of the Native American tribes east of the Mississippi and its culmination in the Indian Removal Act opened vast areas for settlement. The country was expanding west, Henry Clay’s “American System” was expanding infrastructure, trade was booming and there was speculation in the new western lands.
Yet, there were problems. During this period, the small land holder and small businessman were feeling left out. There was a feeling that only the wealthy and well connected were actually benefiting from the rapid expansion and all of this led to the election of Andrew Battle of New Orleans was seen as a self-made man who had risen by hard work and talent. Two of Jackson’s actions, the Indian Removal Act and the veto of the Second Bank of the United States were wildly popular at the time. The veto of the Second Bank of the United States led to the rapid westward expansion of the country. Once state banks began to issue paper currency, credit was easy to get. This led to inflation and the eventual issuance of the Specie Circular in 1836 which mandated that payment for public land would must be made in specie, gold and silver coins. Many banks had insufficient reserves of gold and silver and the result was rapid deflation and a recession, the Panic of 1837.
Many began to view the west as a place to start over, to rebuild their lives and make a new start. By the 1840’s “Oregon Fever” swept the country and thousands of Americans were on the move to “The West” fulfilling what John L. Sullivan called America’s “Manifest Destiny”. One of these was Lansford W. Hastings, a lawyer from Ohio who, in 1842, emigrated to the Oregon Country and California looking for his own destiny.
Hastings first emigrated to the Oregon Country in 1842. He arrived in 1843 and helped lay out Oregon City. He then made his way down to Alta California and became a business partner of John A. Sutter, involved in attracting settlers to Sutter’s vast land holdings. By 1844, he was back in Ohio where he wrote “The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California”, a guidebook containing descriptions of the overland routes to Oregon and California, scenes of life on the trail, descriptions of both Oregon and California, including the soil, wildlife, topography and resources and, finally a list of supplies needed to make the trek. Hasting’s guidebook became a best seller and many people headed to Oregon and California carried a copy with them.
It is in this book that Hastings, after describing the Oregon and California trails in Chapter XIV suggests that, “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east of Fort Hall; thence bearing southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco, by the route just described.” This is the infamous Hastings Cutoff, leading into the Wasatch Mountains and into the Great Salt Desert, south of the Great Salt Lake, and rejoining the main trail west of modern day Elko, Nevada. This is the suggestion which was followed by the Donner-Reed Party in 1846 and lead to their eventual tragic entrapment at Truckee Lake and Alder Creek during the winter of 1846-47.
During the Mexican War, Hastings served as a Captain in the California Battalion and after the War, practiced law in California. He married Charlotte Toler in 1848 and was a delegate to the state Constitutional Convention in 1849. In the 1850’s Hastings moved his family to Yuma, Arizona and served as Postmaster and Judge. He was a southern sympathizer during the Civil War and travelled in 1864 to Richmond. Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed him a Major in the Confederate army and he made plans to raise a Confederate force in Arizona to wrest Arizona and California from the Union. The War ended before his plans could come to fruition.
After the Civil War, many ex-Confederates wanted to settle in Brazil. Hastings visited the country in 1866 and made arrangements with the Brazilian government to establish colonies of ex-Confederates. He established a colony at Santarem in 1867. He then wrote “The Emigrant’s Guide to Brazil” in an effort to attract settlers from the former Confederacy. Hastings died while attempting a second voyage to Brazil in 1870 of yellow fever while at sea. His death was registered in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.
Today, it is possible to hike portions of Hastings Cutoff. You can visit the western end of the Cutoff at the California Trail Interpretive Center, 1 Trail Center Way, Elko Nevada. The Center is located at the junction of Hastings Cutoff with the main route of the California Trail, which is now Interstate 80.
Getting There: From 414 Mason Street get on Interstate 80 East and continue on Interstate 80 East for 497 miles. Take Exit 292 and follow the road to the Interpretive Center. The Trip takes about 7 ½ to 8 hours by car without rest stops.