The Hastings Cutoff - Risky Business
The Donner Party became trapped in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada in part because they opted to take the new Hastings Cutoff, instead of staying with the main wagon train caravan on the traditional trail. However, many other individuals who also took this supposed time and mile-saving, but dangerous route in 1846—through near-impassable canyons and across the blazing Salt Lake Desert—arrived safely in the Sacramento Valley before winter storms closed the pass.
Of the estimated 1,500 individuals who entered California with the 1846 overland migration, approximately 300 emigrants—including the original 87 Donner Party members—took the Hastings Cutoff. Here are some of their stories.
The first of the Hastings Cutoff users to arrive at trails’ end was journalist Edwin Bryant and his party of nine men. They had exchanged their wagons for riding and pack mules at Fort Laramie, enabling them to travel faster, and far ahead of the other emigrants. Bryant volunteered for service in the Mexican-American War then in progress in California, and later was the mayor of San Francisco for a short time before he returned to Kentucky the following year. In 1848 Bryant published What I Saw in California. His book became a valuable trail guide in 1849, and remains an invaluable historical account of the 1846 emigration.
The rest of Hasting's followers struggled through desolate wastelands, driving oxen-powered wagons at two miles per hour. Among them was twenty-four-year-old Swiss immigrant Heinrich Lienhard, going west with his single male friends. Known collectively as “the five German boys,” they spent a week gorging themselves on steaks at Johnson’s Ranch on the Bear River when they finally reached California. Lienhard went to work for John Sutter, and in 1849 was hired to fetch Sutter’s family to America from Switzerland. Some twenty years later, Lienhard began writing a memoir of his adventures. The result was an enormous manuscript, first published in Zurich, in German, in 1898.
Relationships along the trail weren’t always easy—in fact, sometimes contentious. Joining, leaving, and then re-connecting with fellow travelers was commonplace on the long journey west, for a variety of reasons. Although Lienhard and his friends had started from the Missouri frontier with the George Harlan Party, along the way they left Harlan to join a company led by Judge G. D. (Gallant Duncan) Dickenson. Samuel Kyburz, another Swiss immigrant, followed suit with his American wife and two children, as did Marylander Jacob Hoppe with his beautiful wife, three youngsters, and the family’s hired girl Lucinda, whose amorous escapades tended to terrorize the train’s unmarried men.
On arrival at Sutter’s Fort, Sam Kyburz was hired as the trading post’s manager, a position he held until the swarm of local 1848 gold rushers convinced him he would be better off running an independent hotel out of the fort’s main building. Jacob Hoppe was prominent in California affairs until he was killed in an 1853 steamboat explosion. Judge Dickenson is noted for building the first fired-brick house in Monterey, and for being the first ferry operator on the San Joaquin River at the site of Hills Ferry.
George Harlan, an experienced frontiersman, had been so impressed with Lansford Hastings’ Emigrant’ Guide to Oregon and California, that he persuaded his entire family of grown children, cousins, and in-laws to join him in moving to California. His wagons, along with those of the Samuel Young Company, were the first ones over the Hastings Cutoff. George’s extended family included a couple who later became famous, though never rich: Peter Wimmer, the husband of George’s late sister, and Peter’s second wife Jenny, both of whom were working at Sutter’s sawmill when gold was discovered there in 1848.