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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Hucksters and Scalawags

Families who trundled overland in covered wagons during the 1840s, hoping to build a better life in the West, didn’t always know to be wary of hucksters. Even before they had “jumped off” onto the prairies, a number of greenhorns had purchased untrained draft animals, or supplies they didn’t need, from unscrupulous merchants at Missouri River border towns. Out on the trail, other gullible emigrants were persuaded to follow self-promoted “guides”—men who were following their own agendas.

The Hastings Cutoff, 1846

Some said Lansford Hastings wanted to be Emperor. Or, at least, the president of an independent California republic, wrested from Mexican ownership by revolt—a revolt he would foment himself, as soon as the province had enough hardy American settlers to overthrow the incumbent government. His plan involved gaining the loyal following of incoming settlers, by leading them to the Land of Promise on a time-and-distance-saving shortcut.

In his Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, published in 1845, Hastings advised that a more direct route for California-bound wagons would be to leave the established trail for a new route around the south end of the Great Salt Lake. Expressed in a single sentence, his proposal was vague . . . yet sounded good on paper. However, when he wrote those words, Hastings had never been there. In the spring of 1846, he did traverse his proposed route from west to east—with a group of men mounted on swift-moving horses, without having to cut roads for wagons or consider the needs of women and children.

Of the sixty-something wagons he personally led over the grueling salt flats, then back and forth around desert mountain ranges he hadn’t known existed, no human lives were lost, although his charges suffered great hardships. Moreover, they were mighty chagrined to discover that wagons which had taken the safer, established Fort Hall road had arrived in California before them. Hastings’ Cutoff was no time-saving shortcut after all! The Donner Party, straggling many miles behind the others, wasn’t so lucky. The time they lost following Hastings’ trail resulted in their entrapment in the snow-bound Sierra Nevada, where almost half of them died.

Though born in Ohio, Lansford Hastings enlisted on the Southern side when the Civil War started. In 1863 he devised an elaborate, but in the end unfeasible, scheme to capture southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico for the Confederacy. He died in 1870, trying to establish a colony of disgruntled Southerners in Brazil.

The Lassen Cutoff, 1848-49

Peter Lassen was a Danish blacksmith who emigrated to America in 1830, migrated to California in 1840, and in 1844 acquired a 22,000-acre Mexican land grant within the region that became Tehama County. He raised cattle, grew cotton and wheat, and established a vineyard. In 1847 he founded Benton City on his property, probably hoping to emulate his friend John Sutter’s success at establishing Sutterville the previous year.

But Benton City only existed on paper. To make it a reality, Lassen needed to attract settlers. In the spring of 1847 he traveled eastward to Missouri, where he organized a party of emigrants he intended to lead to his ranch over a new trail; and he convinced his followers that his new trail was better because it avoided having to cross the formidable Sierra. True enough, but Lassen had never traveled this route himself, which ranged through Nevada’s desolate Black Rock desert, then far north to Goose Lake, before turning south over nearly impassable lava beds and other rough terrain, where snow fell early. Meanwhile, gold had been discovered in California the previous January. Lassen’s ten-wagon caravan was saved from disaster only by a well-supplied group of gold-rushers coming down from Oregon.

Nevertheless, Peter Lassen rushed false endorsements of his route (which ended near his ranch, where he hoped to profit from sales of supplies) to eastern newspapers, promoting his Lassen Cutoff as a shorter, easier route to the northern gold mines, when in fact it was 200 miles longer and far more hazardous than either the Truckee or Carson routes. The following year, hordes of gold-rushers swarmed overland, all wanting the fastest route. An estimated 7,000-9,000 of the ‘49ers took the Lassen Cutoff, soon labeled “The Death Route,” because the sufferings of those who chose it was severe.

There are those who believe the Lassen Cutoff was created as a grab for money; in any event, Benton City never really materialized. Peter Lassen was murdered in 1859, by persons never identified, while prospecting for gold near today’s Susanville.

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