Guide to Oregon and California
by John V. Adams
and California Trail
There has been and there continues to be a great deal written about the
Oregon and California Trail. Lansford Hastings' Emigrants' Guide
to Oregon and California is just one small part of the trail's rich and
complex history. This web site focuses on Hastings' guide and the
period from 1840 to 1848. It does not attempt to recount the entire
history of the Oregon and California Trail. For a more complete view
of the Trail, The Plains Across by John D. Unruh, Jr. is an excellent source.
Unruh presents a fascinating, unromantic picture of life along the Trail.
It should also be noted that there are a great many sources on the Internet.
In reading Lansford Hastings' Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California,
published in 1845, one should keep in mind that, rather than being an objective
"how to" guide for western travel, the guide was a commercial venture published
to promote emigration, particularly to California where Hastings had financial
and political interests. It had little value as a travel planner
since his descriptions of the actual route are vague at best. In
keeping with Hastings' purpose, the guide presented a glowing picture of
the virtues of both Oregon and California. Both areas are depicted
as Gardens of Eden offering emigrants the 1840's version of the good life
without much effort.
Along with extolling the virtues of the land, Hastings also idealized the
Americans who had settled there. These Americans are almost unanimously
characterized as intelligent, hardworking, and honest people with few faults.
On the other hand, Native Americans and Mexican are almost unanimously
seen as unintelligent, lazy, and dishonest. Hastings was especially
harsh toward Mexican Catholic priests.
Lansford Warren Hastings grew up in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. He was a lawyer
by profession and an adventurer by avocation. In 1842 he joined a
group of emigrants at Elm Grove, Kansas, heading west to the Oregon Territory.
He was twenty-three years old. Hastings reached the Willamette Valley
in Oregon on October 5 of that year. However, after a short time,
he became disenchanted with Oregon and traveled down the coast to Sutter's
Fort in California. Hastings sensed California's potential for settlement
and his own possibilities as president of an independent California republic
or governor of the State of California. In the summer of 1844, he
returned to the East via the Mexican route and published his guide book
in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1845. The timing was perfect and the book
Hastings and his guide book would later be discredited in large part because
of a short cut known as the "Hastings Cut-off" and the experiences of the
ill-fated Donner Party in 1846. The Hastings cut-off was a diversion
off the main trail to California across the Salt Desert. Hastings
heavily promoted the cut-off in an effort to get more settlers to California.
The cut-off through the desert proved to be disastrous for both man and
beast. Worse yet, the cut-off did not appear to save any travel time.
The Donner party, after receiving personal instructions from Hastings,
decided to try the cut-off across the desert in an effort to save time.
After suffering a great many hardships crossing the desert, the Donner
party was finally caught by an early snow fall crossing the Sierras.
The surviving members of the snow-bound Donner party were forced to eat
the flesh of its dead members until finally rescued. The fate of
the Donner party and its relationship to Hastings was widely publicized.
Hastings returned to California, practiced law and in 1849 was elected
to the State Convention at Monterey. During the Civil War he sided
with the Confederacy. After the War he traveled to Brazil and published
his Emigrants' Guide to Brazil. He died in 1870 while on a voyage
to Brazil with a shipload of colonists.