Arizona Centennial: Donner tragedy culprit was Yuma postmaster
Editor's Note: The Yuma Sun is reprinting articles from past newspapers throughout the year as part of the Arizona Centennial celebrations, marking the area's history. This column is one in a series written by local historian Frank Love that appeared periodically in the newspaper.
Ever heard of Lansford W. Hastings? Probably not, but his name was well-known among pioneers bound for California in 1846.
That was the year some of the Donner Emigrant Party turned cannibal and ate one another. Their wagon train, which included 87 hardy souls, was down to 47 after the eating, starving and disease had ended. And the man who was Yuma's postmaster from 1858-1859, Lansford Warren Hastings, was said to have caused the tragedy.
Hastings was with the first American emigrant party to travel overland to Oregon in 1842. Dissatisfied with life there, he moved on to California and returned by sea to the East in 1844. By then, the migration to Oregon was heavy. Most people knew little about the trails, so Hastings produced a book about the route he had taken, “The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California.”
The guidebook was useful, but careless. Among the advice it offered was that the shortest route to California was to leave the trail about 200 miles east of Fort Hall in Idaho and travel west-southwest to the Great Salt Lake.
This route, later called the Hastings' Cutoff, failed to mention that Hastings hadn't followed that route himself when he wrote his book or that it involved crossing the Great Salt Desert. One historian, George Stewart, has called Hastings' guidebook “vague and overoptimistic to the point of irresponsibility.”
Soon after publishing the book, Hastings made the overland journey to California again. His group didn't leave Missouri until mid-August, late for traveling the Oregon and California Trails. They soon had problems. After leaving Fort Bridger in Wyoming, they ran out of food and reached Fort Hall half-starved.
Traveling without wagons, they headed into the Sierra Nevada Mountains and didn't reach Donner Pass until December. Snow had fallen by then, but it was lighter than normal. His party got through the pass without too much difficulty and reached Sutter's Fort, never realizing that it was only by dumb luck that the pass wasn't closed by snow.
If Hastings had left well enough alone, the Donner disaster wouldn't have happened. But having reached California again over the trail, he decided to go back to Fort Bridger by way of the Hastings' Cutoff and offer his services to emigrants as a trail guide.
One of the emigrant groups headed for California that year was the Donner Party. Just before reaching Fort Bridger, they were met by a messenger from Hastings, who was offering his services as a guide and suggesting the use of his newly discovered route to California.
The Donner Party didn't hire Hastings because he had already been employed by another wagon train. But they did follow his advice about using the Hastings' Cutoff since it was supposed to be shorter by 200 miles.
Time was a factor because they had started the trip late in the season. They realized that they needed to cross the Sierras before snows closed the passes. Actually, with all the twists and turns in the cutoff, the Hastings route was about 150 miles farther than the usual trail.
The Donners met their first serious difficulties when they crossed the desert southwest of the Salt Lake. Rather than the two days that Hastings said they would need to get across, it took 10 days. They had to abandon four of their wagons, and a number of their oxen died in the crossing.
The Donners struggled on into the mountains with snow beginning to fall. When they reached the pass in late November, they found it blocked.
They built cabins and shelters near the place now called Donner Lake, but the snow continued to fall. Cattle bunched under trees were buried by the snow and froze to death. Their cabins were soon covered by the snow.
After waiting for days in hope of a thaw, 15 volunteers set out for a settlement to the west on snowshoes. They made some progress at first but were unable to proceed for nearly a week due to heavy snows. They had only been given rations for six days and ran out of food.
When four of them died, the others ate their flesh. But they did reach help after 32 days. Relief parties were sent from the California settlements, and the 47 survivors were finally rescued.
Hastings had guided a group of emigrants who were ahead of the Donners. Eighty wagons followed Hastings' route, but not all were guided by him. All had problems, but made it across the mountains after many difficulties.
Their experiences soured them on Hastings, but when news of the Donner disaster became known, he was disgraced and blamed for the tragedy. Historian H.H. Bancroft later concluded that Hastings was “not overburdened with conscientious scruples.”
William Eddy, one of the Donner survivors, had lost his wife and children in the tragedy. He decided to kill Hastings but changed his mind when friends convinced him it was foolish.
Twelve years later, Hastings was in Yuma. He had been appointed postmaster on July 17, 1858. Little is known of his activities here.
There is a record that he participated in a meeting in Yuma on May 7, 1859, which asked the Congress to separate Arizona from New Mexico Territory. Records also show he owned property on the southwest corner of Main and 1st Street.
Although he was born in Ohio, Hastings joined the Confederacy when the Civil War broke out in 1861. His major contribution to the Southern cause was to offer Confederate President Jefferson Davis a plan for seizing New Mexico Territory and Sonora. Davis ignored Hastings' advice. Perhaps he knew about the Donner party.
Disillusioned when the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, Hastings led a band of ex-Confederates to Brazil to start a colony. He died there in 1870, dishonored and nearly forgotten.