On blaming others for your decisions

In the words of Jack (played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining) the Donner Party were a party of settlers in the covered wagon times. They got snowbound one winter in the mountains. They had to resort to cannabilism in order to stay alive.

But what, or rather who, exactly were the Donner Party?

It was a group of emigrant pioneers led by the wealthy Donner and Reed families who set out for California in a wagon train in April 1846. They were part of a westward movement, rich or poor, all eager to make a better life for themselves in the West.

The group attempted to take a new and supposedly shorter route to California mentioned briefly by a young lawyer named Lansford W. Hastings from Mount Vernon, Ohio in his guide with the concise title “The Emigrants’ guide to Oregon and California, containing scenes and incidents of a party of Oregon emigrants; a description of Oregon; scenes and incidents of a party of California emigrants; and a description of California; with a description of the different routes to those countries; and all necessary information relative to the equipment, supplies, and the method of traveling.” (by Lansford W. Hastings, Leader of the Oregon and California Emigrants of 1842).

Lansford W. Hastings was 23 when he made a trip to the far off Oregon country in the spring of 1842. After being disappointed with what he found in Oregon Hastings left the following spring (1843) for California and in the summer of 1844 he prepared the manuscript for his Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California which was published in the summer of 1845.

The guide is much more a description of Oregon and California than it is a guide of the trail. He gives careful descriptions of settlements, forts, natural resources, climate, geography and economic development possibilities in California and Oregon. In it he only briefly mentions the cutoff without providing any details of what to expect on the trail for a very simple reason — Lansford Hastings himself never used this route.

The Hastings cutoff was a diversion off the main trail to California across the salt desert. It proved to be disastrous. Worse yet, the cutoff not only did not save any travel time, it added miles.

The Donner party left Springfield, Illinois, in April 1846. The group initially followed the regular California Trail westward to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. From there, however, they decided to leave the established trail and use the “cutoff”, hoping to be able to take advantage of Lansford Hastings’ expertise and advice as he also attempted to check that spring what the shortcut he was promoting was really like.

On June 27th, just one week behind schedule, the Donners and the Reeds reached Fort Laramie, an isolated trading post in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There, James Reed found an old friend from Illinois, a 54-year-old mountain man named James Clyman, who had just come east from California using Hastings’s cutoff. ‘’We camped with them,’’ Clyman remembered, ‘’and continued the conversation until a late hour.’

Reed, anxious to make up for lost time, asked Clyman what he thought of Hastings’s new route. Clyman, who had just been south of the lake on horseback coming east with Lansford Hastings, told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable. He suggested that they should take the regular wagon track and never leave it. “It is barely possible to get through if you follow it and it may be impossible if you don’t”. And Reed said, “There’s a nigher route and we might as well take it.”

On July 17th, as the Reeds and the Donners toiled slowly up towards the Continental Divide, a lone horseman came riding down from South Pass, bearing an open letter from Lansford Hastings addressed to all emigrants now on the road. It urged them to press on in one group to Fort Bridger, where Hastings himself would be waiting to escort them over the new trail.

On July 20th, the wagon train reached the Little Sandy River. It was the parting of the ways. Most of the emigrants heeded James Clyman’s warning and turned right, but 20 wagons, including the nine belonging to the Donners and the Reeds, turned left towards Fort Bridger and the entrance to Hastings’s cutoff.

One week later the Donner Party rolled into Fort Bridger, two log cabins and a corral run as a trading post by a man named Jim Bridger. Lansford Hastings wasn’t there. The promoter had started west a week earlier at the head of another group of wagons, leaving instructions for any emigrants who wished to follow along behind.

“July 31st, 1846. Hastings’s cutoff is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles and a better route. The rest of the Californians went the long route, feeling afraid of Hastings’s cutoff. But Mr. Bridger informs me that it is a fine, level road with plenty of water and grass. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Captain Sutter’s fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day.” James Reed wrote.

On July 31st the Donner Party left Fort Bridger and entered Hastings’s cutoff. For a week they made good time, up to 12 miles a day, working their way deeper into the rugged mountains, following the track of Hastings’s wagons. Then on August 6th, at the bottom of Echo Canyon, the party came to a halt. Stuck in the top of some sage near the trail was a note. It was from Lansford Hastings. It stated that the road ahead was virtually impassable and advised them to wait until he could show them a better way. It took James Reed five days to find Hastings. When he did, Hastings refused to come back to lead the company himself, pointing out what he thought might be a more manageable route from a high peak, instead. Left to their own devices the Donner Party soldiered on.

Finally they reached the end of the canyon. It looked as though their wagons would have to be abandoned. It seemed impossible for the oxen to pull them up the steep hill, but they double-teamed and the work was at last accomplished. Worn with travel and greatly discouraged, they reached the shore of the Great Salt Lake. It had taken an entire month instead of a week.

Then they found tattered remnants of another note from Hastings from which they managed to read that it would take them at approximately two days to cross the salt desert that lay ahead of them. It had taken them five days. Several emigrants had almost died of thirst, thirty-six oxen were lost, wagons would have to be abandoned. An inventory of provisions was taken and it was found that the supply was not sufficient to last them through to California. Then a storm came on during the night and the hilltops became white with snow.

The Hastings’ cut-off had cost them many valuable days, and the Donner party crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains late in the season. On October 28, a heavy snowfall blocked the high mountain passes, trapping the emigrants in a frozen wilderness. Only 45 of the original 89 emigrants belonging to what came to be known as the Donner Party reached California the following year.

Several members of the Donner Party would curse Hastings for the false statements in his open letter and for his broken pledge at Fort Bridger. They cursed him also for his misrepresentation of the distance across this cruel desert.

What those who cursed Lansford Hastings managed to overlook was the fact that Lansford Hastings only wrote about this new and purportedly faster route, didn’t know what it was like to travel it as he himself never took it, and that nobody, nobody (!) forced them into taking that “cutoff”. It was everybody’s autonomous decision to try this new route and follow Lansford Hastings’ lead. If there was somebody they could have blamed for this dramatic event, it wasn’t Lansford Hastings, and it wasn’t Jim Bridger. They themselves (the members of the Donner Party — each of them individually, excluding children and women for obvious reasons at that time) were the only people who could have been blamed.

It often so happens that people take the advice from others, or yield to the family pressure (which means that they decided not to stand up to them — it was also a decision) and then they blame those people for screwing up their lives. They don’t want to admit before themselves that they made this costly decision. Which means that they’re fooling themselves. They convince themselves that they’re not responsible, that someone else screwed up. But they couldn’t be farther from the truth. It is a classic example of a loser’s mindset.


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Triv Ink

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