Prairie Schooner Detours

Irene D. Paden, Prairie Schooner Detours (1949)

Prairie Schooner DetoursThis is a follow up book to Paden’s The Wake of the Prairie Schooner. The first book stuck to the Oregon and California Trails. This sequel covers to two alternates off the California Trail: The Hasting’s Cutoff and the Lassen Cutoff.

For purposes of the Pony Express, the first part of the Hastings Cutoff, from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake City, became the Mormon Emigrant road and then the Pony Express Route. Actually, as Paden points out, the Hasting’s Cutoff properly only applies to the portion of the trail after Salt Lake City until it reunites with the California Trail on the Humboldt River. Nevertheless, a number of emigrants, including the Donner party, followed Hastings’s advice and turned south from Fort Bridger instead of north, and well, we all know how that went. The Mormons came along a year later (1847) and blazed the better trail through the Wasatch Mountains.

The Lassen Cutoff turned north in western Nevada, following the Applegate Trail (which led to Oregon) before cutting over into extreme northeastern California. Lassen touted it as a shortcut to the mines, though in reality it was 200 miles or so longer than the Donner or Carson Pass routes. It bears no relation to the Pony Express, but I enjoyed reading about it. Notably, the trail went straight for Black Rock, the area now famous for Burning Man. You have to wonder how many revellers have any idea how many animals died along this route for thirst and hunger in the mid-1800s.

The largest difference in this book from Paden’s previous one is that much more of Irene Paden’s personality made its way into these pages. We get more dialogue, and more of her attitude and reactions, not all of which are rosy. In that sense, it is a bit more fun at times than the first book. Ms. Paden received a Guggenheim fellowship for her work on emigrant diaries (in 1955). After you read her books, you get some idea of the scholarship time she put in beyond the ten years of fieldwork.