Jim Clyman on Hastings’ Cutoff

“The wagon train grew quiet but this one fire was kept blazing – a carmine splash against the blue-velvet night, the desert stars near above it, the white bow of a wagon top behind, and, farther away, the singing of drunken Missourians at the fort and the screaming of drunken Sioux. [Jim] Clyman talked on. He knew Hastings’ plans, he knew what Hastings would tell these innocents near South Pass. And he had just crossed – with Hastings – from the bend of the Humboldt to Fort Bridger by way of the Salt Desert, Great Salt Lake, and the Wasatch Mountains. A Sioux yipped, the barking of coyotes ringed the sleeping caravan, and Jim told his listeners: take the familiar trail, the regular, established trail by way of Soda Springs and Fort Halt. Do not try a cutoff, do not try anything but the known, proved way. “It is barely possible to get through [before the snows] if you follow it-and it may be impossible if you don’t.” Shock and alarm struck the travelers and made them angry, who were still far short of South Pass, whose minds could map that weary angle from Fort Bridger to Fort Hall and back again to the Humboldt. Tense and bellicose, Reed spoke up (Jim records his words), “There is a nigher route, and it is no use to take so much of a roundabout course.” Reference to Lansford Hastings’ book, Jacob Donner’s copy bought at Springfield, back in the States, now scanned by firelight at Fort Bernard, a well-thumbed passage marked with lines. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, page 137: “The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest to the Salt Lake; and then continuing down to the bay of San Francisco. ” Proved. And someone would spit into the fire.

(When Lansford Hastings wrote that passage he had never seen the Humboldt, or Great Salt Lake, or the Wasatch Mountains, or the Salt Desert; neither he nor anyone else had ever taken the trail here blithely imagined by a real-estate man who wanted to be President or mortgagee of California.)

Yes. But Jim has just traveled that route, and if they would save their skins, they will not take it, they will go by way of Fort Hall. “I . . . told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras, and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable.” Told him about the glare of the salt plain under sun and without water. Told him about the Diggers lurking outside the camps to kill the stock. Told him about the chaos of the Wasatch canyons which Jim Clyman and Lansford Hastings, who were on horseback and had no wagons and so no need of a road, had barely got through.”