Lansford Warren Hastings was an important writer because he wrote a book that was considered significant in the history of the American West. He was born in Mount Vernon, Ohio, in 1819, the son of Waitstill and Lucinda (Wood) Hastings. Lansford studied law and in 1842, at age 24, was a practicing attorney in Mount Vernon. During that year a Dr. Elijah White came through Knox County with a company of emigrants on their way to Oregon. Hastings joined the group. He readily adapted to the pioneer life style, and he soon became a leader in the company.
Hastings’ activities are well recorded in the lore of the early west. Irving Stone, in Men to Match My Mountains says, “About June 20, 1843, a twenty-four year old lawyer by the name of Lansford W. Hastings from Mount Vernon, Ohio, a bright, handsome, strong-jawed, fast-talking opportunist, reached the northern California border.”
Actually Hastings arrived first in Oregon where he assisted in laying out and planning Oregon City, the first American town on the Pacific coast. He also tried his hand at fur trading and salmon packing. Finally he moved to northern California Territory where he became a business partner of John Sutter and became involved in land development. The success of his endeavor depended upon attracting emigrants to California. What was needed was a guide book that would show the way, and Hastings accepted the task.
Lansford spent the winter of 1843 writing. During 1844 he returned to Ohio, and the next year his book was published in Cincinnati. The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California served for those bound for Oregon, but also included in the instructions was an alternative “cutoff” that would bring the traveler to northern California rather than Oregon. The Hastings Cutoff was admittedly somewhat shorter, but involved traversing some considerably rougher mountain terrain as well as the Great Salt Lake Desert.
The first large party to use the Hastings Cutoff was the Donner party in 1846. The large caravan of families traveling by wagons, with much livestock, found themselves in the high Sierras late in the winter of 1846-1847, unable to proceed. At least half of the party of more than 80 persons died.
Historians generally are critical of Lansford Hastings for his part in the tragedy. DeVoto, in The Year of Decision, says he was “a smart young man who wrote a book . . . without knowing what he was talking about.” He further asserts that he ignorantly or knowingly misrepresented the benefits of his route. It is true that he had traveled the trail, at least in part, but it had been with a party of men on horses rather than a party of families traveling in covered wagons drawn by oxen. It must be admitted that Hastings was overly zealous, though working for what he thought was a good cause - the populating of California.
Lansford Hastings continued his political activities in California, working as a lawyer and judge in Sacramento. He was married three times and is known to have had several children. During the Civil War he was a major in the Confederate Army. After the war he went to Brazil to establish a colony for refugees from the Confederacy. He published The Emigrant’s Guide to Brazil in 1867, and was able to guide one shipload of people to their new homes in South America. He died in 1870 while en route with a second group.
The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (1846)
The Emigrants’ Guide to Brazil (1867)
Coyle, William, Ohio Authors and Their Books (1962)
DeVoto, Bernard. The Year of Decision/ 1846 (1943)
Stone, Irving, Men to Match My Mountains (1956)