The deadly temptation of the Oregon Trail shortcut

Originally published at:


You’re driving alone at night
And it’s dark and it’s raining
And you took a turn back there
And you’re not sure now that it was the right turn
But you took the turn anyway
And you just keep going in this direction
Eventually, it starts to get light and you look out and you realize
You have absolutely no idea where you are

So you get out at the next gas station and you say:
“Hello. Excuse me. Can you tell me where I am?”

You can read the signs.
You’ve been on this road before.

Laurie Anderson, “Say Hello” (Excerpt)


Funny Story.

So my girlfriend has an ancestor that was in the Donner Party, and one of her father’s family heirlooms is this very old Colt black powder revolver that family lore says was carried by her ancestor during that fateful winter of 1846-7.

Last year, when I first visited her parents at their home they, knowing I’m a firearms hobbyist, dug it out to show it to me. It was needing a little bit of love, but in pretty nice condition for its age.

Unfamiliar with firearms of the 1800’s I did a little research, looked up the serial, and discovered it was an 1851 Colt, probably manufactured in the early 1870’s iirc.

…at least 20 years too late to have been carried through the Sierras in 1846.


Then eventually you notice a lack of gas stations or any facilities, then your cell service fades out, and the pavement turns to gravel.

And then, of course…


David James Brown’s The Indifferent Stars Above is a fascinating look at the Donner Party and the aftermath, including the lives of the survivors and their lifelong trauma.


That’s why there was a trail. Lots of fur traders traversing the area, and the collective knowledge preparing a route for settlers to follow.

My great, great, great grandfather was in Astoria (home of The Goonies) in 1811. A few years ago I came upon something that specifically linked him to the Oregon Trail. It’s not just a game.


I bet that went over well.


I became interested in the Donner party from the episode of American Experience and in 2005 or 2006 I got to see artifacts from it at Sutter’s Fort that curators were showing off to the public and of particular interest to this story was a piece of the deluxe family wagon that was left behind when it got stuck in the salt desert. It was discovered and retrieved in the 1930s.



Just looks like a possible road from Cascabel to Tucson.

There’s some gravel, but in many places it’s just bare rock. Hard enough for a 4WD, much less a Toyota Matrix with sport skirting. Often we had to come to a complete stop to figure out exactly how to angle the car to go 30 feet.

At one point we had to drive around a Honda Civic that had just been abandoned in the “road”.


An uncharted shortcut with no evidence it’ll work, but what a convenience if it actually pans out!

Herd immunity, in other words.


I had a similar thing happen with my grandfather’s Leica III camera, which according to family lore was carried during his geological research throughout the middle east in the early 1930s. However, the serial number places it firmly in the early 1950s.


I thought this story was going to be about the game, some trick that moved you to the next level, but with consequences.


Hastings basically made up the cutoff in order to sell books. He had never actually traveled it before. It seemed like a good idea on paper, except that it went through the Black Rock Desert… IIRC the party ran into Hastings somewhere around Utah and his reaction was basically “Oh shit, someone actually took the cutoff!”

It also didn’t help that most of the people in the Donner-Reed party were basically inept at being outdoorsmen (by 19th-century standards). They were farmers and middle-class small business owners who didn’t really have a clue at how hard life on the trail would be. Bickering and giving into exhaustion (resting at Truckee Meadows when they should have been moving) led to them missing the window to cross the Sierra.

Even so, whenever I’m up in the Truckee area I look at the big boulders and granite outcroppings and trees that line I-80 and realize that with no roads or trails, the Donners and other emigrants would have to dismantle their wagons, then haul them up piece by piece and reassemble them, then do the same thing when they encountered another obstruction, which was probably often. I can’t imagine doing that with an SUV or minivan.

(Yeah, I’m a bit of a Donner Party geek.)


But isn’t that why they had wagon trains, ane wagon masters?

Get a group together and pay someone who knows what they are doing, to lead them.


Last time my family drove across the salt lake desert into California we stopped at Donner Pass for breakfast. The dining options have definitely improved.


Did you ever inform them of your discovery?

1 Like

The options… yes. Otherwise…


The Donner-Reed party was really before the era of “wagon trains”. They had a couple hired teamsters to handle the oxen (one of whom John Reed stabbed to death in a fight, which led to his banishment from the group), but nobody like an experienced trail boss who knew the way. It was really a DIY sort of effort and they didn’t really anticipate how tough the journey really would be.

You’d think they’d have someone professional to help but it didn’t really work that way. Read some of the journals of groups crossing to California during the Gold Rush and it’s surprising how unprepared and ignorant of life on the trail so many of them were. Many stocked up on cool stuff like rifles and revolvers and neglected important things, like enough non-perishable food. One of my favorite anecdotes was from a traveler who described all the crap abandoned along the way by people who thought there it was a smart idea to take blacksmith forges, pianos, etc. along to California.


This is kind of a…fun?–sure I’ll go with fun-- take on it. You’ll have to read the first 2 in the series for the “backstory” on the narrators.