Donner Party


If you ever hear about Portuguese-speaking Brazilians dressing up in American Confederate uniforms, waving the Rebel flag, wearing Southern-belle skirts, and playing the banjo at a Fourth of July barbecue, one of the people you can blame is Lansford W. Hastings. Anyone familiar with the Donner Party story will remember Hastings. He is often cast as the villain in that tragic tale.

Young Brazilian, descendant of an American Confederate family, circa 1998.

In early November 1846, members of the Donner Party were trapped east of the Sierra Nevada by deep snow. One of the reasons that their wagon train was attempting to cross the mountains so late in the season is because Lansford Hastings, a California land promoter and lawyer, had convinced leaders in the Donner group to take his untried shortcut through the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.

In 1845 Hastings had published a popular overland trail guide to the Pacific, a book that promoted the virtues of the land, climate, and health found in California and the Oregon Coast. He traveled from Ohio to New York City giving lectures and hawking his book, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.”

Lansford Hastings’ guidebook to California contained just about everything you needed to know to travel west in a covered wagon. In person, however, Hastings persuaded three wagon trains to try an untested route which was only suitable for horses or pack animals. Following Hastings was a mistake that cost the Donner Party dearly in lost time and provisions.

In New York City he met Mormon leader Sam Brannan who was preparing a ship to carry Latter Day Saints to the West Coast. Hastings tried to persuade Brannan to bring his followers to California’s Sacramento Delta region where Hastings was hoping to establish a settlement on a Mexican land grant, in the manner of John Sutter’s fort.

Mormon Sam Brannan and nearly 250 Latter Day Saints sailed from New York City to San Francisco onboard the ship Brooklyn, arriving in July 1846. Brannan and his followers were hoping to start a Mormon settlement in California, but the Mexican-American War foiled their plans. As a professional printer and journalist, he started the California Star newspaper in San Francisco. After gold was discovered in early 1848, Brannan became California’s first millionare, a boozer, womanizer, and an ex-Mormon.    

Lansford Hastings’ message was perfectly timed as it fit in with a growing political push toward westward expansion, and an almost religious exhortation that inspired frontier families to search out new land. Everyone was swelling with the notion of American Exceptionalism and driven by the concept of Manifest Destiny.

In the years between 1840 and 1845, the total number of emigrants that traveled from the United States overland to the Mexican province of California was just 325. But in 1846 alone, at least 1,500 people took on the grueling, often deadly California Trail.


Spirit of Manifest Destiny, an 1872 painting by John Nash, represented the modernization of the new West. Columbia, who’s stringing telegraph wire and carrying a school book, illuminates the darkness of untamed wilderness and leads progress, technology and civilization westward.

There were plenty of people involved in the Donner Party’s trajectory to disaster, but historians often label Hastings as the “bad guy.” Technically, there should have been nothing wrong with Hastings promoting a new cutoff that would save time and distance. Others were also developing alternate routes and parts of the California Trail changed frequently during the 1840s, but Hastings failed to lead the late arriving Donner Party through his cutoff and they were abandoned to their fate. Hastings tendency to improvise as he went and overstate his knowledge of geography led directly to the Donner Party tragedy and tarnished his reputation.


The Hastings Cutoff navigated steep canyons in the Wasatch and crossed the barren, virtually waterless Utah Desert. Note Hastings lack of awareness about topography with the big detour around the Ruby Mountains.

Hastings arrived back in California just in time to join Major John C. Frémont in the war against Mexico. Fighting in California was short-lived and in 1847 Hastings moved to San Francisco where he practiced law and invested in real estate. He was elected to the School Board and later appointed a judge.

In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s sawmill and Hastings was soon plucking nuggets out of the American River. That summer, 29-year-old Hastings married 19-year-old Charlotte at Sutter’s Fort. (Hastings’ abandoned first wife had either died or divorced him by then.) Hastings formed a partnership with Sutter and opened a miner’s supply store, and then later ran a ferryboat operation.

John A. Sutter. Lansford Hastings hoped to emulate Sutter’s success at obtaining a Mexican land grant to develop and create his own fiefdom.

Over the next eight years, Charlotte Hastings gave birth to five children, four of whom survived. In 1858, Lansford moved his family to Arizona Territory, where Hastings became postmaster, practiced law, and in 1860 was again appointed a judge.

Although raised as a “Northern Yankee” in Ohio, Hastings saw opportunity in aligning with the Confederacy at the start of the American Civil War. He devised a scheme to annex Southern California and Arizona Territory with an occupation by anti-Union recruits from the Golden State.

During the Civil War, Hastings sided with the South. He dreamed up a scheme to separate California from the Union and unite it with the Confederacy. His plan didn’t work.

When Charlotte died in 1861, Hastings placed his children in the care of friends near San Francisco and travelled to Texas, Louisiana, and finally to Richmond, Virginia, where he met Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. For his efforts, Hastings was commissioned a major in the Confederate Army.

After the South’s military defeat in 1865, Hastings headed for Mexico and then journeyed to Brazil to obtain permission from Emperor Dom Pedro II to establish an American colony for disaffected Southern families seeking relief from the victorious Union government. After choosing a large land parcel near the Amazon River, Hastings returned to Alabama to publish his next book, “Emigrants Guide to Brazil.”

Even today, Brazilian descendants of Southern Confederate families assemble near the town of Americana to dress in antebellum-era attire and honor their ancestral traditions.

In 1867, 115 ex-patriots sailed with Hastings to Brazil to develop tropical plantation lifestyles free from interference. In less than a decade, Hastings’ colony consisted of 22 families with more than 100 workers. But Hastings life-long dream of ruling his own settlement was dashed in 1870 when the 51-year-old died at sea while on another voyage from the U.S. to Brazil. He’s buried in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Brazilian cemetery where American descendants of the Confederacy are buried.

Overall, up to 20,000 ex-Confederates immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War where today their some of ancestors live in the community of Americana. Proud of their heritage, descendants gather four times a year and still celebrate Dixie traditions and the Fourth of July.

Read more about Lansford Hastings in my Sierra Sun column: