Harlan-Young Party

David Bigler
Utah History Encyclopedia, 1994

The first to take wagons over the Hastings Cutoff from Fort Bridger to the Humboldt River were some 200 emigrants who crossed Utah’s Salt Desert in 1846 about three weeks in advance of the Donner-Reed party. They took the new route south of the Great Salt Lake at the urging of Lansford W. Hastings, who claimed it was as much as 200 miles shorter than the established trail to the north by way of Fort Hall.

Known as the Harlan-Young party, the assembly of emigrant groups was led by Hastings himself and named for the heads of its two largest family contingents, George W. Harlan and Samuel C. Young, both most recently from Missouri. Among its members were the first Mormons to see the Salt Lake Valley, including the large family of Thomas Rhoades. Others were Peter W. Wimmer and his wife, Elizabeth Jane, who worked at Sutter’s Mill with Mormon Battalion veterans in 1848 when gold was discovered.

When the party left Fort Bridger on 20 July, it listed about forty families in four groups and forty wagons, to which some seventeen wagons were added before reaching Bear River about eight miles south of the later Pioneer Trail crossing. It was followed closely by some nine wagons of a smaller outfit which included the noted mapmaker, T. H. Jefferson, and twenty-four-year-old Heinrich Lienhard, whose journal is a classic of the western migration.

Hastings intended to take his followers to Salt Lake Valley over the later Donner-Reed and Mormon Trail, but this aim was frustrated by his own partner, James Hudspeth, who met the train at the mouth of Echo Canyon, near present Henefer. In Hastings’s absence, the party took Hudspeth’s advice and followed the Weber River, which imposed six days of hard labor to pass its narrows. Following the Wasatch Front, the company reached the northern limits of present Salt Lake City where its tracks were seen a year later by Mormon pioneers. Most wagons forded the Jordan River near the later North Temple bridge location before moving in a southwesterly direction toward the south end of Great Salt Lake.

While Hastings went back to direct the Donner-Reed train, the party rested at Twenty Wells, now Grantsville, where on 12 August its members buried John Hargrave, the first emigrant laid to rest in Utah soil. After passing present Timpie and moving across Skull Valley to Redlum Spring, the company climbed Hastings Pass in the Cedar Mountains to begin the “long drive” over the Salt Desert to 10,700-foot Pilot Peak on today’s Utah-Nevada border.

It was only forty miles across the shimmering plain of salt, Hastings had claimed, but his followers soon found it was close to twice that far. Before they reached the springs at the base of the towering landmark, they would abandon nearly a third of their wagons, oxen would go crazy from thirst, “become exhausted and drop down dead,” and it would seem “as if all were lost.”

Where the Bryant-Russell party on mules had traveled in only seventeen hours, more than two days were required for the first emigrants with wagons to cross. It took even longer for them to recover at Donner Spring from the ordeal and reclaim most of their abandoned wagons. And the decision to take the Hastings Cutoff made the Harlan-Young party the last that season to cross the Sierra Nevada ahead of the ill-fated Donner-Reed party.