|Will Bagley, History Matters|
At the time, it sounded like a good idea. In 1846, adventurer Lansford W. Hastings wanted to open a wagon road across the Great Basin to straighten out the kink in the California Trail that detoured north to Pocatello to avoid the Salt Lake. Some say he dreamed of becoming president of a Republic of California. It is certain he wanted a shortcut to the Mexican province for Americans, who could then seize the country.
Hastings didn’t let the Wasatch Mountains nor the seventy-plus waterless miles across the Great Salt Desert get in the way of his dreams, but “Hastings Road” was a disaster. The Donner Party, the last wagons to follow his tracks, learned that this “cutoff”actually added weeks to the trip. Besides spawning a tragedy, Hastings’ fatal ambitions gave rise to some great Western history.
Consider T.H. Jefferson’s extraordinary Map of the Emigrant Road from Independence, Missouri, to “St. Francisco,” published in New York in 1849. It was, as historian Dale Morgan wrote, “one of the great American maps, an extraordinarily original production.” As its eleven-page accompaniment explained, the map “represents the emigrant road from Independence, Missouri, by the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains to California.
“The author was one of a party of emigrants who traveled the road with wagons, in 1846. All the streams of water and springs upon the road are delineated, also daily distances, courses and camps.” The four sheets of Jefferson’s map are both history and art, an early-lithographed image of the West engraved on stone. It cost $3 a copy–a steep price in 1840–and came out just in time for the California Gold Rush.
The map showed landmarks and campsites from Independence to St. Francisco, a distance of 2,139 miles, including the Desert of Utarlah–today’s Utah. Part Three extends from the Wind River Mountains to the “Valley of Fountains,” near Elko, Nevada. Its centerpiece is the Great Salt Lake. The map shows “Reeds Road,” the trail James Frazier Reed and the Donner Party blazed through the Wasatch Mountains. It was the same route the Mormon Pioneers followed in 1847.
West of the lake is “the fearful long drive eighty-three miles no grass nor water”–the dreaded Hastings Cutoff. Until 1950, when Morgan found him mentioned in frontier newspapers, the sole evidence that T. H. Jefferson ever existed was his Map of the Emigrant Road. This is still the sum total of our certain knowledge about him.
So, who was the mysterious mapmaker? Utah trails historian Rush Spedden has made a compelling argument that he was Thomas Hemings Jefferson, the oldest son of Thomas Jefferson and his slave/mistress, Sally Hemings, half-sister of the president’s dead wife. Southern historians long denounced such stories as scandalous libels, but Hemings’descendants are convinced of their truth.
In 1998, DNA tests suggested “the simplest and most probable” conclusion from the evidence was that Thomas Jefferson had fathered at least some of Hemings’ children, many of whom later assumed white identities. The most mysterious of these children was Tom, whose features were said to bear a striking resemblance to the president and who disappeared about 1805.
As Rush Spedden revealed, T. H. Jefferson probably used a compass and odometer to map the emigrant road, exactly the tools the president used to map the route from Philadelphia to Monticello during his second term. Spedden’s answer to the question, “Who was T. H. Jefferson?” is as controversial as the DNA evidence, but, as he noted,” a most intriguing story may be found when the mysterious T. H. Jefferson is finally identified.”
Historian Will Bagley revised Dale L. Morgan’s West from Fort Bridger with the late Harold Schindler.