When you visit the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV, you can learn about many of the cutoffs, and alternate routes, pioneers took to California, like The Lassen Cutoff. This infamous and troublesome route branched off the main trail at Goose Lake and was used by thousands of emigrants from 1848 until 1853.
Peter Lassen: An Adventuring Spirit
The Lassen Cutoff, also known as “The Death Route,” was founded by Peter Lassen in early 1848. Lassen was a Danish blacksmith who emigrated to the United States and eventually traveled to California, where he became a rancher.
His pioneering spirit eventually made him famous enough to have many California landmarks named after him, including Lassen Peak, Lassen National Forest, and Lassen National Volcanic Park.
Forging A New Way
Many think the Lassen Emigrant Trail was nothing more than a grab for extra money. During the Gold Rush, many hopeful Forty-Niners were looking for the fastest way to the goldfields. Lassen promoted his cutoff as faster, but in reality, it was 200 miles longer than the standard route and more challenging.
- It started out along the same path as the Applegate Trail.
- As many as one-third of the California 49ers took Lassen’s Cutoff.
- He advertised the trail to lure emigrants into taking the new route.
- The cutoff ended near his ranch, where he hoped to profit from supply sales.
- The route was nearly 200 miles longer than the standard trail to California.
- Lassen Trail fell out of use around 1853 when emigrants realized it was a bad option.
Trials On Lassen’s Cutoff
There are many journal entries and letters from that period, complaining about the problems with The Lassen Cutoff. Water was almost impossible to find, and the route itself was difficult to navigate. Many wagons broke down, and pioneers and emigrants in search of gold found themselves sick or stranded.
One weary traveler named Pardon Tiffany wrote in 1849: “At Lassens … saw many of the emigrants arriving here. They are broken down with the fatigue. Young men made old and stiff. Many dying with dysentary, fever, scurvey.”
An Untimely End
Peter Lassen may have reached some level of fame for his cutoff, as well as his blacksmithing and experience as a rancher, but he met an untimely end. He was murdered on April 26th, 1859.
Accounts at the time blamed skirmishes with the Nothern Paiute tribe. Most people now believe that Lassen and his friend, Edward Clapper, were killed by their traveling companion, Americus Wyatt.
Some people have also suggested that disgruntled emigrants who took Lassen’s Cutoff to California found him and took revenge for their hardships. Either way, his legacy as part of California Trail history lives on.
Learn More At The Interpretive Center
Plan a visit to the California Trail Interpretive Center today to learn more about other famous pioneers like Peter Lassen and routes like the Lassen Cutoff. We have many exciting exhibits and events to help you connect with the history of the trail and its impact on the settlement of the west.