February 19, 2015
THE DONNER PARTY
click on pictures to enlarge
Donner Party Route
Donner Party Route
The "Donner Party" also known as the "Donner-Reed Party" was a group of American pioneers who set out for California via wagon train.
During the 1840's, many wanted to migrate west to Oregon and California. They left their eastern comforts to explore and obtain new lands for farming and to a more "free" thinking people not bound by traditional beliefs. This was known as the "manifest destiny" philosophy. Typically they followed the Oregon Trail route from Independence, Missouri, to the Continental Divide, traveling about 15 miles a day, on a journey that usually took between 4-6 months. The trail followed rivers to "South Pass'' (mountain pass) in Wyoming, which was an easy trail to negotiate. From there, wagon trains had a choice of routes to their prospective destinations.
In 1842, Lansford W. Hastings had gone to California. To encourage settlers he published "The Emigrants Guide To Oregon And California." He described a "direct" route across the Great Basin, which brings emigrants through the "Wasatch Mountains" and across the "Great Salt Lake Desert." Hastings hand never traveled his proposed shortcut until early 1846 on a trip from California to Fort Bridger. The fort was was actually a small supply station run by Jim Bridger and his partner Pierre Louis Vasquez in Black Fork, Wyoming. Hastings stayed at the fort to persuade travelers to turn "south" on his route. As of 1846, Hastings was the second documented traveler to have crossed the southern part of the Great Salt Lake Desert, but neither had been accompanied by wagons.
The most difficult part of the journey to California was the last 100 miles, across the Sierra Nevada's. This has over 500 peaks over 12,000 feet high and because of the close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, develop more snow than most other mountain ranges in North America. The eastern side of the range is extremely steep, making timing crucial. Wagons had to leave Missouri, cross the vast wilderness to Oregon and California to prevent getting bogged down by mud from spring rains or by massive snowdrifts. By September grass would be scarce for horses and oxen.
The Donner party centered around 3 families from Springfield Illinois. George Donner, his brother Jacob, and James F. Reed. Each had 3 wagons along with their wives and children. Several other families joined the wagon train along the way. There were a total of 87 men, women, and children.
On April 1846, the Donner and Reed families left Springfield for Independence, Missouri, where the "California Trail" began. This was about 250 miles. The trip was timed to begin when the spring rains had stopped, leaving plenty of grass for horses and oxen, and to end before the snow made the Sierra Nevada's impassable. Almost 500 wagons were headed west from Independence that year.
On May 10, the Donner-Reed families arrived at Independence. They stayed for a couple of weeks, had a death in the family, and joined up with a group of 50 wagons led by William H. Russell. By June 16, they had traveled 450 miles with 200 miles to go before reaching Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They had been delayed by rain and a rising river. On June 27, at Fort Laramie, Reed met an old friend named James Clyman who was coming from California. He warned him not to take the Hastings cut-off. Although a straight route seemed faster, it will not be because of the Great Desert and roughness of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Clyman told him to stay on the regular wagon track and never leave it. It is barely possible to get through and could be "impossible" if he does not.
On July 20, at the "Little Sandy River" most of the wagon train decided to follow the established trail via Fort Hall. A smaller group decided to go to Fort Bridger. James Reed, because of his military background, was appointed the leader of the Donner-Reed wagon train. Edwin Bryant, a journalist, reached Blacks Fork a week prior and warned some of the members not to take the short cut. By the time the Donner party reached Blacks Fork on July 27, Hastings had already left, leading 40 wagons of the "Harlan-Young" group. Hastings and Bridger were in a partnership. Since the cut-off starts at Blacks Fork, Bridger would sell food, guns, clothes, etc being the only supply station in town and split the profits with Hastings. Bridger also displayed letters describing hot food and water were plentiful utilizing the Hastings cut-off. Later he denied ever doing or saying this after the Donner disaster.
On July 31, 1846, the Donner-Reed party left Blacks Fork 11 days behind the Harlan-Young group. The party turned south to follow "Hastings cut-off." The terrain was rugged and wheels had to be locked many times to prevent sliding down steep inclines. Several years of traffic on the "Oregon Trail" left an easy and obvious path. Hastings wrote directions and letters and attached them to "trees" (not an easy road map). On August 6, the party found a letter from Hastings advising them to stop until he could show them an "alternate" route that the Harlan-Young group took. Several people road off to catch Hastings, encountering huge boulders, canyons, and a river that would easily destroy wagons. Although Hastings "offered" to guide the Donner's around these obstacles, he only rode part way and indicated the "general direction" to follow.
After 4 days, the group returned to the wagon train with a hard choice. They could either turn back and rejoin the traditional trail, follow the tracks left by the Harlan-Young party, or forge their own trail in the direction Hastings had recommended. At Reed's urging, they chose the "new" Hastings route. Their progress slowed to about 1 1/2 miles a day, and all able-bodied men were used to clear brush, fallen trees, and heave rocks to make room for the wagons. As the Donner's reached its way across the Wasatch mountains, they met up with the Graves family, who joined them. This increased their party to 87 members and 60-80 wagons. By August 20, they could see the "Great Salt Lake" beneath them. Food was depleting rapidly. It took them 10 days to get over a 1,000 ft mountain to reach the desert. Several people died of tuberculosis and their water was almost gone. Having no alternative, they pressed on. Some of their cattle got loose and ran off in the desert, leaving them to start eating a few oxen. The normal 2 day journey across the 40 mile desert took them 6 days.
Being extremely short on food and supplies, Reed sent 2 volunteers to Sutter's Fort for provisions. The party pushed on only to find another 40 miles of desert which was not on their "map". On September 26, 2 months after starting the Hastings cut-off, the Donner party rejoined the traditional trail along a stream that is now known as the "Humboldt River." The shortcut had delayed them by a month.
Along the Humboldt River Paiutes shot and stole several horses. This caused trouble between Reed and some wagon teamsters. One of them named John Snyder started whipping Reed. Reed not only turned the whip on him, but also plunged a knife under his collarbone, killing him. Reed was banished by the wagon train. Eventually he caught up wth the Donner's, grabbed a horse, and rode toward Sutter's Fort, California.
It was October 20th and the Donner's were told that the pass would not be snowed in until the middle of November...wrong. Snow began to fall and axles were breaking, slowing their journey even more. After getting past a 1,000 foot mountain, they finally made it to Truckee Lake ( now known as Donner Lake) . 60 members of the various families were divided into 3 small cabins with dirt floors and leaky roofs. The Donner families quickly constructed tents to house 21 people. On November 4, it began to snow again and continued for 8 days solid. Some tried fishing and hunting, but to no avail. Others started slaughtering oxen. On November 12, a small party tried to reach the summit on foot, but the powder was too deep and had to return. On November 21, about 22 people made it to the peak, but after 1 1/2 miles of additional snow they returned to the camp 2 days later.
With the lack of real food, diets consisted of ox hide, cut into strips, which were boiled to make a "disagreeable" glue-like jelly. Ox and horse bones were repeatedly boiled to make soup, and became so brittle they would crumble upon chewing. Ox hide rugs were boiled and eaten. Rats were caught and eaten. Some folks would continue to make treks, only to return again. On December 21, 17 men, women, and children lead by William Eddy, equipped with home made snowshoes set out to try again. After several days, it was proposed that one should volunteer to die, and the rest eat him. As it worked out Patrick Dolan died along with 2 others which provided the much needed meat. After 25 days, the party either refused to eat, ate the human remains, or died.
On January 12, the group stumbled into a Miwok camp. The Miwoks gave them acorns, grass, and pine nuts. After a few days Eddy continued on with the help of some Miwoks. He reached a small farming community in the Sacramento Valley. A rescue party found the other 6 survivors of Eddy's group on January 17. Their journey from Truckee Lake had taken 33 days.
James Reed, after recovering from his journey to Sutter's Fort, convinced Colonel John C. Fremont, and others to attempt a rescue. On October 8 they only located a stranded immigrant who had been separated, starving, and they all returned to the Sutter's Fort. News of the snowshoe survivors' cannibalism spread like wild fire.
On February 4, William Eddy formed another rescue party. Initially a swollen river stopped some of them, but after a few days, 7 pressed on. On February 18, the 7 scaled "Fremont Pass" (now called Donner Pass). All the cabins were buried in snow. A lady shouted out "are you men from heaven?" Alas, they had found the Donner party!!!
On March 1, a second relief party arrived to evacuate more survivors. Again on March 14, a 3rd relief arrived to rescue the remaining survivors.
On April 10, a group from Sutter's Fort organized a salvage party to locate any of the Donner's belongings. These were to be sold, with part of the proceeds to support some orphaned Donner children. The salvage party found the Alder Creek tents that Donner built. All of them were empty except one which contained the body of George Donner who had died days earlier. On April 29 1847, Lewis Keseberg was the last member of the Donner party to arrive at Sutter's Fort. 87 people started the journey, but only 48 survived. The 48 are not flesh eating ghouls, but actually heroes. Some settled in Marysville, some chased gold, and some stayed in or around Sutter's Fort.
The site of the cabins became a tourist attraction in 1854. In 1880's Charles Mcglashin promoted the idea of a monument to mark the site of the Donner Party. In 1934, California erected a monument which has figures representing the Donner party on top of a 22 foot pedestal to indicated how deep the snow was during the winter of 1846-1847. The State of California created the "Donner Memorial State Park" in 1927. It gets about 200,000 visitors a year. There are many other stories about the Donner-Reed Party. These are but a few.
Report presented by Gary "Col. Klink" Klinke
John A Sutter Historian