Keeper of the Family
REEDS and GRAVES with TheDonner Party
The FatefulJourney of the Donner Party
The Donner party is the namegiven to a group of emigrants, including the families of George Donner and hisbrother Jacob, who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during thewinter of 1846-47. Nearly half of the party died, and some resorted toeating their dead in an effort to survive. The experience has becomelegendary as the most spectacular episode in the record of Westernmigration.
Like many thousands before them, the Donners had every reason to look forward totheir journey when they started out from Springfield, Illinois, in April of1846. Countless wagon trains made the 2000-mile trek from Illinois toOregon and California in the 1840s. Most people suffered various hardshipsalong the way but managed to get over the Sierras and on to California in goodhealth. Several other families joined up with the Donners at Independence,Missouri, in May. George Donner, age 60, and his friend James F. Reed, age46, were chosen as the leaders. (Donner was officially elected”captain.”) Most everything went smoothly until they decided totake Hastings’ Cut-off, a supposed shortcut. Ironically, this”shortcut” would cause disastrous delays and hardships as the partyhad to hack a trail through the rough Wasatch Mountains in Utah and then crossan 80-mile desert west of the Great Salt Lake. The journey normally tookabout six months, from April to September. The Donners would not reach theSierras until the end of October.
Howthe Donner party came to take Hastings’ Cut-off was the first of a series ofpeculiar events along their ill-fated journey. According to some accounts,on July 17, somewhere west of Ft. Laramie in Wyoming, they met a man named WalesB. Bonney carrying an open letter from Lansford Hastings. [See notebelow.*] The letter encouraged travelers to take a recently discoveredroute to the south of the Great Salt Lake. The route promised to beshorter, saving 350-400 miles. Supposedly it was mostly smooth, hard andlevel, with no danger from Indians, and plenty of grass for the animals and woodfor fires. Yes, there was a dry stretch where fresh water would be scarce,but no worse than the usual route. It sounded promising. (They werealso warned by experienced travelers not to risk the uncertain shortcut.)
TheDonner party went on toward Fort Bridger, where they expected to find Hastingswaiting. But by the time they arrived the season was late and Hastings hadalready departed with a large wagon train, leaving directions for any latergroups who wished to follow his trail. The Donner party stocked up onsupplies, and four days later their group of nine families plus sixteen singlemen headed out on the last day of July. A short distance outside FortBridger they came to a fork in the road. To the right led the old road toFort Hall; to the left were the wheel marks of Hastings’ party on the newroute. They went left.
Soonthe country became mountainous, much worse even than the crossing of theContinental Divide, and the road was barely passable. In some places thewheels had to be locked as the wagons slid down narrow ravines and steepside-hills. Still they managed to continue. For days they followedHastings’ wheel-tracks, at a rate of 10-12 miles a day; then the trail stoppedwhen they reached the Red Fork of the Weber River. Stuck on a bush was anote from Hastings. It warned anyone following him that the route throughWeber canyon was very bad. They were advised to set up camp and send amessenger ahead to catch up with Hastings; then he would return and guide themacross the mountains by way of a better and shorter route. Reed and twoothers were appointed to go forward on horseback to overtake Hastings.
James Reed and his daughter Patty
Five days later Reed returned, looking worse for the wear and riding a differenthorse. He explained the ordeal it took to catch up with Hastings. The other two men had stayed with Hastings because their horses were spent andHastings could only spare one fresh mount. Hastings himself was not comingback for them in spite of his promise in the note. On his way back, Reedhad explored a route through the canyon suggested by Hastings. The wagonscould get through, he thought, but only with great difficulty. The companyhad few options, none of them good. They voted unanimously to try Reed’sroute.
Unceasinglabor with axes, picks and shovels exhausted both body and spirit, but thedetermined emigrants pushed on. By August 27 fear began to setin. In twenty-one days since reaching the Weber River they had moved just36 miles. Provisions were running low and time was against them. OnAugust 29 they reached the spot were Reed had found Hastings three weeksearlier. Hastings’ own party got through without disaster. Most ofthe eighty or so people of the Donner party probably would have managed, too,even with their problems, but their fate was sealed by the advance of a fiercewinter storm, unusually severe even for the Sierra Nevadas.
Ittook the party five days to cross the desert. Wagons, foundered axle deepin a quagmire of wet salt and sand, had to be abandoned. Oxen went madfrom thirst and ran off or died. On the far side of the desert, aninventory of food was taken and found to be less than adequate for the 600 miletrek still ahead. That night, ominously, snow powdered the mountainpeaks. They reached the Humbolt River on September 26. The diversionhad cost them an extra one hundred and twenty-five miles. Nerves wereshattered and fights began to break out. James Reed killed the Gravesfamily’s teamster, John Snyder, (apparently in self-defense) and was banishedfrom the party. He left his family and rode on to California alone.
Theparty reached the base of the steep summit on October 31, just as snow wasbeginning to fall. And although some in the group were able to reach thesummit, they were forced to turn back as there was no way the whole party couldget through. Heavy snow continued falling overnight and by morning thepass was completely blocked by snowdrifts over twenty feet high. They hadcome 2,500 miles in seven months to lose their race with the weather by one day,only 150 miles from their destination of Sutter’s Fort (what is now Sacramento)in California.
Realizingthat they were stranded, the main body erected cabins along Truckee Lake and asmaller body that consisted of the Donner family and their hired men made a campof tents several miles back on the trail. Over the next four months, theremaining men, women, and children huddled together in cabins, make shiftlean-tos, and tents. The cattle had all been killed and eaten bymid-December; one man had died of malnutrition. The people began to eatbark, twigs, and boiled hides.
Severalattempts were made by small groups at crossing the mountains. One group offifteen men, women, and children did succeed in crossing the summit, but onlyseven of them survived to reach Sutter’s fort. Their arrival caused anoutcry of alarm, and rescue attempts soon followed. By early February, thefirst rescue party reached the lake encampments. The nightmare was by nomeans over at that point, as it was as life threatening for the rescuers as forthe rescued. Not everyone could be taken out and since no pack animalscould be brought in, sustaining supplies were few. Many people had alreadydied and some of the survivors left in the camps had begun to eat thedead. (It is believed that about half of the survivors of the Donner partyresorted to cannibalism, having held off for as long as they could after theirfood was gone.)
Subsequent rescue efforts brought outthe remaining survivors. There were more deaths at the camps and somevictims died on the torturous trip out of the mountains, the worst of which wasdone on foot, as the snow was too deep for horses or mules. The last ofthe survivors reached Sutter’s fort almost exactly one year after theirdeparture from Missouri. In the end, five had died before reaching themountains, thirty-four died died either at the mountain camps or trying to crossthe mountains, and one died just after reaching the valley. Many whosurvived had lost toes to frostbite or were otherwise injured. The lastsurvivor was brought out in April. He and others were accused of badconduct, cannibalism, and even murder. The surviving members had differentviewpoints, biases and recollections so the picture of what happened is notclear.
GeorgeDonner and his wife died at the camp, along with his brother Jacob and Jacob’swife, and most of the Donner children. James Reed, having safely reachedSutter’s fort, led one of the rescue parties. Reed’s familysurvived. Other families included those of Patrick Breen (all of whomsurvived), William Eddy, Franklin Graves, et al., many of whom died. In total, of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner party, 46 survived, 41died.
Thestory of the Donner tragedy quickly spread across the country. Newspapersprinted letters and diaries, along with wild tales of men and women who had gonemad eating human flesh. Emigration to California fell off sharply andHastings’ cutoff was all but abandoned. Then, in January 1848, gold wasdiscovered in John Sutter’s creek. By late 1849 more than 100,000 peoplehad rushed to California to dig and sift near the streams and canyons where theDonner party had suffered so much. In 1850 California entered the union asthe 31st state. Year by year, traffic over “Donner Pass”increased. Truckee Lake became a tourist attraction and the terribleordeals of the Donner party passed into history and legend.