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The Tragic Story Of The Donner Party

WORLD HISTORY | January 23, 2019

'On The Way To The Summit.' depicting the Donner Party, a group of California-bound American emigrants caught up in the ‘westering fever’ of the 1840s. Source: (Fotosearch/Getty Images).

In April of 1846, the members of what would be known as The Donner Party, left Illinois to make their way to California. The leader of this group was James Reed, a well-to-do businessman lured by the stories of fame and fortune out west. Reed had read about a new route that cut out several hundred miles from the trip. What he did not know was that this new shortcut had never been taken before. This lack of information led the group to its doom.

James and Margaret Reed, the organizers of the trip. Source: (usnews.com)

Who Were They?

James Reed brought along his wife Margaret and their four children as well as Margaret’s mother. Also going with the Reed family were the Donner Brothers, George, and Jacob and their families. After leaving Illinois, they joined up with another wagon train and many others joined in until the group reached eighty-seven members, many of them children.

Map showing then untested route of the Donner Party. Source: (history.com)

The New Route to Fortune

After departing Illinois, the first real stop was Independence, Missouri, where they loaded up on supplies. It was about one hundred miles later that they met up with the larger wagon train led by Colonel William Russell. The wagon train was delayed for about a month due to flooding near what is now known as Marysville, Kansas. Unfortunately, Margaret Reed’s mother passed away before they were able to move on from here. They had to build ferries to get the wagons across the river. The leader of the wagon train resigned and William Boggs took over. The group reached Fort Laramie in June of 1846. It was here that James Reed met an old friend, James Clyman, who had been traveling east with Lansford Hastings. Hastings was the man who had written about the new shorter route through the mountains. James Clyman warned Reed about the route. He told him that it was hardly passable on foot, let alone with wagons.

Westward pioneers. Source: (pinterest.com)

Risky Decisions

By Mid-July, the party reached Wyoming where the trail split. Most of the wagon train went the safer known route. The rest of the party elected George Donner as their new leader. The journey was very difficult. They had to clear trees to get through and they were lucky to go two miles a day. The realization that they would not be able to bring all of the wagons and the extra time it took to travel brought morale way down. The party began to blame James Reed for the decision to go this way, even though they all voted and made their own choice to follow. Fear was also prevalent, as food and other supplies were running out and they had traveled only thirty-six miles in twenty-one days. The five-day trek across the Great Salt Lake Desert almost did them in. The wagons sank in the sand and they almost ran out of water. They still had 600 miles to go!

Donner Pass, Sierra Nevada Mountains. Source: (pinterest.com)

What Finally Did Them In

Tempers were short and everyone was exhausted. One man, John Snyder, began whipping his oxen when they became entangled with another wagon. He was out of control and James Reed tried to get him to stop abusing the animals. When he would not stop, Reed stabbed Snyder in the stomach and killed him. The group banished Reed, who had to leave his family. As they traveled, everyone including the animals were worn out. Anyone who could not walk and keep up on their own was left behind to fend for themselves. The party was attacked by Indians, who killed over twenty of their oxen with poisoned arrows. By the time they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they were nearly out of food. They realized that they could not make it through the snow and built cabins near a lake in the mountains. With the snow still falling, people dying of malnutrition, and very little provisions, they realized they had to try to get help. A small group of people, including women and one child, made snowshoes and left for Sutter’s Fort, 100 miles away. The party ran out of food and they were hit with another storm. Four men died and left with no other option, the group resorted to cannibalism. By the time the group made it to Sutter’s Fort, there were seven people left. Eight people died and seven of those had been eaten to survive. As news traveled about the ordeal, people rallied to try and save the rest of the Donner Party. James Reed headed up one of the relief groups, hoping to reunite with his family. When the wagon train people were found it was a bad situation. Evidence of cannibalism was seen. Many people had gone crazy and the rest were very weak. James Reed was fortunate that he was reunited with his family, as none of them had perished. Of the original eighty-seven members of the wagon train, forty-one died.

The Donner Party Visitor Center, Truckee, Ca. Source: (seattletimes.com)

The Aftermath

The story about what happened to the Donner Party spread pretty quickly. Stories in newspapers accused the travelers of bad conduct, reported about the cannibalism and accused them of murder. The survivors all had differing views and stories, so what actually happened has never been clear. There was plenty of blame to go around. Some blamed Lansford Hastings for publicizing a route that had never been tested. Some people blamed James Reed for not listening to warnings. It seems that it was a combination of bad timing and bad information.

Today, Donner Lake is a mountain resort and the Donner Camp is a National Historic Landmark.

Tags: The Donner Party, California, The Oregon Trail

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Lyra Radford

Writer