The Donner Party

Early in April 1846 the nucleus of the Donner Party climbed into their wagons and started west from Springfield, Illinois. The original party was composed of the families of George Donner, Jacob Donner and James Reed. Early in May they reached Independence, Missouri and were joined by a number of others. Out of Independence, the Donner Party proper was composed of 88 persons traveling in more than 40 wagons. They came from Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, New Mexico, Spain, Belgium and Germany. Others joined the party for part of the trip, but were not involved in the tragic events that took place in the Sierra Mountains later that year.

Travel across the prairies was hard but the party did not have any unusual difficulties in the early part of the trip. At the end of May the ninety year old mother of Mrs. James Reed died of exhaustion near what is today Manhatten Kansas. The Donner Party celebrated July 4 at Fort Laramie. On July 20, at Little Sandy River, George Donner was elected Captain of the train. At Fort Bridger the party learned of a new route pioneered by Lansford W. Hastings that was said to save 300 miles as compared with the then established Fort Hall route. While most wagon trains were taking the Fort Hall route the Donner Party decided to take the Hastings Cut Off to the Great Salt Lake.

On August 3 they crossed the Weber River without incident. There they found a letter from Hastings who was piloting another party of 66 wagons down the Weber Canyon. Hastings warned against following them down the canyon due to the rugged nature of the terrain. Instead his letter suggested that they take a vaguely described route across the mountains. The cross-mountain route turned out to be extremely difficult and took thirty days rather than the week that they had been told to expect. They camped near the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake on September 3 where another of their party died of consumption. In crossing the desert west of Salt Lake the party suffered additional hardships and lost a number of livestock.

While in the desert it was decided that they would run out of provisions before they could cross the Sierras. Two volunteers were sent ahead to Sutter's Fort to obtain additional supplies. At Gravelly Ford a fight broke out which resulted in John Snyder being killed by James Reed. George and Jacob Donner and their families were both two days ahead of the rest of the party at the time of the fight. Reed saw the incident as self defence, but the party ruled against him and ordered his expulsion. His family managed to get his rife to him and a bit of food, but were not able to prevent his ouster. Reed left the camp and walked away to the west.

At the sink of the Humboldt the party ran into serious trouble when Indians made off with more of their livestock. From that point on most of the party had to walk. Another death from exhaustion occurred on October 9 when a sixty year old man lay down beside the trail to die. The party moved on without him. On October 14 another man disappeared without anyone being able to determine what happened to him although Lewis Keseberg was suspected by some of having murdered him for the money that he was carrying. On October 19 Charles Stanton, one of the two volunteers that had been sent ahead, returned from Sutter's Fort with five mules loaded with provisions and two Indian guides. The party continued on to the vicinity of present day Reno where they decided to rest their remaining livestock before ascending the east face of the Sierras. While in camp a man was accidently killed while loading a pistol.

The weather began to change as they started up into the mountains. They reached Prosser Creek on October 28. There was six inches of snow on the ground. The winter season was a month earlier than usual in the high country, their remaining livestock were exhausted, their provisions were low, and they were badly frightened. The party panicked and spread out between Prosser Creek and Truckee Lake as individual families tried to decide what to do. A number of individual family efforts were made to cross the mountains and one concerted effort was attempted before all concluded that it was impossible to get the wagons through the snow. The party erected shelters and began to try to cope with the freezing conditions as best they could.