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  • Western History and Americana

  • 1846 
    Donner Party Crosses the Sierra

     The Donner Party was not the Donner Party when it headed west. It 
            was part of a much larger emigrant train that split and joined many 
            times. While crossing the Continental Divide at South Pass, 
            Wyoming, the train got word of a new route to California. Lansford W. 
            Hastings had written a book describing the route to California, and he 
            recommended a cutoff through Fort Bridger that would save over 300 

            George Donner was elected captain of the train. He was accompanied 
            by his family and his brotherís family. Also joining the train, were the 
            Reed family, the Murphy family, the Breen family, several hired hands, 
            and a few German families. The party headed out from the Little 
            Sandy River on July 20, 1846. After 28 uneventful days, they reached 
            Fort Bridger. 

            Hastings was not there to meet them, but had already gone on with 
            another wagon train. The Donner Party decided to go on, but rested 
            for four days, feeding the cattle and making minor repairs. They left on 
            July 31. 

            Almost right away they came to an impassable canyon. They had to 
            take an alternate route across the Wasatch Mountains. It took several 
            days of hacking through brush up and down several slopes and then 
            through several canyons. Each small distance had to be hacked 
            through. They finally made it over the first mountain on August 20. It 
            took another week to hack their way over another mountain. By then it 
            was dangerously late in the season and supplies were already running 

            Then they came to the ďdry drive.Ē They spent the next day preparing, 
            with a long rest for the cattle, filling every container with water, 
            cooking in advance, and cutting grass for the animals. They started 
            out on September 3. It was a very hard drive. Several times they had 
            to cross bare volcanic mountains. They had to plow through sand 
            dunes horribly hard for the oxen. Many had to abandon their wagons. 
            Some lost cattle and oxen. Some supplies had to be transferred to 
            other wagons. 

            Two men, Stanton and McCutchen were sent ahead to Sutterís Mill for 
            help. They didnít realize how far from California they still were. On 
            September 30, the Donners finally reached the Humboldt River and 
            joined the main California Trail. The water didnít taste very good, but 
            any water was preferable. Grass was scanty this late in the season. 
            Game was less plentiful. A disagreement between Reed and John 
            Snyder led to Reed killing Snyder. As punishment he was banished 
            from the train and sent ahead. 

            They were down to starvation rations. Later the Indians ran off about 
            two dozen oxen. Many people walked to lighten the loads for the 
            remaining oxen. Older children carried younger ones. They were able 
            to kill a few geese for food. After three days, they finally met up with 
            Stanton who had gone on ahead for supplies. They had to let the oxen 
            rest a few days because a steep climb was ahead that even without 
            snow was hard. 

            At first the trail was relatively easy across some low mountains. But 
            snow was now falling as they drove on. Unfortunately the snow was 
            very deep and they had to turn back to an abandoned cabin for the 
            night. They tried to continue the next day, but the wagons had to be 
            abandoned. They camped for the night just a short distance from the 
            pass. Unfortunately it snowed heavily that night and once again they 
            had to turn back to the cabin. It was November 4. 

            Meanwhile, Reed had reached Sutterís Mill. On October 30, the first 
            relief party left Sutterís Mill, but deep snow forced them to turn back. 
            Reed went west to recruit people for another relief party. While Reed 
            went west, the rest of the party built two more cabins. The Donners 
            never got as far as the lake and set up two makeshift wigwams. Eddy 
            managed to shoot a bear about this time that sustained them a little 

            Two groups tried to walk out over the pass. The first failed. The 
            second group got caught in a storm. During this time was when the 
            body of the first person to die was sacrified for the survival of the 
            others. Several others died and were used as food. A much smaller 
            party eventually reached an Indian village where they got a small 
            amount of food. They finally straggled into Johnsonís camp where they 

            On February 1, seven men set out from Sutterís. They cached food in 
            three different spots, to share with the survivors when they came back 
            this way. They made their way across the frozen lake to the place 
            where Eddy said the party would be. They had their first meal in quite 
            a while. The relief party was heading back on February 22. 
            Twenty-three would join them. Seventeen stayed at the lake. When 
            they got to the first cache it had been torn apart and eaten by 
            animals. Four men went ahead to try to get to the next cache. On the 
            fourth day, Coffeemeyer and Moultry reached them with a little food 
            from the next cache. The next day they met another relief party that 
            gave the party some small amounts of bread and went on. They finally 
            reached Bear Valley where there was plenty of food. From there they 
            were able to ride the rest of the way to Sutterís Mill. 

            Reedís party left Sutterís Mill on February 22. They traveled at night to 
            travel on frozen snow. When they arrived there was evidence those at 
            the lake had also resorted to eating the bodies of the dead. All but 
            five, who were too weak to move, returned with the relief party. There 
            were three adults and fourteen children. Unfortunately that night the 
            storm came. Horrible wind blew as blankets of snow fell. The storm 
            lasted three days. At this point the weak decided to just wait there. 
            Four men and three kids went on. 

            Eddy and Foster led a party to go after the Breens on the trail and 
            those back at the lake on March 11. They made good time but didnít 
            have much hope that they would find anyone alive. Eleven were left. A 
            few others were retrieved from the lake. The rescuers led them all to 
            Sutterís Mill. 

            The last rescue party set out on April 13 from Johnsonís. It took only 
            four days to reach the cabins. There they found Keseberg, the last 

            Of eighty-seven that had headed west, five died before reaching the 
            mountain camps. Thirty-four died at the camps or while crossing the 
            pass. One died in the valley, forty-seven survived. In June, General 
            Kearneyís troops went through the pass to take care of the remains. 
            Fortunately, the route to California got rerouted further north. Truckee 
            Lake was renamed Donner Lake. The route they had cut through the 
            Wasatch was heaven sent to the Mormons who used it later that year.


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