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THE DONNER PARTY
Like many thousands before them, the Donner’s had every reason to look forward to their journey when
they started out from Springfield, Illinois, in April of 1846. Countless wagon trains made the 2000-mile
trek from Illinois to the west in the 1840s. Most people suffered various hardships along the way but
managed to get over the Sierras and on to California in good health. Several other families joined up with
the Donner’s at Independence, Missouri, in May. George Donner, age 60, and his friend James F. Reed,
age 46, were chosen as the leaders. Most everything went smoothly until they decided to take Hastings'
Cut-off, a supposed shortcut. Ironically, this "shortcut" would cause disastrous delays and hardships as
the party had to hack a trail through the rough Wasatch Mountains in Utah and then cross an 80-mile
desert west of the Great Salt Lake. The journey normally took about six months, from April to
September. The Donner’s would not reach the Sierras until the end of October.
How the Donner party came to take Hastings' Cut-off was the first of a series of peculiar 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 Wales B. Bonney carrying an open letter from Lansford Hastings. The
letter encouraged travelers to take a recently discovered route to the south of the Great Salt Lake. The
route promised to be shorter, saving 350-400 miles. Supposedly it was mostly smooth, hard and level,
with no danger from Indians, and plenty of grass for the animals and wood for fires. Yes, there was a dry
stretch where fresh water would be scarce, but no worse than the usual route. It sounded promising.
The Donner party went on toward Fort Bridger, where they expected to find Hastings waiting. But
by the time they arrived the season was late and Hastings had already departed with a large wagon train,
leaving directions for any later groups who wished to follow his trail. The Donner party stocked up on
supplies, and four days later their group of nine families plus sixteen single men headed out on the last
day of July. A short distance outside Fort Bridger they came to a fork in the road. To the right led the old
road to Fort Hall; to the left were the wheel marks of Hastings' party on the new route. They went left.
Soon the country became mountainous, much worse even than the crossing of the Continental
Divide, and the road was barely passable. In some places the wheels had to be locked as the wagons slid
down narrow ravines and steep side-hills. Still they managed to continue. For days they followed
Hastings' wheel-tracks, at a rate of 10-12 miles a day; then the trail stopped when they reached the Red
Fork of the Weber River. Stuck on a bush was a note from Hastings. It warned anyone following him that
the route through Weber canyon was very bad. They were advised to set up camp and send a messenger
ahead to catch up with Hastings; then he would return and guide them across the mountains by way of a
better and shorter route. Reed and two others were appointed to go forward on horseback to overtake
Hastings. Five days later Reed returned, looking worse for the wear and riding a different horse. He
explained the ordeal it took to catch up with Hastings. The other two men had stayed with Hastings
because their horses were spent and Hastings could only spare one fresh mount. Hastings himself was
not coming back for them in spite of his promise in the note. On his way back, Reed had explored a route
through the canyon suggested by Hastings. The wagons could get through, he thought, but only with
great difficulty. The company had few options, none of them good. They voted unanimously to try Reed's
Unceasing labor with axes, picks and shovels exhausted both body and spirit, but the determined
emigrants pushed on. By August 27 fear began to set in. In twenty-one days since reaching the Weber
River they had moved just 36 miles. Provisions were running low and time was against them. On August
29 they reached the spot were Reed had found Hastings three weeks earlier. Hastings' own party got
through without disaster. Most of the 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 fierce winter storm,
unusually severe even for the Sierra Nevadas.
It took the party five days to cross the desert. Wagons, foundered axle deep in a quagmire of wet
salt and sand, had to be abandoned, and their Oxen died. On the far side of the desert, an inventory of
food was taken and found to be less than adequate for the 600 mile trek still ahead. That night,
ominously, snow powdered the mountain peaks. They reached the Humbolt River on September 26. The
diversion had cost them an extra one hundred and twenty-five miles. Nerves were shattered and fights
began to break out. James Reed killed the Graves family's teamster, John Snyder, (apparently in selfdefense) and was banished from the party. He left his family and rode on to California alone.
The party reached the base of the steep summit on October 31, just as snow was beginning to fall.
And although some in the group were able to reach the summit, they were forced to turn back as there
was no way the whole party could get through. Heavy snow continued falling overnight and by morning
the pass was completely blocked by snowdrifts over twenty feet high. They had come 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.
Realizing that they were stranded, the main body erected cabins along Truckee Lake and a smaller
body that consisted of the Donner family and their hired men made a camp of tents several miles back on
the trail. Over the next four months, the remaining men, women, and children huddled together in
cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents. The cattle had all been killed and eaten by mid-December; one
man had died of malnutrition. The people began to eat bark, twigs, and boiled hides.
Several attempts were made by small groups at crossing the mountains. One group of fifteen men,
women, and children did succeed in crossing the summit, but only seven of them survived to reach
Sutter's fort. Their arrival caused an outcry of alarm, and rescue attempts soon followed. By early
February, the first rescue party reached the lake encampments. The nightmare was by no means over at
that point, as it was as life threatening for the rescuers as for the rescued. Not everyone could be taken
out and since no pack animals could be brought in, sustaining supplies were few. Many people had
already died and some of the survivors left in the camps had begun to eat the dead. (It is believed that
about half of the survivors of the Donner party resorted to cannibalism, having held off for as long as they
could after their food was gone.)
Subsequent rescue efforts brought out the remaining survivors. There were more deaths at the
camps and some victims died on the torturous trip out of the mountains, the worst of which was done on
foot, as the snow was too deep for horses or mules. The last of the survivors reached Sutter's fort almost
exactly one year after their departure from Missouri. In the end, five had died before reaching the
mountains, thirty-four died either at the mountain camps or trying to cross the mountains, and one died
just after reaching the valley. Many who survived had lost toes to frostbite or were otherwise injured.
The last survivor was brought out in April. He and others were accused of bad conduct, cannibalism, and
even murder. The surviving members had different viewpoints, biases and recollections so the picture of
what happened is not clear.
George Donner and his wife died at the camp, along with his brother Jacob and Jacob's wife, and
most of the Donner children. James Reed, having safely reached Sutter's fort, led one of the rescue
parties. Reed's family survived. Other families included those of Patrick Breen (all of whom survived),
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, 41 died.
The story of the Donner tragedy quickly spread across the country. Newspapers printed letters and
diaries, along with wild tales of men and women who had gone mad eating human flesh. Emigration to
California fell off sharply and Hastings' cutoff was all but abandoned. Then, in January 1848, gold was
discovered in John Sutter's creek. By late 1849 more than 100,000 people had rushed to California to dig
and sift near the streams and canyons where the Donner party had suffered so much. In 1850 California
entered the union as the 31st state. Year by year, traffic over "Donner Pass" increased. Truckee Lake
became a tourist attraction and the terrible ordeals of the Donner party passed into history and legend.