Jenna Belden

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The Donner Party as told by Sierra Historian Mark McLaughlin

The Donner Party is the name given to a group of emigrants, who became trapped in the Sierra Nevada mountains during the winter of 1846-47. Nearly half of the party died, and some resorted to eating their dead in an effort to survive. The experience has become legendary as the most spectacular
episode in the record of Western migration. Like many thousands before them, the Donners 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 Oregon and California in the 1840s. Among the multitude of emigrants bound for opportunity in California, were three well-to-do families from Springfield, Illinois: brothers George and Jacob Donner and their wives and 12 young children, and James and Margaret Reed and their four children. Gold had not yet been discovered; these families were moving to California to build community and a personal future.

The first part of the journey was a pleasant adventure for the Donners and Reeds, particularly be- cause they were wealthy enough to hire young men in Illinois to travel with them and do the heavy work. George’s wife, Tamsen, was writing a book about the trip (sadly, neither she nor her manuscript was destined to survive) and intended to open a school in California. As the summer wore on, their leisurely pace placed them near the end of the long line of wagons heading for California. The Donners would not reach the Sierras until the end of October.

This fateful decision cost them dearly in time, livestock,  and equipment. The emigrants arrived at the eastern base of the Sierra exhausted, demoralized, bitter, harassed by Paiute Indians, and out of food. Fortunately, Charles Stanton, a bachelor who had gone ahead to obtain provisions, arrived from Sutter’s Fort (Sacramento) with seven pack mules laden with provisions, and news of a war brew- ing in California between the U.S. and Mexico.

The most difficult portion of the journey was crossing the Sierra, so the emigrants rested for five days in Truckee Meadows (Reno). Once in the mountains, George Donner cut his hand while repairing a broken wagon axle at Alder Creek, six miles north of Truckee’s Lake (now called Donner Lake). George, in his sixties and exhausted from the strenuous journey, decided to stop with his buddies and their families there and wait for rescue in California.

By the time the rest of the party reached Truckee’s Lake at the end of October, several feet of snow blanketed the pass. Snowstorms swept the Sierra during November, trapping the 87 pioneers for the winter with insufficient food and supplies. Relief was fatally slow coming for the Donner Party. In fact, it was only after a few of the pioneers managed to snowshoe over the mountains and down to the Sacramento Valley to get help, that word of the emigrants tragic predicament reached the settlements.  By the time they arrived, many members of the group had starved to death and others had survived only by resorting to cannibalism. In total, of the 87 men, women and children in the Donner party, 46 survived, 41 died.

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  par- ties.  Reed's family survived.

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.