The Donner Party The Donner Party It’s one of the greatest tragedies of all time, yet few of us know the whole story. The story is of the misled, inexperienced Donner Party. It is the story of eighty-one emigrants who traveled in hopes of reaching the land of California. Forty-seven, whose hopes were crushed by many contributing factors. The most horrible and misleading factor of all was the human mind and its persistent need to explore and conquer everything, whether within reach or not in the shortest and fastest way possible.
This aspect of taking the shortest route that led to the downfall, and in some cases, to death, of the Donner Party. It was advertised as a new and shorter route west to California and saved pioneers 350 to 400. Unfortunately some crucial things weren’t mentioned in this advertisement, one of which was the fact that the new route had never been traveled upon; and two, that the writer was a power hungry man whose only motive was to lure settlers into California under his direction so he could establish the area as an independent republic. This route was known as Hasting’s Cutoff and was mentioned in Lansford W. Hasting’s book, The Emigrant’s Guide to California and Oregon. Many pioneers eager to make their fortunes, escape disease, or to satisfy their hankering for a new experience read this book and, I might add, all as quickly as possible.
Among the readers of the book was James Reed. James Frasier Reed was a business man who had made a small fortune in his Illinois practice. He had logical reasons for moving to California. One, his wife, Margaret Reed, suffered from horrible headaches and it was assumed that she would fare better in a nicer climate and James Reed wanted more money. He felt that this could be accomplished in a land as rich as California.
Reed also had four children: Virginia, Martha, James, and Thomas whom he wanted better lives for, and he believed this could be attained in California. When James Frasier Reed first read the book he was blown away by the idea of getting to California safely and quicker, he acted upon it and found others to travel with him. Among these other travelers were the Donners, the Graves, the Breens, the Murphys, the Eddys, the McCutcheons, the Kesebergs, and the Wolfingers. Thanks to an advertisement in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette, two Mexican boys, and a number of bachelors. On April 16, 1846, the emigrants that would soon be named the Donner Party, loaded their nine wagons and, departed from Springfield, Illinois. Their 2500 mile journey to San Francisco would take them approximately four months and they would cross three mountain ranges, deserts, plains, and rivers.
Little did they know they would be the first ever to travel this route. The party’s first stop was Independence, Missouri, where they bought food and traded for any necessities. When they left Independence on May 12, 1846, they were amidst a violent thunderstorm. This storm soon ceased and they eventually reached the eastern bank of the Big Blue River where they attempted to build ferries that would transport them and the wagons to the other side. During this a two-day process, the Donner Party experienced its first death. Margaret Reed’s mother, Sarah Keyes, who had been suffering from consumption, died at the river and was immediately buried there.
On May 31, the last of the wagons was ferried over the river, and the Donner Party was on its way again. On June 16, the party was two hundred miles from Fort Laramie and had traveled, so far, without difficulty. Finally on June 27, one week behind schedule, they reached Fort Laramie where Reed ran into an old friend from Illinois, James Clyman, and quickly interrogated him about the new route. Clyman gave his honest opinion stating that the road was barely possible on foot and would be impossible with wagons. He advised Reed to take the regular wagon trail, not this new, false route, but Reed, too enchanted by the idea of a shorter and briefer route, ignored Clyman’s warning and embarked on the path to Fort Bridger.
On July 17, when the party was attempting to cross the Continental Divide, a man carrying a letter from Lansford W. Hastings met them. The letter stated that Hastings would meet the party at Fort Bridger and that he would personally take them over the pass. The party was happy about this and continued on in good spirits. On July 20, they reached the Sandy River, which was the parting of the routes.
It was either Hasting’s new cutoff or the normal, withered wagon path. The Donner Party went the risky way towards Fort Bridger while all of the other wagons took the other route. This was the point of no return. The Donner Party had sealed its fate with Lansford W. Hastings and his new route to California.
While on their way to Fort Bridger, the party decided to pick a leader, and though James Reed was the obvious choice, some believed that he was too aristocratic, so they chose Donner. One week after this they rolled into Fort Bridger where they were greeted with a note from Lansford W. Hastings, not the man himself. The note said that he had left with another group of emigrants and that they should follow and try to catch up. The Donner Party spent four days at Fort Bridger and then they pressed on for the rest of what they thought was a seven-week journey. On July 31, the party entered Hasting’s cutoff and for the first week they made ten or twelve miles a day, pretty good for a group of nine wagons.
On August 6, the party came to a halt. They had received another note from Hastings. It stated that the road was impassable, they were four days behind the other party and Hastings wouldn’t come back to lead them. He wrote that they should take the other trail through the salt basin. The party heeded this warning and turned off into the wilderness.
They decided to tackle Emigrant Canyon and due to this they barely made two miles a day. It took the party six days to travel eight miles and when they discovered that some of their wagons would have to be abandoned, morale sank to the deepest depths. Finally reached the Salt Lake Shore. It had taken them one month, not one week as Hastings had claimed, to reach this shore, and since they were tired of blaming Hastings, they blamed James Reed instead. On August 25, Luke Halloran, one of the young men traveling with the Donners died of consumption. On August 30, the party began to cross the desert.
They believed it would only take them two days and two nights (according to Hastings). The desert sand was very moist and deep and due to this, the wagons sank into the sand causing major delays for the slow party. On the third day of desert travel the water ran out and Reed’s oxen ran away. When they finally emerged from the eighty-mile desert two days later they had lost a total of thirty-two oxen and had to abandon one of the wagons. The desert had cost them most of their desperately needed supplies.
Since they couldn’t get back to Fort Bridger, two of the two young men traveling with the Donners, William McCutcheon and Charles Stanton rode ahead to retrieve more supplies. On September 26, they reached the Humboldt River where Hasting’s second cutoff met up with the original. They had traveled extra 125 miles on that second route and cursed Hastings for this extra mileage. The Donner Party would now have to travel the rest of the way alone. Hastings had made it to Sutter’s Fort with eighty other wagons in early September and was no longer there to leave notes for them.
The members of the Donner Party were furious at this point. On October 5, this tension took its toll. Two wagons became entangled and John Snyder the teamster of one wagon began whipping the oxen of the other. James Reed was infuriated and ordered him to stop. When he wouldn’t, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed John Snyder in the stomach.
Snyder, died, and James Reed had to be protected by his family so no one could harm him in retaliation for the death. His family, however, couldn’t protect him. He was to be banished, although Lewis Kes …