The Donner Party

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.

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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 …

The Donner Party

The Donner Party Winter of Entrapment A New Look At The Donner Party Joseph A. King King, Joseph. Winter of Entrapment: A New Look at the Donner Party. P.D Meany Publishers, 1992 Winter of Entrapment tells the story of the Donner Party in a way that it has never been told before. Unlike many other books written on this story of hardships, cannibalism, and survival, it is written mostly in regards to the experiences of the Breen’s, a large family that was part of the Donner Party. The author of this book, Joseph A. King, wanted to write the story as accurately as possible without bias or fictitious legends.

Many of the books written previously on the events of the Donner Party have been heavily biased and had unreliable sources. Many people associated with the Donner Party have been harshly judged in articles and books, of which were largely based on testimonies of “one survivor who had a reputation for boasting and lying.” The book begins with a history of the Breen family and their journey from Ireland to Canada, and eventually to Independence, Missouri. From there they decided it best to move their family to California, for what reasons have not or cannot be verified–only speculated. Winter of Entrapment then goes on to tell the ordeals of the journey from Missouri to California in great detail. The journey began on April 5, 1846 in Missouri.

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The story of the Donner Party has many geographic locations, including: Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Utah, Nevada, and finally California. The bulk of the story took place in the Sierra Nevada, where the Donner Party was trapped with little food and supplies. The Breen family, along with the Graves children and Mary Donner were rescued on March 12, 1847. Relief parties rescued other members of the Donner Party before that date, but the Breen family was not yet capable of surviving the last leg of the journey at that time. Winter of Entrapment tells the story of the Donner Party in chronological order.

A few times in the book, King will forewarn to indicate what happens next, but will wait to tell the incident in its entirety until it fits into the story in chronological order. For example, when James Reed is banished from the Donner Party for murdering John Snyder, King went on to say, “Reed’s wife and four children remained with the company. Reed caught up with the Donners, where his teamsters, Walter Herron joined him. They went on to reach the California settlements, and that story will be told in its place.” To assist illuminate the story of the Donner Party, many illustrations have been used in this book. There are maps of specific locations the Donner Party traveled through, photocopies of journal entries, illustrations and pictures of many of the key players in the Donner Party.

Also, there are recent photographs of where the Donner Party camped in the Sierra Nevada. The thesis of Winter of Entrapment was difficult to determine for the reason that it tells a story of the Donner Party as it happened through chronological order using as much fact as possible. It is obvious though that King was trying to indicate the bravery and commitment the Breen family had to endure to survive. Using Patrick Breen’s diary and interviews, King tells the story of the Breens involvement with the Donner Party. In almost all other books written of the Donner Party the Breens, mostly Patrick and Margaret, were regarded unkindly as is suggested by William Eddy, one of the members of the search party.

He stated that when he found the campsite where the Breens were located what he saw “was shocking indeed. And yet Patrick Brinn [sic] and his wife seemed not in any degree to realize the extent of their peril, or that they were in peril at all.” Eddy went on to say that they were found sunning themselves with the bodies of two of the Donner’s children and Mrs. Graves. He said that the child of Graves “was a helpless and innocent lamb among the wolves of the wilderness.” And the child was seen sitting next to her “mangled” mother. King went on to disprove the statements Eddy made by pointing out that the bodies were above the Breens and their company because the fire had melted the snow around them, and states, “The picture of the infant Graves baby fondling the body of its mutilated mother clearly has the mark of pulp fiction ..

the picture ignores the fact that the Breens, allegedly sunning themselves and ignoring the infants and older children about them, had managed to nurture nine children in that pit for many days – with food, prayer, and the comforts of human touch.” King wanted to enlighten readers of the sacrifice and morality of Patrick and Margaret Breen. He states that one author “had little patience with any evidence pointing to the heroism of the Breens and other ethnics in the Donner Party .. ” King believed many of previous accounts of the Donner Party were biased. I believe he did an excellent job of disproving what was formerly said regarding the Breens. The author tries very hard in this book not to be biased, since he is so often referring to the biased and racist’s points of view of other authors.

However, I do believe that in some ways King does tend to be a bit biased, thus influencing the book’s subject matters. Many times in the book King comments on the difficult decisions Patrick and Margaret Breed had to face. “Breen’s words also reveal the moral dilemma in which he and his wife were placed, although Breen does not philosophize about it. The terrible question! What to do when giving to others would mean starvation and death for one’s own children? The Breens seem to have struck something of a balance. They sometimes refused but they often gave.” King constantly is making the Breens seem almost saintly.

He wrote of how the Breens took in Mrs. Reed and four of her children, and how “neither Mrs. Breen nor her children would have survived were it not for the sustenance, both physical and spiritual, that the Breens gave to them.” Unlike other stories about the Donner Party that I have heard, Winter of Entrapment tells the story mostly from the Breens point of view. Often times the key players are the Donners and the Reeds. Before I read this book, I had never heard of Patrick and Margaret Reed.

But to be fair, I had very little prior knowledge of the Donner Party. The book does a great justice by disproving many theories about the Donner Party and many of their members. It does this in a clear, comprehensible fashion with many references and sources throughout the book. This book gave me a very deep understanding of the suffering and horrific ordeals the Donner Party faced. It demonstrated the bravery, the quick thinking, and heroism of many of the members.

I enjoyed this book and would readily recommend it to anyone wanting to learn more about the Donner Party and its involvement with the history of California. History Essays.


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