- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
As to Hastings’ proposed new route, vague as it was, there was about it that air of self-evident logic. Moreover, the theory of a more direct route seemed to be confirmed by Frémont’s exploration of 1845. Arriving at Sutler’s Fort (now Sacramento) at the end of that year, Frémont reported that he had crossed the Salt Desert and had pushed his way over the high Sierra just ahead of the snow. He was gaunt and worn from the ordeal, even though he had made the journey on horseback. Yet he declared grandly that the route he had just explored was “decidedly better” for wagons, being considerably shorter and “less mountainous, with good pasturage and well watered.” Frémont, it seems, was cut from the same cloth as Hastings. Both were optimistic to the point of being irresponsible.
Encouraged by Frémont’s report, Hastings started east from Suiter’s Fort in mid-April, 1846, to scoul the trail for himself finally and Io persuade as many westwardbound emigrants as he could to follow him back to California. The party with which he traveled seems Io have included a number of people who did nol share his enlhusiasm for lhe golden shore. As the saying went, they “had seen the elephanl” and were going home. But Hastings was seldom perturbed by opposition; and at any rate, a man could not always choose his traveling companions. So the party moved easl, over lhe Sierra and along the Humboldt River trail: a lrickle of humanity against the westward tide.
In Illinois, meanwhile, George and Jacob Donner, together with their friend James Frazier Reed, a local furniture manufacturer, prepared to join the more than two thousand emigrants who were starting for Oregon and California that spring. Mustering in Springfield on April 15, lhey made a buslling and prosperous confusion: women in homespun, impalienl to get started; whitetopped wagons; dogs; children; high-booted teamsters; the unruly herd of cattle and horses.
They were probably among the besl-ofFemigranls on lhe trail lhal year. The Donner brolhers—wilh their wives, with twelve children beiween ihem, and wilh four young men hired to help with the animals—were setting off wilh three wagons apiece: one packed with goods to be used for setting up trade and housekeeping in California; one loaded wilh supplies for lhe journey; and one Io live in. George Donner’s wife Tamsen was laking waler colors, oil painls, and “apparatus for preserving botanical specimens.” She was bringing books and school supplies for the young ladies’ seminary she planned to establish in California; and she was bringing a quilt into which she had sewn ten ihousand dollars in bank notes.
Reed, who was forty-six years old, who had served in the Black Hawk War with a would-be politician named Abraham Lincoln, and who had later done well for himself in the furniture business, had loaded his ihree wagons with all lhe luxuries of a successful life, including cushions, bunks, a stove, and a store of gourmet wines and brandies. Heading west in hopes of improving his prosperity, he was traveling with his wife, his ailing mother-in-law, four children, and five employees, all in their twenties and all Sangamon County neighbors: Baylis Williams, his sister Eliza, and three young men working their way west.
This was the company that set out from Springfield on April 16, heading west at last along the muddy Illinois springtime roads. At different stages along the trail, the caravan was lengthened by the wagons of other travelers, the numbers fluctuating as emigrant parties grouped and regrouped. There was Patrick Breen, for one. Rejoined up at Independence, bringing with him his wife, six sons, a daughter, and a friend named Patrick Dolan. Breen, a transplanted Irishman, had enjoyed enough success at farming on the Iowa side of the Mississippi Valley to be traveling with three wagons and his own substantial herd of horses and cattle.
Then there was an Illinois carriage maker named William Eddy with his wife and two children; and the Fosters; the Pikes; the Graveses; the Kesebergs and Wolfingers (both from Germany); the McCutchens; a cutler named Hardcoop, who was in his sixties; and various unattached young men. Among these last were a few who seem to have come along simply for the adventure.
But there were a number, among both the single men and the married, who neither shared the prosperity of the Donners and the Reeds nor were particularly adventuresome, but who hoped only to escape the hard times that had beaten down so many people in the Mississippi Valley during the depression of the late thirties and early forties. In the West, at least, a man might still be able to buy land cheaply and get a fair price for the fruits of his labor.
So they had headed for Independence. And having traveled first with one party then with another, as chance, convenience, and temperament seemed to dictate, they had fallen in at last with the Donners. One train, after all, was much like another. It was the people that made the difference. The numbers grew, and when the Donner Party was complete it contained a total of eighty-seven men, women, and children.