- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
The trek was hard going right from the start. The emigrants were townspeople and farmers, not frontiersmen. They were used to having regular meals and a roof over their heads. For them, life on the trail took some getting used to. It was not just the strain of traveling for weeks at a time in an unknown country, but also of struggling with the cattle and of repairing broken wagons; of sleeping on the damp ground or on a hard wagon bed; of eating poorly; and of being soaked through by rain and blistered by the sun. Quarrels were frequent even in the first days of the journey. Illness, too, was commonplace: colds, bronchitis, agues, bouts of diarrhea. Reed’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Sarah Keyes, aged and feeble, lasted only a few weeks. She was buried under an oak near the Big Blue River in May.
The Donners and their friends were faring neither better nor worse than most bands of emigrants on the trail that spring. Indeed, they were even managing to enjoy themselves a little. Having joined an enormous train of seventy-two wagons (itself a conglomerate of smaller trains), they found in that village on wheels as much congenial company as they wished—more even than they had known at home. There were sewing circles, glee clubs, debating societies, open-air church services on Sundays, the pleasant rituals of the campfire, and any number of playmates for the children. And they enjoyed as much as anyone the ample beauties of the springtime prairie—that luxurious rolling plain of grass and wildflowers, where diarists waxed eloquent at the thought of “prairie schooners” sailing gracefully upon an emerald sea.
But as they climbed the long slope toward the Rockies, a subtle change occurred. The heat of summer was coming on and enthusiasm was giving way to boredom and a gnawing anxiety. The country, too, was different now. Instead of the broad, smooth prairie highway, the wagons had to be pulled through a hard, dry land that was cut up by ravines and dusty alkaline hills. Water and grass had grown scarce, and now there were Indians to worry about. This was Pawnee country, and a man had to be constantly on his guard to prevent his cattle from being driven off or himself from falling behind and becoming a victim of a Pawnee raiding party. Tempers flared and quarrels turned into fist fights. The big parties began splitting up.
Then came new frustrations. Just east of Fort Laramie the now fragmented party to which the Donners were attached met up with a grubby old wanderer named James Clyman, who told them that Hastings’ route was a mistake. Clyman, it turned out, was an old friend of James Reed: a mountain man who had first crossed the Missouri in 1823, had later settled in Illinois and Wisconsin, and had been in the same company as Reed (and Lincoln) during the Black Hawk War. Restlessness had turned his needle for California in 1844. But this spring of 1846, satisfied that there was little promise in the Promised Land, he had started for home, traveling east with Lansford Hastings over the very trail the emigrants were planning to take.
That trail, Clyman had found, was appallingly difficult even on horseback. Hastings was waiting at Fort Bridger to tell the emigrants otherwise. But Clyman, nominating himself a one-man safety committee, was riding ahead to warn everyone he met against taking the supposed shortcut. Now, on this night of June 27, 1846, he found himself sitting beside an emigrant campfire, telling his friend Reed and a number of other wagon captains (including, probably, George and Jacob Donner) about the terrible country they would encounter if they took Hastings’ route. Clyman’s advice (as he later recalled in his journal) was for the emigrants to stick to the regular wagon route. “It is barely possible to get through if you follow it,” he told them, “and may be impossible if you don’t.”
No one welcomed the news. It was too disheartening to think of stretching their tedious journey still further by making the long swing north to Fort Hall. Besides, they were already beginning to feel the pressure of time. By their constant quarreling and reorganizing, by taking time out for fishing and sight-seeing and fist fights, they had fallen behind schedule. After two months of travel they were barely a third of the way to California. At this rate, they would not get to the Sierra until the end of October, when they would be running low on provisions and when the mountain passes were likely to be blocked by snow. Fear of such a prospect had already prompted one of those at the campfire, a Louisville newspaperman named Edwin Bryant, to trade his wagon and oxen for mules and packsaddles. Several of his companions had done likewise.
Bryant put Clyman down for a liar, suspecting ulterior motives, though he had no idea what they might be. Another wagon captain, an old Santa Fe trader and former governor of Missouri named Lilliburn Boggs, took just the opposite view. Impressed by Clyman’s report, he decided to take his party to Oregon by way of Fort Hall. But Reed held out. Did Hastings’ book count for nothing? And all those months of planning? Tense and irritable, Reed spoke up: “There is a nigher route,” he insisted, “and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.”