- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
So in the end it came down to the word of one man against another: the word of Clyman, who had no more to his name than a pack and a horse and a timber claim in Wisconsin (and that probably worthless), against the word of a man who had written a book! No, Reed would go the way he had planned and the Donners would go with him. They were respectable men. They listened to respectable voices.
One chronicler, an Oregon-bound emigrant who took leave of the Donner Party a short time later, noted in his journal that “The Californians were generally much elated and in fine spirits, with the prospect of a better and nearer road to the country of their destination. Mrs. George Donner [Tamsen] was an exception. She was gloomy, sad, and dispirited, in view of the fact that her husband and others could think for a moment of leaving the old road and confide in the statement of a man of whom they knew nothing but who was probably some selfish adventurer.”
Yet the soundness of their judgment seemed only to be confirmed when, having trekked across the Wyoming desert and up the long slope to South Pass, Reed and the Donner brothers came down on the westward side of the Great Divide and rolled up to Jim Bridger’s ramshackle trading post. There they found that a large party of emigrants had already started westward over the new trail, with Hastings himself at its head. Bryant’s party, too, had stuck to its plan despite his misgivings and was taking the new route. Even better, here was Jim Bridger himself, one of the greatest mountain men of all, telling them just what they wanted to hear: that the new trail was open and easy, and that Hastings would be marking the route for those who followed.
Perhaps it was Bridger’s name, perhaps it was his manner, or perhaps it was their own anxieties and frustrations that prompted Reed and the Donner brothers to trust “Old Gabe” where they had failed to trust Clyman. In any case, their trust was misplaced. Bridger was lying. Why? Old Gabe had his reasons. Two years before, a new shortcut had been established between South Pass and Fort Hall—one that bypassed Fort Bridger and so threatened to put its proprietor out of business. If, by some fluke, Hastings and his followers did stumble on a new route out of Fort Bridger, why then Old Gabe stood to regain his share of the emigrant trade.
But the members of the Donner Party knew nothing of Bridger’s motives. They took him at his word. The matter was settled. After stopping a few days to rest the oxen, the party left Fort Bridger on the last day of July and headed west toward the Wasatch Range.
Meanwhile, the parties that had gone ahead were finding the trail infinitely more difficult than Hastings had led them to believe. Even Bryant and his friends, mounted though they were on mules, were almost beaten by the rugged canyons of the Wasatch, and they were half dead with thirst before they got across the Salt Desert.
For the party of wagons led by Hastings the journey was hellish. Called the Harlan-Young Party, after two of its captains, it consisted of four fragmentary trains totaling about sixty wagons. Having been delayed on the trail, and having found Hastings himself awaiting them at Fort Bridger, the leaders of the party had been persuaded to risk the new route in hopes of saving time. Hastings, confident as ever, had agreed to guide them. At last he had found his following. After that, his only problem was deciding where to lead them.
Hoping to find an easier route over the Wasatch than the one he and Clyman had traveled on their eastward journey, Hastings led them straight into the narrow canyon of the Weber River, where the wagons at times had to be alternately driven and floated in the river bed, and at other times, dragged up and over the sheer cliffs with a windlass. Once on the desert—eighty miles of glaring salt and sand instead of the forty that Hastings had promised—oxen died and wagons were abandoned. The sun wore down even the strongest men.
Eventually the party found its way to the Humboldt River. But instead of gaining time, the emigrants had lost nearly three weeks. Hastings’ cutoff had proved to be not only more difficult but also 125 miles longer than the Fort Hall route. When the Harlan-Young Party crossed the Sierra in early October the snow was already beginning to fly. They were the last party on the trail that year—except for that of the Donner brothers.
The Donner Party, now numbering its full complement of twenty-three wagons and eighty-seven people, had been running into delays almost from the time it had left Fort Bridger. Thirteen-year-old Eddie Breen broke his leg in a fall from a horse and needed tending. That took time. Then, at the head of Weber canyon, the party found a forked stick with a note stuck on it, instructing any that followed to send a messenger forward to Hastings, who would come back and personally direct them to a better route. So the party went into camp and Reed and two others rode ahead to find Hastings. Five days the party waited, while supplies dwindled and the season grew shorter. When Reed returned he was alone. The other men’s horses, he said, had broken down. Hastings had decided he must stay with the Harlan-Young Party, but from the top of a rise, he had pointed Reed a new path between the hazy peaks of the Wasatch.