- Historic Sites
The tragic journey of the Donner Party
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
Crossing the forty miles to the valley of the Great Salt Lake took the Donner Party fifteen days of almost unimaginable labor—of pushing aside boulders, hacking through trees and underbrush, bridging swamps and rivers, backtracking out of blind canyons, and dragging the wagons up one ridge after another. The road they cut was a good one—a godsend to the Mormons, who poured over it a year later. But, for their contribution, the men and women of the Donner Party paid dearly in time and energy.
The ordeal was taking its toll. Cumulative fatigue and a growing sense of the danger they faced was beginning to drive them apart. Reed was blamed for the bad trail, another man for not doing his share. Some no doubt blamed the consumptive waif named Halloran for eating but being too weak to work. But Halloran died, his head on Tamsen’s lap, and was buried near the trail.
The party went ahead as best it could and reached the oasis east of the Salt Desert at the beginning of September. Another note from Hastings: they should load up with all the grass and water they could carry, for the desert, instead of taking only one day to cross, would take two days and two nights.
The crossing took them six days and most of six nights, and it strained still further the sorry fabric of their morale. A few drove their teams hard, hoping to shorten the journey. Others went slowly, hoping to spare the animals and so insure they got across. Reed and the Donners fell far behind, their progress slowed by their fine wagons, so grandly laden with the comforts of home. Eventually they left the wagons and set off on foot, Reed carrying his three-year-old Tommy on his shoulders.
Everyone made it to the spring at the foot of Pilot Peak. No one died. But they had lost precious days in the crossing, and now they spent more days recuperating, searching for lost and dying cattle, and bringing up their wagons. Few of them had come through without some loss. A number, finding their herds reduced, set about lightening their loads. Reed, who had lost most of his cattle, had to abandon two of his opulent wagons and divide his gourmet delicacies among his companions. Lewis Keseberg left a wagon behind, and so did Jacob Donner, who had exchanged his solid prairie home and his wealth of Illinois land for wagons and teams and cash in hand. But one team was gone now. He had no choice. No matter how painful the decision, a wagon simply had to be left behind.
When they moved on again, September was almost half gone and they were at least a month away from the Sierra. But they had to keep going. They were too far along to turn back (it would have meant the desert again). Ahead, if they were lucky, the mountain passes might still be open. Yet already the fall chill was in the air, and one day, as they pushed on toward the Humboldt, the people of the Donner Party encountered a little desert snowstorm.
Meanwhile, beginning to fear that their food supplies would run out before they even got to the mountains, they sent two men ahead on horseback to appeal to Captain Sutter for provisions. One was young Charles Stanton, a bachelor; the other, a family man, William McCutchen, who left behind a wife and child. The rest pressed on and reached the main Humboldt River trail on September 30. Hoping to make better use of the sparse grass, the company had split into two sections and spread out, traveling a mile or so apart. The Donners led one group, Reed the other.
Everyone was on edge now. The most trifling matters sent men flying into senseless rages. It was an experience common to all parties on this last stretch of the trail, when the novelty of the trip had long since worn off and everyone was travel weary. But the toll was seldom as grievous as it now became for the Donner Party. Shortly after striking the main trail, Reed jumped into a quarrel between two teamsters and ended by killing one of them with a knife. Banished from the company (some had wanted him hanged), Reed rode off toward the mountains, leaving his wife and children in the care of his friends. A short time later, the old cutler Hardcoop fell behind and never caught up, and the men with horses refused to wear out their mounts by going back to look for him. Then another man mysteriously disappeared: the German Wolfinger, who was thought to be carrying a lot of money. Having lost most of his team on a difficult stretch of Nevada desert, he had stayed behind to cache his belongings. Two single men —partners, also from Germany—stayed to help, and returned in a few days with a story about how the Indians had killed Wolfinger and burned his outfit. (But later, on his deathbed, one of them confessed to the murder.)
By the time it reached the meadows at the foot of the Sierra, the Donner Party was a party no more, but a straggling collection of individuals bound by family ties alone. There were only a dozen or so wagons left. The great crate of books that was to be the germ of Tamsen Donner’s girls’ academy had been cached in the Nevada desert. Loosely guarded, the cattle wandered away or were driven off by “Diggers"—impoverished bands of desert Indians, most of them Paiutes. A gun went off by accident and a man was killed. William Eddy, who had lost all his stock, could find no one to take his children into a wagon.