The Tragic Westward Hike of the Donner Camp
The Donner-Reed wagon train consisted of roughly twenty manned vehicles. Among these men were George Donner, Jacob Donner, James Reed, Patrick Breen, William McCutcheon, and William Eddy. Additionally, Donner employed three teamsters, while Reed hired five other non-union members. The party also included associated members, such as William Foster’s wife and child, William Pike’s wife and two children, and Charles T. Stanton, a lone traveler. Some foreign members traversed with the group, including Lewis Keseberg’s wife, children, and employees.
The Donner-Reed wagon train departed from Independence, Missouri early in May of 1846. James Reed’s mother-in-law passed away near the Blue River located in Kansas. She was the first party member to die on this tragic journey. The Donner-Reed party traversed along the Oregon Trail until reaching Fort Bridger on the 28th of July.
The Donner-Reed party met Landsford Hastings upon arriving at the fort’s destination. Landsford Hastings devised an alternative route for Oregon-bound emigrants moving from California, claiming that this route would remove three hundred miles from Sutter’s Fort. This alternative route became known as the Hastings Cutoff. The route’s coordinates consisted of crossing the Wasatch Mountains, encircling the Great Salk Lake and then moving toward the Humboldt River located in Nevada.
Landsford Hastings informed route members that the desert stretched only forty miles across. Therefore, the party needed to beware of a water shortage for about twenty four hours at the very least. The desert was eighty two miles wide, which meant that party members could not find water until after about forty eight hours of traveling. Landsford Hastings informed Donner and Reed that three wagon trains would depart using this route.
The Donner-Reed party was trailing behind schedule from Independence to Sutter’s Fort. The party members were required to cross the Sierra Nevada before the snowstorms blocked their path to Sutter’s Fort, which usually occurred in early November. This caused other concerns for the party members, which prompted the wagon trail to opt for the Hastings Cutoff.
The Donner-Reed party departed Fort Bridger on the 31st of July; however, the group did not leave Echo Canyon until the 6th of August. The party members underestimated the total number of days the route required to complete. Landsford Hastings advised the group to rest near the Weber River, and wait until one of the party members found Hastings for more information on an alternative route. Once James Reed and Charles T. Stanton found Hastings, he bluntly refused to guide the Donner wagon train along their journey. Instead, Hastings sketched a blueprint of the new route, and assured the party of its overall safety.
The Donner-Reed party arrived in the Wasatch Mountains on the 12th of August. The party members discovered thick brushes consisting of aspen, cottonwood, and entangled undergrowth. The group had to chop through the brush, dislodge and remove boulders, and construct causeways to cross wetlands in order to reach the Great Salt Lake. The Donner-Reed wagon trains joined the Graves’ family on their journey.
The tumultuous start of the journey had only begun. On the 27th of August, the party members had to cross the Salt Desert. The party members realized their shortage of time, and knew that the winter snowstorms would soon block their path. The Donner-Reed wagon trains fell behind the faster they pushed through the brush. The party members finally reached Pilot Peak on the 8th of September; however, the group was forced to abandon some of their supplies and increase the number of oxen that pulled their remaining wagons toward the Humboldt River.
On the 30th of September, the party members arrived at the trail stretching from Fort Hall to Sutter’s Fort. The 1846 wagon trains already departed to California. The Donner-Reed party had brought unwanted attention when the group stole two oxen and horses from the Paiute. The tribe members also stormed the wagon train and killed some of the animals. The Donner-Reed party had another skirmish between two members of their own assembly, including James Reed and John Snyder. Both members had started an argument about one of the wagon trains, which resulted in Snyder whipping Reed over the head. In retaliation, Reed fatally wounded Snyder with his knife. The Donner-Reed party banished Reed from the wagon train as a punishment.
The Donner-Reed party encountered repeated attacks from rogue warriors along the forty miles of desert. These bandits pillaged, murdered, and injured the group’s oxen. The party members abandoned their wagon trains before reaching the Trucklee Lake near the end of October. Charles T. Stanton supplied the party with seven mules loaded with food on their backs on the 19th of October. He was guided by two Indians who were familiar with the route. He also discovered that James Reed successfully completed the route to California.
The Donner-Reed party members traversed across the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and encountered several snow flurries along the way. On the 25th of October, a lone Paiute warrior killed William Eddy and 19 oxen. The emigrants decidedly trudged through the snow-covered route, eventually stopping to seek cover in a cabin near the mountain. The party members also constructed a camp at what would later be named Donner Lake.
The party members encountered a severe food shortage, which prompted the group to kill the remaining animals. The group failed to catch fish in the river, and only managed to bring down one bear, one coyote, one owl, and one squirrel, while hunting near the camp. The party members departed on the 12th of November, because it became increasingly evident that the surrounding land would not provide the much needed food; however, the group was blocked by ten feet of snow on their way to Sutter’s Fort. This forced the party members to return back to Donner Lake.
On the 16th of December, fifteen members decided to leave the camp and trek the summit. Due to favorable weather conditions, the Forlorn Horn group successfully trekked the summit to their destination. Now led by William Eddy, the remaining party members abandoned camp and left Stanton to die alone. In order to survive, the group resorted to cannibalism, eating the limbs of four individuals who passed away. The two Indian guides left the group upon discovering a plot to kill them for food; however, William Foster chased and murdered the men on their way out. The remaining group regained strength after their departure and managed to kill deer to supply meat for the remaining men.
On the 12th of January, the remaining party reached a Paiute village, where they were fed corn meal and pine nuts for nourishment. In exchange, Eddy gave a warrior some tobacco if he guided them along the rest of the route. Eddy’s group finally reaches his destination with the aid of the Indian guide. Upon arrival at Sutter’s Fort, Eddy and Reed organized several relief groups to find the remaining party members. Many members refused to undertake the dangerous task, while others gladly accepted the invitation, and cash incentive. After completing the rescue relief missions, the group discovered that a total of 47 travelers, out of the initial party of 89 plus two guides, survived the brutal route.
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By: Jennifer Frost