Donner Party: Emigrant tragedy

Notice of the Donner Party's departure, published in the April 23, 1846, Sangamo Journal

Notice of the Donner Party’s departure, published in the April 23, 1846, Sangamo Journal

The Donner Party left Springfield to emigrate to California on April 14, 1846, but became stranded in deep snow near present-day Truckee, Calif. The group’s experience is remembered today primarily because, before the surviving members of the expedition were rescued, some of the snowbound pioneers reportedly resorted to cannibalism. A plaque on the south side of the Old Capitol Plaza marks their departure point today.

The Donner Party (also known as the Donner-Reed Party) numbered anywhere from 32 to 39 people when it left Springfield, with the nucleus being the families of George and Tamzene (Tamsen) Donner, Jacob Donner (George’s brother) and his wife, Elizabeth, and James and Margaret Reed. George Donner previously had owned a farm near Mechanicsburg. Reed served with Abraham Lincoln during the Blackhawk War and had operated a furniture factory near what is now Riverton.

James and Margaret Reed

James and Margaret Reed

In her 1891 memoirs, Virginia Reed, a daughter of James and Margaret Reed, recalled the company’s departure:

Never can I forget the morning when we bade farewell to kindred and friends. The Donners were there, having driven in the evening before with their families, so that we might get an early start. Grandma Keyes was carried out of the house and placed in the wagon on a large feather bed, propped up with pillows. Her sons implored her to remain and end her days with them, but she could not be separated from her only daughter. We were surrounded by loved ones, and there stood all my little schoolmates who had come to kiss me good-by. My father with tears in his eyes tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last the drivers cracked their whips, the oxen moved slowly forward and the long journey had begun. … Many friends camped with us the first night out and my uncles traveled on for several days before bidding us a final farewell. It seemed to be strange to be riding in ox-teams, and we children were afraid of the oxen, thinking they could go wherever they pleased as they had no bridles.

A wagon-train trek to California in 1846 was a daunting journey under the best of circumstances, but the Donner-Reed group’s fatal mistake was to disregard warnings and leave the traditional California path to take an untested route known as the Hastings Cutoff. Promoted as a relatively easy shortcut, the Hastings cutoff instead routed the 80-plus pioneers through rugged, ill-marked terrain, much of it desert.

Donner Pass in later years

Donner Pass in later years

Taking the cutoff cost the party a month’s progress, which meant the group entered the Sierra Nevada Mountains in early November – too late in the year, as it turned out. Strung out along the trail, the Donner Party was forced to stop near Truckee Lake by as much as 10 feet of snow. Hunting was nearly impossible, and many of the group’s horses and oxen, their only other food source, were lost in snowdrifts. The stranded travelers gradually were left with only hides to eat – and then, reputedly, the flesh of their comrades.

A few members of the party struggled through what is now Donner Pass on their own, and a series of rescue parties gradually brought out the last survivor in April. Figures differ, but of the 87 people who entered the pass, only about 48 lived to see Sutter’s Fort.

Those of the original Springfield group who died in the mountains included: George and Tamsen Donner; Jacob and Elizabeth Donner and their sons Isaac, Lewis and Samuel, along with Elizabeth’s son from a previous marriage, William Hook; and Bayless (or Baylis) Williams, Milford (Milt) Elliott, James Smith, Samuel Shoemaker and John Denton. (Sarah Keyes, Margaret Reed’s mother, died earlier, on the trail in Kansas.)

The site of the tragedy now is part of Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee, California. The park contains the Emigrant Trail Museum, and The Donner Camp site at Alder Creek is a National Historic Landmark.

More information

Literature on the Donner Party is extensive. On the Internet, the University of New Mexico has a good summary of the tragedy along with a demographic analysis of Donner Party deaths. For the 150th anniversary of the Donner-Reed trek, Daniel Rosen created a daily diary of the Donner Party’s travels for the entire period from April 1846 to April 1847.

Two popular book accounts are Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party by George Stewart (first edition 1936, updated in 1960) and, in particular, Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick (2008), which reports on recently uncovered evidence and adds context to the basic horror story.  Michael Wallis’s The Best Land Under Heaven: The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny (2017) posits that Abraham Lincoln may have been tempted to join the Donners on their trek west.

Documentarian Ric Burns produced a 90-minute film on the Donner Party for PBS’s American Experience in 1992. bridge

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10 Responses to Donner Party: Emigrant tragedy

  1. Chloe Kerrigan says:

    Hi, my name is Chloe Kerrigan. My partner and I are doing a National History Day project over the Donner Party, and we were wondering if you would be interested in answering a few questions for us. There will be no more than five or six questions. If you’re interested, please email me back. Thank you for your time.

    Chloe Kerrigan and Scout Rigsby

    • editor says:

      Chloe/Scout: I’ll answer by email too, but I have to say I’m not an expert on the Donner Party. Bill Springer of Metairie, La., curator of the Donner-Springer Family Collection, would be a much better bet for you. I’ll send you his contact information separately. Thanks for asking.

  2. michelle burris says:

    Approximately 30 years ago I came into possession of 4 chairs from a woman who lived in a house built in early to 1800’s located in Loomis, CA, about 25 miles north east of Sacramento. She told me they were the only surviving pieces of furniture from the Donner Party. Of course I have no knowledge if this is true but have no reason to doubt her as they were a gift and she wanted them protected (another story in itself). Do you know if there was actually any furniture that survived?

    • editor says:

      Ms. Burris: I guess it’s possible, but I think very unlikely, that any furniture survived from the people who were trapped in the mountains. For starters, they abandoned all but the most vital necessities to lighten their wagons before they got caught in the snow. Even if they kept some furniture all the way to Donner Pass, Michael Wallis’ recent book, Best Land Under Heaven, notes that wood as well as food was scarce for the trapped groups; it seems likely that any remaining furniture would have been burnt during their struggle for survival.

      Certainly, none of the rescue parties brought any furniture out with them; they barely got some of the survivors through. If those are Donner chairs, someone would have had to salvage them later.

      Some wagons did split off from the Donners before they were caught in the snow. I suppose it’s possible your friend’s furniture could have come from them, so it would have been tangentially connected. Or maybe someone else scavenged furniture the Donner Party abandoned en route. But in that case, I don’t know how they could have verified the original owners.

      It’s a great story, but I’m going to guess it’s apocryphal. Thanks for asking.

  3. Caryl Ruckert says:

    Hi. I am a Donner party descendant. George Jacob Donner (son of Jacob and Elizabeth) born in Sangamon County in 1836 (age 11 at rescue) is my great-great-great grandfather. We have a family heirloom that was passed down from him and eventually to my mother. Family history says that is carried from Illinois in the wagon train. It is a sterling silver condiment stand/server. Any advice on researching this?


    • editor says:

      Caryl: That sounds like a tough job. The Donners didn’t have much left by the time rescuers finally got to them. But you might try contacting Michael Wallis, author of the most recent Donner Party history, The Best Land Under Heaven. He did a LOT of research and might be able to point you in some promising directions. He’s on Facebook; I think you can contact him there. Good luck.

  4. Carolyn Johnson says:

    The Indifferent Stars Above by Daniel James Brown is an excellent nonfiction narrative resource, as well. The research is extensive, including personal visits to parts of the trail that were traveled at specific seasons of the year. Highly readable; very interesting.

  5. Carolyn Johnson says:

    Are the historical sites marked in the places that the Reeds and Donners lived before they took off? I’m more interested in their lives prior to the journey…I want to know more about them than just the tragic part. I’d also like to find out if any of my relatives might have lived near them or had reason to know them.

  6. Cynthia says:

    There is an historical marker in Oak Hill cemetery off of route 36 between Springfield and Riverton. As soon as you go into the main entrance where the office is located, go slow and look to your left. It is maybe 75 feet or so from road.
    When growing up in the area, we were given literature known as, ” Lincoln Trails” at school. It highlighted many historical facts of that area. I do remember it well. We were always told the Donner Party from this area started there. Nice they put a memorial as remembrance.

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