Society of the Old West

From early westward expansion through the early 20th Century.

All the wild heavy winter weather around the country has brought back memories for me of the time when I lived in Truckee, California, back in the early 1990s, and we experienced a really heavy winter one year there as well.  Down at the bottom of the hill, where you turned onto the road that lead up to where I was living, was a monument to the Donner Party, along with a marker showing how high the snow was that winter.


The Donner Party story is one of the more tragic events in early pioneer history, and when I lived in Truckee, the local people often still talked about it.  I admit that prior to that time I'd never heard of the Donner party or their story.  I guess it's just not the kind of subject matter that makes it into grammar school textbooks.  I am presenting a "Reader's Digest" version of the events...


In April of 1846 James Reed and his family led a group of wagons west from Springfield, Illinois.  Among those in the caravan were two brothers, George and Jacob Donner, and their families.  Reed had a copy of a guide, published by Lansford W. Hastings titled, The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, which described a route through the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert.  It is unknown if Hastings had tested his "shortcut" before publishing his guide, although he was known to post letters along the route to advise travelers along their journey.  


By all accounts the beginning of the journey was pleasant and peaceful, but once the group turned southward to follow Hasting's Cutoff things began to hit the proverbial fan.  The terrain proved to be far more treacherous and difficult then they had bargained for, which cost them precious time while food and supplies for some families was beginning to dwindle. Reed's leadership was also being called into question.  Things went from bad to worse as the party tried to cross the Great Salt Lake Desert with wagon wheels getting stuck in the salt.  Eventually Reed was banished from the group after fatally wounding another member of the party during a brawl. Morale declined, horses and oxen ran away, Indians were raiding, groups of families were splintering off, and everyone hated Hastings.  It was one of those miserable trips where everything that could have possibly go wrong went wrong, and then some.


By late October the ragtag group arrived at Truckee Lake, just east of Fremont Pass, (known today as Donner Lake and Donner Pass.)  First they were told not to expect snow in the area until the middle of November, then more mishaps occured.  The axel on George Donner's wagon broke and he injured his hand while chopping wood. Then it began to snow.  Part of the group tried to leave but had to turn back because of the snow.  Other members of the group tried to get help, but they too had to turn back because of the snow.  Reed, who by now was at Sutter's Fort, also tried to bring in a rescue party but they too had to turn back due to the snow.  Short story long, the Donner Party built cabins and tried to hole up for the winter, but by then food and supplies had dwindled to virtually nothing.  This is where the story gets grizzly.  Even the mice that strayed into the cabins became food if any could could catch one. 


Once more a group tried to leave to get help.  Seventeen men, women and children left the camp wearing homemade snowshoes.  As the days passed and the group became weaker and more disoriented several members succumbed to exposure and starvation.  In desperation the unthinkable happened--cannibalism.


The first rescue group arrived at Donner Lake in February, 1847 and began the long and difficult journey of evacuating the first group through the mountains to Bear Valley.  By the time the second rescue group arrived, around the first of March, more evidence of cannibalism was found in at least two of the cabins.  The third and final rescue party left in mid March.  Tasmen Donner refused to leave her ailing husband, George, who had by then developed gangrene in his arm.  By that time his brother Jacob had also died and had been consumed by members of his own family.  When a salvage party arrived about a month later they discovered Lewis Keseberg, another immigrant who had stayed behind, had a pot of human remains in his cabin--those of Tasmen Donner, whom he claimed came to his cabin to tell him her husband had died and had died herself of natural causes later that night.  The salvage party was suspicious of his story and even threatened to lynch him.  He would later file a defamation suit against members of the rescue party who had accused him of murdering Mrs. Donner, but he would only be awarded $1 in damages and was ordered to pay the court costs.  He spent the remainder of his life as a pariah who was often threatened, as was Mr. Hastings. 


Of the 87 people who followed Jim Reed through Hastings Cutoff only 47 survived, and only the Reed and Breen families remained intact.  Historians have noted that those survivors had to make, "difficult choices."







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Ain't it amazing how that one can write a book and then be considered an expert, because he wrote a book????


There is a lesson to be learned from this chapter in history.

That's why I've never put myself out as a, "historian," even though I've written a series of children's historical novels.  I am a well-educated lay person.
Yes, Ma'am you certainly are.  I am only a puttering (sputtering) would be historian.  Your books are presented in a style that appeals not only to children.  It is hard to believe that Reed put so many at risk using an unproven route, in Hastings book.  Also, they should have heeded the warnings to start earlier.


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