THE DONNER PARTY
Remains of Donner-Reed wagons on the Salt Flats
Tragedy was no stranger to western trails, but the sad experience of
this ill-fated group has come to symbolize the hardships of all.
A large, well equipped wagon train rolled toward California in 1846. It
crossed the plains without difficulty, but as it neared Fort Bridger a dispute
arose. They had read Lansford Hastings' book, The Emigrants Guide to
Oregon and California which suggested a shorter route and advertised
that Hastings would guide those interested himself. The route- which headed
west from Fort Bridger through the Wasatch Mountains, around the southern
end of the Great Salt Lake, across the Salt Desert and on to the Humboldt
River-was untested by wagons. Still, many were inclined to take it.
The company split and the majority took the longer northern route. The smaller
division, joined by several small groups and individuals, headed for Hastings'
Cutoff. They were eighty-seven men, women and children with twenty wagons
led by Jacob Donner and James Reed.
At the Weber River they found a note from their guide telling them to turn
south and cut a road over the mountain, in the sarcastic words of Reed's
journal, "instead of the canyon which is impassible although 60 wagons
passed through." They camped there four days while Reed rode down the
Weber to find Hastings and obtain better guidance. Hastings was guiding
two other trains and declined to go back. However, he gave specific instructions
on the trail he had used two months earlier.
It was now 10 August and the new way looked shorter and less troublesome.
But instead of three days fighting over the Weber Canyon boulders, they
spent twelve cutting a road through brush and timber into the Salt Lake
Moving swiftly South of the Great Salt Lake, they paused one day to take
on water and grass, then plunged into the Great Salt Lake Desert on 30 August.
Driving day and night, they dared not stop. But the ground was evidently
softer than it had been for the preceding companies. The crossing took six
days rather than the two predicted by Hastings. Four of their wagons and
many of the animals were lost.
Knowing that time was now critical, they made a swift dash across Nevada,
but with no rest the stock could not make the pull over the Sierras before
early snows blocked the high passes in late October. Of the eighty-two,
forty-seven survived the starvation and cannabalism to be rescued by parties
coming east from Sutter's Fort in February and March, 1847. Thirty-five
perished in the snow and cold of the Sierra Nevadas, while five died before
they reached the mountains. Two Indians also lost their lives in the rescue
attempts. The Donner Party's fate insured that the Hastings cutoff would
not be used by later wagon trains. However the trail they cut through the
Wasatch Mountains was the main road into Utah for a decade.
See: Charles F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party, (1907, 1947);
George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: Story of the Donner Party, (1960);
and The California Trail, (1962).