The (not so) grand adventures of the Donner-Reed Party

Sierra Nevada mountains

DONNER MEMORIAL STATE PARK, Calif. – I was not expecting to enjoy the Sierra Nevada mountain range. I certainly wasn’t expecting a sudden, breath-catching passion. I throw around the word “awesome,” but this land, stretching from eastern California along the width of Nevada and kissing the edges of Utah, took hold of my heart and imagination and … twisted.

It is grey and brown with rare jewelled spots of green tented with blue and shadowed across the mountains with cloud. It is silent and barren and wild despite more than 150 years of development and human migration. As in South Dakota, you find the water by looking for trees – usually one lonely sentinel but now and again an oasis, as has grown around Donner Lake.

The name Donner rings a bell. You might know the story, or you might have vague recollections of a legend of starvation and cannibalism.

We considered, as we do when crossing wild regions like you find here, or in northern Ontario or Idaho and parts of Tennessee, what strength of character or what horrid conditions drove early settlers to cross the land. How pure their vision of paradise or gold on the other side must have been to think they could cut paths wide enough for wagon trains, and manage to feed and water their livestock and families on this unforgiving earth.

The Donner-Reed Party, conceived by James Reed, captained by George Donner and led astray by lazy mapmaker Lansford Hastings, left Illinois during the wet spring of 1846. The wagon train expanded as the group moved westward, numbering 87 by June, by which time the group was in Wyoming.

HastingsCutoffThe California Trail, sometimes called “the nation’s largest graveyard,” would have been an adventure in itself. Though already cut by hundreds of pioneers, it was still a dangerous trip north of Utah into parts of Idaho and across the Sierra Nevadas.

But there was this upstart, see, a fellow by the name of Hastings who claimed to have found a shortcut that would get the group to California more quickly. Against the advice of a friend in Laramie, Reed decided to use the untested Hastings Cutoff. (If you see similarities with our Hwy. 9 adventure to Santa Cruz, keep them to yourself).

Then it got worse. Hastings left a note for the Donner-Reed Party on the trail that went something along the lines of, “Oops. My bad. This trail wasn’t such a good idea. Try going thataway – it’ll be fine. I promise.”

They could have thrown up their hands right there and hightailed it back to Wyoming. They could have wintered in Laramie or started back on the California Trail, the precursor to the interstate. But no. They’d already wasted all this time, and Hastings had published The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, so obviously he knew what he was talking about, right?

They voted to follow Hastings’ new route, a trail they lost precious time carving into the wilderness. And more time, when they lost wagons and livestock in the punishing mud of Utah’s Salt Flats. More, when attacked by Indians.

Great Salt Flats Utah
It looks like snow, but this is the Great Salt Flats of Utah. A wonder to look at, beneath the salt is mud, treacherous for wagons and oxen.

It was late October when they began to cross the high Sierra. Incited by hunger, tempers flared, with Donner and Reed taking the brunt of it since Hastings, of course, was out of earshot – probably soaking his feet in the healing salt waters of the Pacific. Fresh supplies and a time out for a few days brought about a temporary peace. They moved on.

California! But not yet paradise. Not yet. They reached what would be called Donner Pass at the same time as the snow. The party had to stop because the snow would not – not until it reached 20 feet. They built cabins, raised tents and formed lean-tos. They were imprisoned by snow, The last of their oxen became an unsatisfying Thanksgiving meal. Their dogs were next.

By December, a small group decided to split off on snowshoes to get provisions and find help. Caught in a blizzard, what they found was death, starvation and, according to many reports, the first of many instances of survival cannibalism.

Donner State Park California
The area surrounding Donner Lake is idyllic.

Two men and five women made it through and by February the first of four rescue parties fought their way back to Donner Lake. The last member of the original 87 was found amid the mutilated remains of the last of the camp’s stranded travellers. He reached safety April 19, 1847, more than a year after the ill-fated adventure began.

At final count, 41 people had died, including George Donner. Forty-six survived to see to California, and one wonders what sort of joy they took in their safety. James Reed made it to the promised land, ending his days in San Jose. Hastings, who later authored The Emigrants Guide to Brazil, died in the Virgin Islands in 1870.

Donner Memorial State Park is near Truckee, Calif. The site offers camping, the Emigrant Trail Museum and several short, easy trails with guides or without. There is a small charge (well worth it).

Sources: Emigrant Trail Museum, Legends of America, History.com

Donner Party State Park memorial

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