"Now they headed across the salt flats towards Pilot’s Peak in the blinding sun from which there was no respite. The way was littered with bones of dead animals, not only oxen of the previous travellers but elk and mountain sheep which had misjudged the extreme aridity of the area. The remains of abandoned wagons too numerous to count underlined how strenuous and sapping was this part of the journey."
The Donner- Reed Party 1846
The Donner Party was led by George Donner and James Reed. Eighty seven people set off from Independence Missouri in May 1846 with twenty wagons. Later that month, James Reed's mother-in-law died next to the Blue River in Kansas. She was to be the first of large number of people to die on this journey. The party followed the Oregon Trail until they reached Fort Bridger on 28 July.
At Fort Bridger the Party’s leaders made a decision which would cost the Party dear. Reed and Donner were persuaded by Lansford Hastings to use a little known “cut off” which, he assured them, could save valuable time. This route involved crossing the Wasatch Mountains, round the Great Salt Lake to the south, then due west to the Humboldt River in Nevada, before returning to the main trail from Fort Hall. Hastings told them that the desert was only 40 miles across and that they would find water after 24 hours. It was in fact 82 miles wide and 48 hours before water could be found.
Although the Donner Party had not made good time they were on schedule, however the leaders feared that further delays would result in their way being barred by snow when they reached the Sierra Nevada. Following the first snowfall, usually in early November the way was impassible. Nevertheless their lack of urgency was reflected in their three day delay at Fort Bridger.
The Wagons left Fort Bridger on 31 July, taking the route towards the south , away from the Oregon Trail. They come out of Echo Canyon on 6 August , seven days later, whereas Hastings had said it would take only four. Again time was lost in camping at the Weber River while Hastings was pursued by Reed, Stanton and McCutcheon. Despite their entreaties Hastings now refused to guide them through the Wasatch Mountains, instead he drew a rough map of the new route.
Reaching the Mountains on 12 August they found the way barred by a tangled mess of Aspen and Cottonwood trees and undergrowth, and were left with no choice but to hack their way through. Large Boulders needed to be moved aside, and swampland has to be reinforced to enable the wagons to progress. Moving the wagons was a painfully slow and laborious process which sapped them physically, but perhaps more importantly, wore down their psychological reserves such that anxieties were stretched, especially as the realization came over the group that they were in serious danger of failing to reach the Sierra Nevada before the snows fell. They finally had to hack their way through dense willow thickets before emerging from the dense tangled mess of undergrowth.
It was 27 August before they began to cross the salt flats. They now numbered 27 wagons, having been joined by an extra three owned by the Graves family. The position was already desperate, for the Bryant Party which had preceded them had made it to the Great Salt Lake in six days. The Donner Party had taken twenty seven days.
Now they headed across the salt flats towards Pilot’s Peak in the blinding sun from which there was no respite. The way was littered with bones of dead animals, not only oxen of the previous travellers but elk and mountain sheep which had misjudged the extreme aridity of the area. The remains of abandoned wagons too numerous to count underlined how strenuous and sapping was this part of the journey. When night fell the drop in temperature gave some relief, but the next day the conditions were as hot and bleak as ever. As the days went by all discipline and cohesion left the group, whose wagons strung out in an ever increasingly straggly line. The Reed and Donner families fell behind as their wagons were heavier. Oxen, mad with thirst, died or had to be turned loose. Although there were no human fatalities, thirty-six oxen were lost in the crossing. Once again valuable time was lost as it had taken six days, twice as long as it should have. Not only this, but the lengthy crossing had taken its toll on the health and wellbeing – both physical and psychological of the emigrants. They were in bad shape.
After reaching Pilot Peak on 8 Sept Reed and Donner ditched some of the heavy goods and left three wagons behind in order to have more beasts to draw the remainder. After a tortuous ten days travel in hostile mountainous country with narrow ledges and deep precipitous ravines, on 18 September Charles Stanton and William McCutcheon were sent ahead to acquire more food as there were doubts about whether there was sufficient.
The remainder of the wagon train now headed down the south fork of the Humboldt River. By the time they regained the main Oregon Trail on the 30 September it was deserted, for other travellers had already crossed the mountains which barred their way. To make matters worse two oxen and two horses were stolen by ‘Diggers’. This name seems to have been applied by emigrants to groups of outcasts from the native American Shoshone, Bannock, Paiute or Gosiute nations who interacted with the emigrants along the trail.(see Mc Lynn, Wagons West page 333)
Tempers became frayed as the tired and anxious members of the group began to fear that they might not make the Sierra Nevada by the first snowfall. On 5 October, 1846 an argument broke out between James Reed and John Snyder (with the Graves family) had about which of their wagons should be first to ascend an incline. When Snyder lost his temper and hit him over the head with a bullwhip, Reed drew his knife and killed him with a blow below the collarbone. Although some of the group wanted to hang Reed for murder, he was banished from the wagon train on horseback, with no firearm to protect himself. It seems that one of his family or friends managed to circumvent this ruling.
Dissensions and arguments continued to break out, as the stress of the exhausting journey took its toll. A old Belgian called Hardkoop was left behind by Keseberg, his employer, and a wealthy German named Wolfinger disappeared. Neither were to be seen again. It seems that Wolfinger was robbed and murdered by two members of the group, one of whom later admitted to the crime when confronted about having Wolfinger’s rifle.
The next forty miles was desert. Further attacks by Diggers resulted in their oxen being stolen, killed or wounded so they were forced to abandon the wagons. The party reached the Truckee Lake at the end of October.
On 19 October Charles Stanton returned from Sutter's Fort trading post in California with seven mules laden with food. While McCutcheon had been taken ill upon arrival, Stanton came back with two native American guides. Ironically, Stanton told them that James Reed had made it to California.
Now the group were in a desperate race against time. Light snowfall reminded them of the consequences of not being able to cross the Sierra Nevada range. On 25 October a Paiute Digger shot nineteen oxen before being killed by William Eddy.
Three miles from the summit snowdrifts forced them to turn back. Some took refuge in a cabin at the foot of the mountain while others built log cabins or shelters nearby.
By now they were desperately short of food. The remaining animals were killed and eaten. They were unable to catch fish in a nearby river and hunting sorties during the next two weeks produced only one bear, a coyote, an owl and a grey squirrel. If they stayed where they were they would starve, so out of desperation another attempt to cross the summit was made on 12 November by some of the group. The psychological effect of their failure to pass ten foot drifts of snow must have been devastating. When they returned an air of hopelessness must have hung over the camp.
However, as the situation became more and more desperate a number of the stronger ones decided to make one last effort to cross the divide. On 16 December fifteen of them left the camp and headed for the summit. and, with better weather, they managed to cross the mountain pass. On the morning of 21 December Stanton was too weak to travel, being exhausted and severely affected by snow blindness. The others had to leave him behind to his fate.
The group now faced a great dilemma. Starving from lack of food they made little progress, for they were so weak. When some of their number died the survivors decided that, in order to survive they would have to eat the bodies of those who perished. On 26 December, out of food and too weak to continue, they built a fire and gained strength by eating their first human meal.
As they continued their journey hunger, fuelled by their recent meals of human flesh, led to talk of killing the two native American guides. Horrified by the idea, William Eddy warned them and they slipped away. However when they were discovered, weak and dying of starvation, William Foster killed them, which caused Eddy to declare that he could no longer travel with Foster.
There were now only eight of them left. They split into two factions, one led by Foster, the other by Eddy. Eddy, with Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick and Amanda McCutcheon were saved by the kindness of Paiute villages which they stumbled across, who fed them from their winter food supplies. One Paiute was engaged by William Eddy to act as a guide, and, miraculously, he reached Sutter’s Fort, the trading post in California at which James Reed had arrived earlier.
Reed organized a rescue party and brought in Eddy’s companions, together with Foster and his wife, although his sister did not survive.
On 31 January 1847 Daniel Tucker also led a relief force, although the dangerous conditions discouraged all but seven men from joining him, and they encountered ten foot snowdrifts.
They were followed on 7 February by William Eddy and James Reed, once he had returned with the survivors of the Eddy and Foster families.
After a nineteen day journey in the biting cold Tucker’s men emerged from the trail to the joy and relief of the remnants of those who had remained behind. They too had resorted to eating the dead, who had perished owing to starvation.
When Reed and Eddy’s rescue party arrive soon afterwards those strong enough to travel were accompanied to California, and those who remained were subsequently helped to safety by William Foster and William Eddy who returned to the Truckee Lake once more.
The Lake was renamed Donner Lake, while the pass became known as Donner Pass. Of the eighty seven emigrants and two guides who set off forty seven survived the ordeal.
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