Simple farmers, George and Jacob Donner set out in wagons from Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1846.
Simple farmers, George and Jacob Donner set out in wagons from Springfield, Ill., in the spring of 1846. The party consisted of the two families, along with the James F. Reed family and a hand full of adventure seeking young men – 32 persons in all, half of them children. Their destination was the lush green valleys of California west of the Sierras.
Today, Interstate 80 (U.S. 40) crosses the Sierra Nevada Mountains at Donner Pass, 100 miles east of Sacramento. At the eastern base of the mountain pass is a monument erected in memory of the ill-fated Donner Party.
Heavy-laden moist air rolls in off of the Pacific Ocean across the San Francisco Bay and is forced to rise high in the air when it lays up against the side of the High Sierras, creating some of the deepest snow falls in the United States.
The California bound Donner party headed west out of Illinois reaching, Independence on May 11 and setting up camp on the edge of town. Tremendous preparations were under way everywhere as the larger overland caravans were forming for the trek across the plains, and the Donners had high hopes of joining up with one of them.
Someone suggested if they hurried they could catch up with a caravan headed by William Russell that had recently pulled out of town. The Donner’s were eager to get under way and broke camp early the next morning, heading out across the plains where they managed to catch up with Russell not far from Manhattan, Kan. After joining up with his caravan, the Donner party was spurred with added zest as they basked in the pleasantness of the unique Kansas terrain with its rich spring greenery.
The Donner party may very well have made a safe trip if not for a letter handed them along the way by another Oregon-bound wagon train. They had intended to travel the familiar Fremont Route directly to San Francisco, but the open letter written by Lansford W. Hastings advised all California emigrants to take a new route, which Hastings had explored from Fort Bridger by way of the Salt Lake Desert saving nearly 500 miles.
The Donners were not the only ones bound for California, so a total of 89 pioneers broke off from the Russell caravan at Little Sandy River in Western Wyoming and headed toward Utah. As the slow miles unfolded the problems began, as hostile, thieving Indians, took a toll on the party, stealing food supplies and cattle during the night. Water was non-existent along the salt laden Humboldt River in Nevada and the weather began to fall apart on them. They had to cross over the Sierras before the heavy winter snows began or they would be doomed. By the time they reached the foot of the mountains it was late October and their rations were depleted.
Page 2 of 2 - The worst tragedy in emigrant history began when they were dumped on by an unusually early snowfall at the base of the mountain pass. They were forced to set up a winter camp in the worst possible place they could be. They built crude shelters of logs, rocks, and cow hides. They ate twigs, mice, their animals, their shoe leather, and finally their own dead. They were covered by 22 feet of snow before the winter was over.
Only 42 of them survived and were rescued, the rest of them perished from hypothermia and starvation, including 56-year-old Jacob Donner and his wife, Elizabeth, and four of their children. Sadly, 60-year-old George Donner and his wife, Tamzine, also died.
Reference: The Donner Party by Daniel M. Rosen.
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