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The Donner Party Tragedy

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Wagon Train

 

 

"My father, with tears in his eyes, tried

 to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last we were all  in the wagons. The drivers cracked their whips. The oxen moved slowly forward

 and the long journey had begun.''

 

-- Virginia Reed, daughter of James Reed

 

 

 

On April 16, 1846, nine covered wagons left Springfield, Illinois on the 2500 mile journey to California, in what would become one of the greatest tragedies in the history of westward migration. The originator of this group was a man named James Frasier Reed, an Illinois business man, eager to build a greater fortune in the rich land of California. Reed also hoped that his wife, Margaret, who suffered from terrible headaches, might improve in the coastal climate. Reed had recently read the book The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, by Landsford W. Hastings, who advertised a new shortcut across the Great Basin. This new route enticed travelers by advertising that it would save the pioneers 350-400 miles on easy terrain. However, what was not known by Reed was that the Hastings Route had never been tested, written by Hastings who had visions of building an empire at Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento.) It was this falsified information that would lead to the doom of the Donner Party.

Reed soon found others seeking adventure and fortune in the vast West, including the Donner family, Graves, Breens, Murphys, Eddys, McCutcheons, Kesebergs, and the Wolfingers, as well as seven teamsters and a number of bachelors.  The initial group included 32 men, women and children.

With James and Margaret Reed were their four children, Virginia, Patty, James and Thomas, as well as Margaret’s 70-year-old mother, Sarah Keyes, and two hired servants. Though Sarah Keyes was so sick with consumption that she could barely walk, she was unwilling to be separated from her only daughter. However, the successful Reed was determined his family would not suffer on the long journey as his wagon was an extravagant two-story affair with a built-in iron stove, spring-cushioned seats and bunks for sleeping. Taking eight oxen to pull the luxurious wagon, Reed’s 12-year-old daughter Virginia dubbed it "The Pioneer Palace Car.”

 

In nine brand new wagons, the group estimated the trip would take four months to cross the plains, deserts, mountain ranges and rivers in their quest for California. Their first destination was Independence, Missouri, the main jumping-off point for the Oregon and California Trails.

 

Also in the group were the families of George and Jacob Donner. George Donner was a successful 62-year-old farmer who had migrated five times before settling in Springfield, Illinois along with his brother Jacob. Obviously adventurous, the brothers decided to make one last trip to California, which unfortunately would be their last.

 

With George were his third wife, Tamzene, their three children, Frances, Georgia, and Eliza, and George's two daughters from a previous marriage, Elitha and Leanna. Jacob Donner, and his wife Elizabeth, brought their five children, George, Mary, Isaac, Samuel and Lewis, as well as Mrs. Donner's two children from a previous marriage, Solomon and William Hook.

 

Also along with them were two teamsters, Noah James and Samuel Shoemaker, as well as friend named John Denton. In the bottom of Jacob Donner's saddlebag was a copy of Lansford Hastings's Emigrant's Guide, with its tantalizing talk of a faster route to the garden of the earth.

 

Independence, Missouri

Ironically, on the very day that the Illinois party headed west from Springfield, Lansford Hastings prepared to head east from California, to see what the shortcut he had written about was really like.

 

The wagon train reached Independence, Missouri about three weeks later, where they re-supplied. The next day, on May 12, 1846, they headed west again in the middle of a thunderstorm. A week later they joined a large wagon train captained by Colonel William H. Russell that was camped on Indian Creek about 100 miles west of Independence. Along the entire journey, others would join the group until its size numbered 87.

 

On May 25th the train was held for several days by high water at the Big Blue River near present-day Marysville, Kansas. It was here that the train would experience its first death, when Sarah Keyes died and was buried next to the river. After building ferries to cross the water, the party was on their way again, following the Platte River for the next month.

Fort Laramie painting by Alfred Jacob MillerAlong the way, William Russell resigned as the captain of the wagon train and the position was assumed by a man named William M. Boggs. Encountering few problems along the trail, the pioneers reached Fort Laramie just one week behind schedule on June 27, 1846.

At Fort Laramie James Reed ran into an old friend from Illinois by the name of James Clyman, who had just traveled the new route eastwardly with Lansford Hastings. Clyman advised Reed not to take the Hastings Route, stating that the road was barely passable on foot and would be impossible with wagons; also warning him of the great desert and the Sierra Nevadas. Though he strongly suggested that the party take the regular wagon trail rather than this new false route, Reed would later ignore his warning in an attempt to reach their destination more quickly.

 

Joined by other wagons in Fort Laramie, the pioneers were met by a man carrying a letter from Lansford W. Hastings at the Continental Divide on July 11th. The letter stated that Hastings would meet the emigrants at Fort Bridger and lead them on his cutoff, which passed south of the Great Salt Lake instead of detouring northwest via Fort Hall (present-day Pocatello, Idaho.)

 

 

Continued Next Page

Donner Party Map

Donner Party Map, courtesy Donner Party Diary

 

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