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Donner Party - Page 3



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From September 10th through the 25th, the party followed the trail into Nevada around the Ruby Mountains, finally reaching the Humboldt River on September 26th. It was here that the "newĒ trail met up with Hastingís original path. Having traveled an extra 125 miles through strenuous mountain terrain and dry desert, the disillusioned partyís resentment of Hastings, and ultimately, Reed, was increased tremendously.


The Donner Party soon reached the junction with the California Trail, about seven miles west of present-day Elko, Nevada and spent the next two weeks traveling along the Humboldt River. As the disillusionment of the party increased, tempers began to flare in the group.


Ruby Mountains

Ruby Mountains


James ReedOn October 5th at Iron Point, two wagons became entangled and John Snyder, a teamster of one of the wagons began to whip his oxen. Infuriated by the teamsterís treatment of the oxen, James Reed ordered the man to stop and when he wouldn't, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed the teamster in the stomach, killing him. The Donner Party wasted no time in administering their own justice. Though member, Lewis Keseberg, favored hanging for James Reed, the group, instead, voted to banish him. Leaving his family, Reed was last seen riding off to the west with a man named Walter Herron.

The Donner Party continued to travel along the Humboldt River with their remaining draft animals exhausted. To spare the animals, everyone who could, walked. Two days after the Snyder killing, on October 7th, Lewis Keseberg turned out a Belgian man named Hardcoop, who had been traveling with him. The old man, who could not keep up with the rest of the party with his severely swollen feet, began to knock on other wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen sitting under a large sage brush, completely exhausted, unable to walk, worn out, and was left there to die.

The terrible ordeals of the caravan continued to mount, when on October 12th, their oxen were attacked by Piute Indians, killing 21 one of them with poison tipped arrows, further depleting their draft animals.

Continuing to encounter multiple obstacles, on October 16th, they reached the gateway to the Sierra Nevada on the Truckee River (present day Reno) almost completely depleted of food supplies. Miraculously, just three days later on October 19th, one of the men the party had sent on to Fort Sutter -- Charles Stanton, returned laden with seven mules loaded with beef and flour, two Indian guides, and news of a clear, but difficult path through the Sierra Nevada. Stantonís partner, William McCutchen had fallen ill and remained at the fort. The caravan camped for five days 50 miles from the summit, resting their oxen for the final push. This decision to delay their departure was yet one more of many that would lead to their tragedy.


October 28th, an exhausted James Reed arrived at Sutterís Fort, where he met William McCutchen, now recovered, and the two men began preparations to go back for their families.


In the meantime, while the wagon train continued to the base of summit, George Donnerís wagon axle broke and he fell behind the rest of the party. Twenty two people, consisting of the Donner family and their hired men, stayed behind while the wagon was repaired. Unfortunately, while cutting timber for a new axle, a chisel slipped and Donner cut his hand badly, causing the group to fall further behind.

As the rest of the party continued to what is now known as Donnerís Lake, snow began to fall. Stanton and the two Indians who were traveling ahead made it as far as the summit, but could go no further. Hopeless, they retraced their steps where five feet of new snow had already fallen.

With the Sierra pass just 12 miles beyond, the wagon train, after attempting to make the pass through the heavy snow, finally retreated to the eastern end of the lake, where level ground and timber was abundant.  At the lake stood one existing cabin and realizing they were stranded, the group built two more cabins, sheltering 59 people in hopes that the early snow would melt, allowing them to continue their travels.

The 22 people with the Donners were about six miles behind at Alder Creek. Hastily, as the snow continued, the party built three shelters from tents, quilts, buffalo robes and brush to protect themselves from the harsh conditions.

At Donner Lake, two more attempts were made to get over the pass in twenty feet of snow, until they finally realized they were snowbound for the winter. More small cabins were constructed, many of which were shared by more than one family. The weather and their hopes were not to improve. Over the next four months, the remaining men, women, and children would huddle together in cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents.


Continued Next Page


The Donner party stranded in the Sierra Nevada Range, 1847

The Donner Party stranded in the Sierra Nevada

Range, 1847 Photo courtesy: True Tales of the West,

(Castle Books, 1985)


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