George Donner was one of the leaders of the infamous Donner Party that were migrating from the midwest to California when they were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
George was born of German descent in North Carolina around 1786. Later he moved to Kentucky before settling with his family just outside Springfield, Illinois. There, he worked as a farmer before deciding to join up with James Reed, who was leading a party to California. On April 14, 1846, George, his third wife, Tamsen, and their five daughters, began the journey westward. Also joining him was his brother Jacob, his wife, Elizabeth, and their seven children, as well as several hired hands.
The group followed the Oregon Trail until they reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming on July 28, 1846. There, they met a man named Lansford Hastings who told them about a quicker way to California via the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings claimed that his route would reduce some 300 miles from the distance to Sutter’s Fort. His short-cut left the California Trail at Fort Bridger, passed through the Wasatch Mountains, across the Great Salt Lake Desert, looped around the Ruby Mountains, and rejoined the California Trail about seven miles west of modern Elko, Nevada.
Hastings also promised them that the desert was only 40 miles across and that they would find water after 24 hours. However, the desert was actually 82 miles wide and water was only to be found after 48 hours of traveling. He also said that three wagon trains had already successfully traveled the route. This was untrue.
The Donner Party endured a grueling drive through the Wasatch Mountains that delayed them and arrived in California just as an early winter storm closed the trail. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, many died and some of the emigrants resorted to cannibalism. George died at his camp in the Alder Creek Valley in Nevada County, California in March 1847.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated February 2020.