Pathways To the West

“We are now four hundred and fifty miles from Independence. Our route at first was rough and through a timbered country, which appeared to be fertile. After striking the prairie, we found a first-rate road, and the only difficulty we have had has been in crossing the creeks. In that, however, there has been no danger.

“I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and the Platte Rivers is beautiful beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country, so suitable for cultivation. Everything is new and pleasing; the Indians frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet, what can I say?

“Since we have been on the Platte, we have had the river on one side and the ever-varying mounds on the other and have traveled through the bottomlands from one to two miles wide, with little or no timber. The soil is sandy, and last year, on account of the dry season, the emigrants found grass here scarce.

“Our cattle are in good order, and when proper care has been taken, none have been lost. Our milk cows have been of great service, indeed. They have been of more advantage than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.

George Donner

George Donner

“We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner is himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, “Chain up, boys — chain up,” with as much authority as though he was “something in particular.” John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in the camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that are not so good.

“Buffalo show themselves frequently. We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop, the larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the bloom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as a small sugarloaf, and of every variety of shade, to red and green.

“I botanize and read some, but cook “heaps” more. There are four hundred and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and Oregon and California.

“Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them.

“Yours truly, Mrs. George Donner.”

By the Fourth of July, the Donner Party had reached Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They pushed west over the old trail up the Sweetwater River and across the South Pass, the easiest of all the mountain passes known to the early travelers. Without many adventures, they reached Fort Bridger, then only a trading post. Here occurred the fatal mistake of the Donner Party.

Someone at the fort strongly advised them to take a new route; a cut-off said to shorten the distance by about three hundred miles. This cut-off passed along the south shore of Great Salt Lake and caught up the old California Trail from Fort Hall, Idaho — then well established and well known along the Humboldt River.

The great Donner caravan delayed for some days at Fort Bridger, hesitating over which route to follow. The party divided. All those who took the old road north of Salt Lake by way of Fort Hall reached California in complete safety. Of the original Donner Party, there remained eighty-seven persons. All of these took the cut-off, being eager to save time in their travel. They reached Salt Lake after unspeakable difficulties. Further west, in the deserts of Nevada, they lost many of their cattle.

Now began among the party dissensions and grumblings. The story is a long one. It reached its tragic denouement just below the summit of the Sierras, on the shores of Donner Lake. The words of McGlashan may now best serve our purpose.

“Generally, the ascent of the Sierra brought joy and gladness to weary overland emigrants. To the Donner Party, it brought terror and dismay. The company had hardly obtained a glimpse of the mountains, ere the winter storm clouds began to assemble their hosts around the loftier crests. Every day the weather appeared more ominous and threatening. The delay at the Truckee Meadows had been brief, but every day ultimately cost a dozen lives.

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

“On the twenty-third of October, they became thoroughly alarmed at the angry heralds of the gathering storm, and with all haste, resumed the journey. It was too late! At Prosser Creek, three miles below Truckee, they found themselves encompassed with six inches of snow. On the summits, the snow was from two to five feet in depth. This was October 28, 1846. Almost a month earlier than usual, the Sierra had donned its mantle of ice and snow. The party was prisoners!

“All was consternation. The wildest confusion prevailed. In their eagerness, many went far in advance of the main train. There was little concert of action or harmony of the plan. All did not arrive at Donner Lake the same day. Some wagons and families did not reach the lake until the thirty-first day of October; some never went farther than Prosser Creek, while others, on the evening of the twenty-ninth, struggled through the snow and reached the foot of the precipitous cliffs between the summit and the upper end of the lake. Here, baffled, wearied, disheartened, they turned back to the foot of the lake.”

These emigrants did not lack health, strength, or resolution, but here they were in surroundings absolutely new to them. A sort of panic seized them now. They scattered; their organization disintegrated. All thought of conjoint action, of a social compact, a community of interests, seems to have left them. It was a history of every man for himself, or at least every family for itself. All track of the road was now lost under the snow. At the last pitch up to the summit of the Sierra’s precipitous cliffs abounded. No one knew the way. And now the snows came once again.

“The emigrants suffered a thousand deaths. The pitiless snow came down in large, steady masses. All understood that the storm meant death. One of the Indians silently wrapped his blanket about him and, in deepest dejection seated himself beside a tall pine. In this position, he passed the entire night, only moving occasionally to keep from being covered with snow. Mrs. Reed spread down a shawl, placed her four children — Virginia, Patty, James, and Thomas — thereon, and putting another shawl over them, sat by the side of her babies during all the long hours of darkness. Every little while, she was compelled to lift the upper shawl and shake off the rapidly accumulating snow.

“With slight interruptions, the storm continued for several days. The mules and oxen that had always hovered about camp were blinded and bewildered by the storm, and straying away, were literally buried alive in the drifts. What pen can describe the horror of the position in which the emigrants found themselves? It was impossible to move through the deep, soft snow without the greatest effort. The mules were gone and were never found. Most of the cattle had perished and were wholly hidden from sight. The few oxen which were found were slaughtered for beef.”

The travelers knew that the supplies they had could not last long. On the 12th of November, a relief party essayed to go forward, but after struggling a short distance toward the summit, came back wearied and broken-hearted, unable to make way through the deep, soft snow. Then someone — said to have been F. W. Graves of Vermont — bethought himself of making snowshoes out of the oxbows and the hides of the slaughtered oxen. With these, they did better.

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

Volunteers were called for yet another party to cross the mountains into California. Fifteen persons volunteered. Not all of them were men — some were mothers, and one was a young woman. Their mental condition was a little short of desperation. Only, in the midst of their intense hardships, it seemed to all, somewhere to the westward was California, and that there alone lay any hope. The party traveled four miles the first day, and their campfires were visible below the summit. The next day they traveled six miles and crossed the divide.

They were starving, cold, worn out, their feet frozen to bursting, their blood chilled. At times they were caught in some of the furious storms of the Sierras. They did not know their way. On the 27th of December, certain of the party resolved themselves to that last recourse which alone might mean life. Surrounded by horrors as they were, it seemed they could endure the thought of yet an additional horror… There were the dead, the victims who already had perished!

Seven of the fifteen got through to the Sacramento Valley, among these the young girl, Mary Graves, described as “a very beautiful girl, of tall and slender build, and, exceptionally graceful character.” The story brought out by these survivors of the first party to cross the Sierras from the starving camp set all California aflame. There were no less than three relief expeditions formed, which at varying dates crossed the mountains to the east. Some men crossed the snow belt five times in all. The rescuers were often in as much danger as the victims they sought to save.

And they could not save them. Back there in their tents and hovels around Donner Lake, starvation was doing its work steadily. There is contemporary history also covering the details of this. Tamsen Donner, the heroine that she was, kept a diary which would have been valuable for us, but this was lost along with her paintings and her botanical collections. The best-preserved diary is Patrick Breen, done simply and matter-of-factly throughout most of the starving winter. Thus:

“Dec. 17. Pleasant; William Murphy returned from the mountain party last evening; Baylis Williams died the night before last; Milton and Noah started for Donner’s eight days ago; not returned yet; think they are lost in the snow.

Donner Party

The Donner party stranded in the Sierra Nevada Range, 1847

“Dec. 21. Milton got back last night from Donner’s camp. Sad news; Jacob Donner, Samuel Shoemaker, Rhineheart, and Smith are dead; the rest of them in a low situation; snowed all night, with a strong southwest wind.

“Dec. 23. Clear today; Milton took some of his meat away; all well at their camp. Began this day to read the “Thirty Days’ Prayers”; Almighty God, grant the requests of unworthy sinners!

“Jan. 13. Snowing fast; snow higher than the shanty; it must be thirteen feet deep. Can not get wood this morning; it is a dreadful sight for us to look upon.

“Jan. 27. Commenced snowing yesterday; still continues today. Lewis Keseberg, Jr., died three days ago; food growing scarce; don’t have fire enough to cook our hides.

“Jan. 31. The sun does not shine out brilliant this morning; froze hard last night; wind northwest. Landrum Murphy died last night about ten o’clock; Mrs. Reed went to Graves’s this morning to look after goods.

“Feb. 4. Snowed hard until twelve o’clock last night; many uneasy for fear we shall all perish with hunger; we have but little meat left, and only three hides; Mrs. Reed has nothing but one hide, and that is on Graves’s house; Milton lives there, and likely will keep that. Eddy’s child died last night.

“Feb. 7. Ceased to snow at last; today it is quite pleasant. McCutchen’s child died on the second of this month.

[This child died and was buried in the Graves’s cabin. Mr. W. C. Graves helped dig the grave near one side of the cabin and laid the little one to rest. One of the most heart-rending features of this Donner tragedy is the number of infants that perished. Mrs. Breen, Mrs. Pike, Mrs. Foster, Mrs. McCutchen, Mrs. Eddy, and Mrs. Graves each had nursing babes when the fatal camp was pitched at Donner Lake.]

“Feb. 8. Fine, clear morning. Spitzer died last night, and we will bury him in the snow; Mrs. Eddy died on the night of the seventh.

“Feb. 9. Mrs. Pike’s child all but dead; Milton is at Murphy’s, not able to get out of bed; Mrs. Eddy and child buried today; wind southeast.

“Feb. 10. Beautiful morning; thawing in the sun; Milton Elliott died last night at Murphy’s cabin, and Mrs. Reed went there this morning to see about his effects. John Denton trying to borrow meat for Graves; had none to give; they had nothing but hides; all are entirely out of meat, but a little we have; our hides are nearly all eat up, but with God’s help, spring will soon smile upon us.”

Donner Lake, 1866

The ill-fated Donner Party was said to have buried their savings near Alder Creek and Donner Lake.

One survivor of the camp at Donner Lake, a man named Lewis Keseberg, of German descent. That he was guilty of repeated cannibalism cannot be doubted. It was in his cabin that, after losing all her loved ones, the heroic Tamsen Donner met her end. Many thought he killed her for the one horrid purpose.

Such then is the story of one of the great emigrant parties who started west on a hazard of new fortunes in the early days of the Oregon Trail. Happily, there has been no parallel to the misadventures of this ill-fated caravan. It is difficult — without reading these bald and awful details — to realize the vast difference between that day and this. Today, we may, by the gentle stages of a pleasant railway journey, arrive at Donner Lake. Little trace remains, nor does any kind soul wish for more definite traces of those awful scenes. Only a cross here and there with a legend, faint and becoming fainter every year, may be seen, marking the more prominent spots of the historic starving camp.

Upon the high mountainside, for the most part, hidden in the forest, lie the snow sheds and tunnels of the railway, now encountering its stiffest climb up the steep slopes to the summit of the Sierras. The author visited this spot of melancholy history in company with the vice-president of the great railway line which here swings up so steadily and easily over the Sierras. Bit by bit we checked out as best we might the fateful spots mentioned in the story of the Donner Party. A splendid motor highway runs by the lakeside now. While we halted our own car there, a motor car drove up from the westward — following that practical automobile highway that now exists from California’s plains across the Sierras and east over precisely that trail where once the weary feet of the oxen dragged the wagons of the early emigrants. It was a small car of no expensive type. It was loaded down with camping equipment until the wheels scarcely could be seen. It carried five human occupants — an Iowa farmer and his family. They had been out to California for a season. Casually they had left Los Angeles, had traveled north up the valleys of California, east across the summit of the Sierras, and were here now bound for Iowa over the old emigrant trail!

We hailed this new traveler on the old trail. I do not know whether or not he had any idea of the early days of that great highway; I suspect that he could tell only of its present motoring possibilities. But his wheels were passing over the marks left more than half a century ago by the cracked felloes of the emigrant wagons going west in search of homes. If we seek history, let us ponder that chance pause of the eastbound family, traveling by motor for pleasure, here by the side of the graves of the travelers of another day, itself so briefly gone. What an epoch was spanned in the passing of that frontier!

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander/Legends of America, updated June 2021.

Also See:

The Donner Party Tragedy

California Trail

Early Traders on the Santa Fe Trail

Santa Fe Trail – Highway to the Southwest

Tales & Trails of the American West

Author and Notes: Excerpted from the book The Passing of the Frontier, A Chronicle of the Old West, by Emerson Hough, Yale University Press, 1918. Emerson Hough (1857–1923) was an author and journalist who wrote factional accounts and historical novels of life in the American West. His works helped establish the Western as a popular genre in literature and motion pictures.  For years, Hough wrote the feature “Out-of-Doors” for the Saturday Evening Post and contributed to other major magazines. The text as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited for clarity and ease of the modern reader.