Pathways To the West

There is a book done by C. F. McGlashan, a resident of Truckee, California, known as The History of the Donner Party, holding a great deal of actual history. McGlashan, living close to Donner Lake, wrote in 1879, describing scenes with which he was perfectly familiar, and recounting facts which he had from direct association with participants in the ill-fated Donner Party. He chronicles events which happened in 1846 — a date before the discovery of gold in California. The Donner Party one of the typical American caravans of home seekers who started for the Pacific Slope with no other purpose other than that of founding homes there, and with no expectation of sudden wealth to be gained in the mines. I desire therefore to quote largely from the pages of this book, believing that, in this fashion, we shall come upon history of a fundamental sort, which shall make us acquainted with the men and women of that day, with the purposes and the ambitions which animated them, and with the hardships which they encountered.

The States along the Mississippi River were but sparsely settled in 1846, yet the fame of the fruitfulness, the healthfulness, and the almost tropical beauty of the land bordering the Pacific, tempted the members of the Donner Party to leave their homes. These homes were situated in Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio.

Families from each of these States joined the train and participated in its terrible fate; yet the party proper was organized in Sangamon County, Illinois, by George and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed. Early in April 1846, the party set out from Springfield, Illinois, and by the first week in May reached Independence, Missouri.

Here, the party was increased by additional members, and the train comprised about one hundred persons…. “In the party were aged fathers with their trusting families about them, mothers whose very lives were wrapped up in their children, men in the prime and vigor of manhood, maidens in all the sweetness and freshness of budding womanhood, children full of glee and mirthfulness, and babes nestling on maternal breasts.

“Lovers there were, to whom the journey was tinged with rainbow hues of joy and happiness, and strong, manly hearts whose constant support and encouragement was the memory of dear ones left behind in homeland.

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt, 1869

“The wonderment which all experience in viewing the scenery along the line of the old emigrant road was peculiarly vivid to these people. Few descriptions had been given of the route, and all was novel and unexpected. In later years the road was broadly and deeply marked, and good camping grounds were distinctly indicated. The bleaching bones of cattle that had perished, or the broken fragments of wagons or castaway articles, were thickly strewn on either side of the highway. But, in 1846 the way was through almost trackless valleys waving with grass, along rivers where few paths were visible, save those made by the feet of buffalo and antelope, and over mountains and plains where little more than the westward course of the sun guided the travelers. Trading-posts were stationed at only a few widely distant points, and rarely did the party meet with any human beings, save wandering bands of Indians. These first days are spoken of by all of the survivors as being crowned with peaceful enjoyment and pleasant anticipations. There were beautiful flowers by the roadside, an abundance of game in the meadows and mountains, and at night there were singing, dancing, and innocent plays. Several musical instruments, and many excellent voices, were in the party, and the kindliest feeling and good fellowship prevailed among the members.

“The formation of the company known as the Donner Party was purely accidental. The union of so many emigrants into one train was not occasioned by any pre-concerted arrangement. Many composing the Donner Party were not aware, at the outset, that such a tide of emigration was sweeping to California. In many instances small parties would hear of the mammoth train just ahead of them or just behind them, and by hastening their pace, or halting for a few days, joined themselves to the party. Many were with the train during a portion of the journey, but from some cause or other became parted from the Donner company before reaching Donner Lake. Soon after the train left Independence it contained between two and three hundred wagons, and when in motion was two miles in length. The members of the party proper numbered ninety.”

This caravan, like many others of the great assemblage westbound at that time, had great extremes in personnel. Some were out for mere adventure; some were single men looking for a location. Most of them were fathers of families, among them several persons of considerable means and of good standing in the community which they were leaving. While we may suppose that most of them were folk of no extraordinary sort, certainly some were persons of education and intelligence. Among these was the wife of George Donner — Tamsen Dormer; a woman of education, a musician, a linguist, a botanist, and of the most sublime heroism.

Tamsen Donner sent back now and then along the route some story of the daily doings of the caravan, and such letters as these are of the utmost interest to any who desire precise information of that time. It would seem that the emigrants themselves for a great part of their route met with no great adventures, nor indeed, appeared to be undertaking an unusual affair. They followed a route up the Platte Valley already long known to those of the eastern settlements.

“Near the Junction of the North and South Platte, June 16, 1846 — “roads have been good, and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent, but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but “buffalo chips” are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat surprisingly.

“My Old Friend: We are now on the Platte, two hundred miles from Fort Laramie. Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good, and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent, but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce, but “buffalo chips” are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat surprisingly. We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled upon them that had the same flavor they would have had upon hickory coals.

Game hunters by Craig Tennant

Game hunters by Craig Tennant

“We feel no fear of Indians; our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested. Two or three men will go hunting 20 miles from camp, and last night two of our men lay out in the wilderness rather than ride their horses after a hard chase.

“Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started. Our wagons have not needed many repairs, and I can not yet tell in what respects they could be improved. Certain it is, they can not be too strong. Our preparations for the journey might have been in some respects bettered.

“Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in one hundred and fifty pounds of flour and seventy-five pounds of meat for each individual, and I fear bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles on the road; cornmeal too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most suitable for children. Indeed, if I had one, it would be acceptable. There is so cool a breeze at all times on the Plains that the sun does not feel so hot as one would suppose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *