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 bottom lands 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 on 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 the decision of 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. Farther 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 were 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 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 in 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 Sierras 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 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.”

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