Donner Party Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Claire DeSaussure

Claire has worked in behavioral programs at the Elementary Level and has an MLS with a focus on Creative Writing.

The Donner Party was a group of people who traveled west in a wagon train, back in the 1840s. The Donner Party is famous because of its tragic ending. Keep reading to hear about what happened to the Donner family and their traveling partners.

Not That Kind of Party

When we hear the word 'party', we instantly think of food, fun, and maybe some balloons. But, party also means 'group'. Although the Donner Party was a group of people, their name has also come to mean a certain tragic event in American history. In fact, the story of the Donner Party is one of the most interesting and gruesome in American history.

How it All Began

James Frasier Reed decided that he and his family were going to travel west to California in search of wealth and a new life. He knew that it was safer to travel in a large group, because Native American tribes might attack the wagons. He asked around Springfield, Illinois, and found some other families that were also heading west - the Donner family was one of those families. There were 91 people in the group altogether.

A Wagon Train
Donner Party Wagon Train

A Shorter Trip?

James Reed had bought a book about a new route west, called Landsford Hasting's Emigrant's Guide. Hastings wrote that there was a shorter way to get to California - almost 400 miles shorter! Today, you could drive 400 miles in about 7 hours, but in the 1800's you might only be able to travel 15 miles a day in your wagon. The group decided to take the new route because they could save almost a month in travel time.

And That's When Things Went Horribly Wrong!

What the Donner family and James Reed didn't know about the book was that Landsford Hastings, the author, only thought it was a shorter route. The route had never been tested. When the Donner party tried the Hastings cutoff in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, they found there was no trail wide enough for a wagon. The ground was steep and rocky, and they only went about 8 miles in 6 days!

Donner Pass
Donner Pass

Then Things Get Worse!

One of the wheels on George Donner's wagon broke. As he was trying to fix it, he cut his hand. It began to snow. Some of the group headed on without the Donners and made it a further six miles to Donner Lake. The Donner party, twenty-one of them, remained at Alder Creek.

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