The Donner Party Members

Instructor: Carol Cook

Carol has taught high school Government and middle school U.S. History and Global Studies and has a master's degree in teaching secondary social studies.

Unwisely choosing to travel to California on an untested shortcut, the Donner Party became trapped by blizzards a short distance from their destination. The delay cost of the lives of almost half the 87-member party. Learn more about the people who traveled with this ill-fated wagon train.

Nightmare on the Wagon Trail

Apocalypse zombies featured in modern television do not hold a candle to the real-life nightmare experienced by the members of the Donner Party in 1846-7. Even those who do not believe that they practiced the cannibalism sensationalized in stories must recognize that those who survived became mere frozen skeletons of themselves. Without food during the long winter, they stayed alive on resolve and willpower.

Sparking the Idea

Author Lansford Hastings

George and Jacob Donner, brothers from Springfield, Illinois, read a book written by Californian speculator Lansford Hastings. Mr. Hasting's Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California convinced families to join him in Eden-like northern California by following a new shortcut that made travel faster and easier. Despite their ages, at 60 and 56, the Donner brothers prepared their families to further their fortunes in the West.

James Reed with his wife Margaret

Among those enlisting with them was James Reed, a merchant and furniture-maker originally from Ireland. As the most affluent family on the journey, the Reeds had a custom-made double-decker wagon constructed. This one-of-a-kind wagon had a stove and chairs with shock-absorbing springs on the main level, and beds located on the upper story.

Slow-Going on the Southern Route

Starting in mid-April 1846, the original group made good time and consolidated with other families at stopping points in Independence, Missouri and Ft. Laramie in Wyoming. In Kansas, 50-year old widow Lavinia Murphy, her 5 young children, 2 married daughters and their husbands linked with the wagon train. Back in Tennessee Mrs. Murphy read of the fairy tale land in the Spanish west, ordered 2 wagons, and convinced her family to become settlers.

By the time the party left Ft. Laramie, they totaled 87 members including families, servants and teamsters who drove the wagon-pulling oxen. At Ft. Bridger they found that their escort, Lansford Hastings, left a week earlier with another wagon train. Even worse, they discovered that Hastings had never even traversed his proposed route. Disregarding a warning note from Lansford, they persisted over rough and overgrown terrain to the Great Salt Lake Desert where disaster struck when wagons became wedged in the eroded mud. Leaving behind precious food and equipment, including the Reed's double-decker wagon, the members of the party returned to the established route.

View of Donner Lake taken in the late 1800s
Donner Lake

On October 31, when beginning the ascent to the final peak (later to be called Donner Pass), a blizzard trapped them in the wilderness. In mid-December, the fittest started out on their own with primitive snowshoes. Aptly called the Forlorn Hope Party, stories tell they practiced cannibalism, eating those of their number who died from exposure. Only 7 made it to Harriet Ritchie's cabin on the other side in mid-January.

A photograph of Donner Pass taken in 2009
Donners Pass

In February the others at camp were greeted by the first of 4 relief parties. Rescuers found survivors living beneath the snow. By April, when the last were rescued, survivors totaled 46, almost half of those who left Ft. Laramine with high hopes and expectations. All other wagon trains heading to Sutter's Fort successfully completed the journey in the fall. The extra time it took the Donner Party to traverse Hasting's shortcut altered this expedition from one of anticipation to torture.

Outcomes of the Travel

Before reaching their starvation camp, the Donner Party lost 5 members. The most significant was the death of an employee, John Snyder. When wagons collided, Snyder whipped James Reed who stabbed him in retaliation. Mrs. Reed convinced the others to spare her husband's life, but he was forced to travel the rest of the way on his own.

This eviction was fortuitous, as Reed reached their destination before snowfall. He led the 2nd relief party and carried his 3-year-old son the entire way back. All of the Reeds survived and settled in San Jose.

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