The Donner Party: Route & Timeline

Instructor: Molly Richards

Molly has ten years of middle school teaching experience and two master's degrees in teaching.

In 1846 a group of pioneers left Illinois looking for a shorter route west. Unfortunately, the Donner Party, as they became known, found fame from their tragic story and deaths.

Western Migration

Like many Americans living in the 1840s and 1850s, the Donner Party--a group of men, women, and children--wanted to start a new life out West. The trails that had been forged before them were doable, but conditions were rough, with unpredictable weather, food shortages, disease, and death. Still, some brave Americans were willing to make the journey for their families and for future generations. George and Jacob Donner were among these Americans. However, their journey would prove to be fatal.

Donner Trail

The Donner Party Trail April 1846-January 1847


April 14, 1846: Springfield, Illinois to Independence, Missouri

Wagon Train

Wagon Train in the mid 1800s

George and Jacob Donner, along with their families, join James Reed and his family. The group decides to leave for California in April in hopes of making the 2,500-mile journey before snowfall in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Their first stop is 250 miles away, in Independence, Missouri.

May 10, 1946: Independence, Missouri

The group arrives in Independence, Missouri. They spend a few days here preparing for the long journey ahead. One hundred miles west, in Indian Creek, they join a larger wagon train led by Colonel William Henry Russell.

May 27-29, 1846: Modern day Kansas

The group stops due to high water on the river and builds a raft to get the wagons across. Sarah Keyes, mother of Mrs. Reed, passes away from tuberculosis at the age of 70.

June 27, 1846: Fort Laramie

The group arrives at Fort Laramie and hears of Lansford Hastings, a mountaineer who has found a shorter route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, known as the Hastings Cutoff. The cutoff supposedly shaves about 400 miles off the trip. The group is urged by James Cayman, a mountaineer, to avoid the shortcut, however, and take the regular route instead.

July 19, 1846: Little Sandy Rock, Wyoming

The group reaches Little Sandy Rock, Wyoming. Here, those who have decided to take the Hastings cutoff leave the rest of the group. They form a new group led by George and Jacob Donner and known as the Donner Party.

July 27, 1846: Fort Bridger, Wyoming

The Donner Party arrives at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, a resupply point. Hastings has already left with another group but leaves instructions for the Donner Party to follow him. They rest for four days and then begin following his tracks.

August 22, 1846: Salt Lake Valley

On their travels, the Donner Party reads instructions left behind by Hastings. The original trail is impassable, so they take an alternate route that is rough and covered in brush. The party makes it to Salt Lake Valley, 600 miles from their destination.

September 3-26, 1846: Salt Lake Desert

The Donner Party begins their trek across the 80-mile Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings has told them the desert is only 40 miles wide, and they run out of water on their third day. They realize they do not have enough food for the last 600 miles of their journey, and snow is starting to fall in the Sierras. They arrive at the Humboldt River in Eastern Nevada only to learn they trekked an additional 125 miles with Hastings's 'shortcut'.

October 5-26, 1846: Nevada

Shortages of food and supplies, as well as angst caused by the additional 125 miles of travel, causes tension in the group. Members of the group blame Hastings for the delay, and Mr. Reed as well, since it was his idea to follow Hastings's shortcut. Reed becomes involved in an altercation between two party members, Snyder and Elliot. Snyder comes at Reed but Reed stabs him and he dies. Reed is banished from the group and leaves his family. Around October 16, the group reaches Truckee, California, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They fatefully decide to rest for five days, 50 miles from the mountain summit.

October 31, 1846: Truckee

The Donner wagon has a broken axle, which forces the Donners to stay behind the rest of the group. While trying to fix the axle George Donner badly cuts his hand, which sets the 22 in their party even further behind the others.

November 1846: Donner Lake

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