The Donner Party Essay, Research Paper
The Donner Party
It’s one of the greatest tragedies of all time, yet few of us know the whole story. The story is of the misled, inexperienced Donner Party. It is the story of eighty-one emigrants who traveled in hopes of reaching the land of California. Forty-seven, whose hopes were crushed by many contributing factors. The most horrible and misleading factor of all was the human mind and its persistent need to explore and conquer everything, whether within reach or not in the shortest and fastest way possible. This aspect of taking the shortest route that led to the downfall, and in some cases, to death, of the Donner Party.
It was advertised as a new and shorter route west to California and saved pioneers 350 to 400. Unfortunately some crucial things weren’t mentioned in this advertisement, one of which was the fact that the new route had never been traveled upon; and two, that the writer was a power hungry man whose only motive was to lure settlers into California under his direction so he could establish the area as an independent republic. This route was known as Hasting’s Cutoff and was mentioned in Lansford W. Hasting’s book, “The Emigrant’s Guide to California and Oregon.” Many pioneers eager to make their fortunes, escape disease, or to satisfy their hankering for a new experience read this book and, I might add, all as quickly as possible. Among the readers of the book was James Reed.
James Frasier Reed was a business man who had made a small fortune in his Illinois practice. He had logical reasons for moving to California. One, his wife, Margaret Reed, suffered from horrible headaches and it was assumed that she would fare better in a nicer climate and James Reed wanted more money. He felt that this could be accomplished in a land as rich as California. Reed also had four children: Virginia, Martha, James, and Thomas whom he wanted better lives for, and he believed this could be attained in California. When James Frasier Reed first read “the book” he was blown away by the idea of getting to California safely and quicker, he acted upon it and found others to travel with him. Among these other travelers were the Donners, the Graves, the Breens, the Murphys, the Eddys, the McCutcheons, the Kesebergs, and the Wolfingers. Thanks to an advertisement in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette, two Mexican boys, and a number of bachelors.
On April 16, 1846, the emigrants that would soon be named the Donner Party, loaded their nine wagons and, departed from Springfield, Illinois. Their 2500 mile journey to San Francisco would take them approximately four months and they would cross three mountain ranges, deserts, plains, and rivers. Little did they know they would be the first ever to travel this route.
The party’s first stop was Independence, Missouri, where they bought food and traded for any necessities. When they left Independence on May 12, 1846, they were amidst a violent thunderstorm. This storm soon ceased and they eventually reached the eastern bank of the Big Blue River where they attempted to build ferries that would transport them and the wagons to the other side. During this a two-day process, the Donner Party experienced its first death. Margaret Reed’s mother, Sarah Keyes, who had been suffering from consumption, died at the river and was immediately buried there. On May 31, the last of the wagons was ferried over the river, and the Donner Party was on its way again.
On June 16, the party was two hundred miles from Fort Laramie and had traveled, so far, without difficulty. Finally on June 27, one week behind schedule, they reached Fort Laramie where Reed ran into an old friend from Illinois, James Clyman, and quickly interrogated him about the new route. Clyman gave his honest opinion stating that the road was barely possible on foot and would be impossible with wagons. He advised Reed to take the regular wagon trail, not this new, false route, but Reed, too enchanted by the idea of a shorter and briefer route, ignored Clyman’s warning and embarked on the path to Fort Bridger.
On July 17, when the party was attempting to cross the Continental Divide, a man carrying a letter from Lansford W. Hastings met them. The letter stated that Hastings would meet the party at Fort Bridger and that he would personally take them over the pass. The party was happy about this and continued on in good spirits.
On July 20, they reached the Sandy River, which was the parting of the routes. It was either Hasting’s new cutoff or the normal, withered wagon path. The Donner Party went the risky way towards Fort Bridger while all of the other wagons took the other route. This was the point of no return. The Donner Party had sealed its fate with Lansford W. Hastings and his new route to California.
While on their way to Fort Bridger, the party decided to pick a leader, and though James Reed was the obvious choice, some believed that he was too aristocratic, so they chose Donner. One week after this they rolled into Fort Bridger where they were greeted with a note from Lansford W. Hastings, not the man himself. The note said that he had left with another group of emigrants and that they should follow and try to catch up. The Donner Party spent four days at Fort Bridger and then they pressed on for the rest of what they thought was a seven-week journey.
On July 31, the party entered Hasting’s cutoff and for the first week they made ten or twelve miles a day, pretty good for a group of nine wagons. On August 6, the party came to a halt. They had received another note from Hastings. It stated that the road was impassable, they were four days behind the other party and Hastings wouldn’t come back to lead them. He wrote that they should take the other trail through the salt basin. The party heeded this warning and turned off into the wilderness. They decided to tackle Emigrant Canyon and due to this they barely made two miles a day. It took the party six days to travel eight miles and when they discovered that some of their wagons would have to be abandoned, morale sank to the deepest depths. Finally reached the Salt Lake Shore. It had taken them one month, not one week as Hastings had claimed, to reach this shore, and since they were tired of blaming Hastings, they blamed James Reed instead.
On August 25, Luke Halloran, one of the young men traveling with the Donners died of consumption. On August 30, the party began to cross the desert. They believed it would only take them two days and two nights (according to Hastings). The desert sand was very moist and deep and due to this, the wagons sank into the sand causing major delays for the slow party. On the third day of desert travel the water ran out and Reed’s oxen ran away. When they finally emerged from the eighty-mile desert two days later they had lost a total of thirty-two oxen and had to abandon one of the wagons. The desert had cost them most of their desperately needed supplies. Since they couldn’t get back to Fort Bridger, two of the two young men traveling with the Donners, William McCutcheon and Charles Stanton rode ahead to retrieve more supplies.
On September 26, they reached the Humboldt River where Hasting’s second cutoff met up with the original. They had traveled extra 125 miles on that second route and cursed Hastings for this extra mileage. The Donner Party would now have to travel the rest of the way alone. Hastings had made it to Sutter’s Fort with eighty other wagons in early September and was no longer there to leave notes for them. The members of the Donner Party were furious at this point.
On October 5, this tension took its toll. Two wagons became entangled and John Snyder the teamster of one wagon began whipping the oxen of the other. James Reed was infuriated and ordered him to stop. When he wouldn’t, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed John Snyder in the stomach. Snyder, died, and James Reed had to be protected by his family so no one could harm him in retaliation for the death. His family, however, couldn’t protect him. He was to be banished, although Lewis Keseberg claimed hanging was the rightful punishment for such a crime. Reed was last seen riding off towards the west.
Another example of the harshness of the Donner party occurred on October 7, when Lewis Keseberg turned Mr. Hardcoop, a Belgian traveling with him, out of his wagon. Mr. Hardcoop went around knocking on the wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen sitting by the roadside, unable to walk.
On October 12 another tragedy occurred. The Piute Indians killed twenty-one oxen with poison tipped arrows, which made a grand total of one hundred animals dead on the trip.
On October 16, they reached the Truckee River, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. On October 19, when their food source was completely wiped out, Stanton and McCutcheon emerged leading seven mules loaded with food, two Indian guides, and news of a clear path through the Sierra Nevada. On October 31, when they were 1,000 feet from the summit, the Donner wagon broke, and when George Donner was fixing it he cut his hand. The party fell greatly behind.
While the rest of the party was waiting for the Donners to come, snow began to fall. The party made a dash for the path, but by the time they had reached the midpoint, five new feet of snow had already fallen. Stanton and the two Indians made it as far as the summit, but could go no further. Hopeless, they retraced their steps to the lake to make a winter camp.
Meanwhile at Sutter’s Fort, everyone, including James Reed who had stumbled into the fort in late October, waited anxiously for the Donner Party. James Reed pressed Sutter for horses and men to travel with him to rescue the party, and when this was granted he began traveling towards the summit that the Donners intended to cross. Reed and his party, however, had to turn back only twelve miles from the summit due to the horrid weather. It was obvious, though no one wanted to admit It. that the Donner Party was on its own until the snow cleared.
Back at the lake, after two more attempts were made to get over the pass in the twenty-foot snow pack, the Donner Party realized that they would be stuck until the snow cleared, so they set up camp. The nine Breens slept in a small shack, the Eddys were also in a small shack, the Murphys, the Fosters, and the Pikes all slept together, and the Reeds, the Kesebergs, and the Graves all slept in different shacks. The two Donner families, six miles away, huddled together near a small river. There were now twenty-one men, fifteen women, thirty-five children and, six infants in the Donner party.
On Thanksgiving, it began to snow again, and on November 29, the last of the oxen were killed. On November 30, five more feet of snow fell, and they realized that any plans of departure would have to be put off. Two days later the cattle were all killed (except three or four), and the party began eating boiled hides, twigs, bones, bark, etc. On December 15, Bails Williams died of malnutrition and realizing that something had to be done before they all died, five men, nine women, and one child departed for the summit. Eddie Graves was among those who left. He made snowshoes for the fifteen travelers, and they each had six days of starvation rations. On the sixth day of travel the food ran out. They were desperate for food. Some suggested drawing straws to decide who would be a human sacrifice and provide food for the rest of the group. Patrick Dolan got the smallest piece of paper, but no one had the heart to kill him.
The party went three days without food, barely surviving the tornado winds. Antonio, a Mexican teamster, and Frank Graves both died of starvation and hypothermia. Patrick Dolan went crazy, slipped into a coma, and eventually died. While Lemuel Murphy, the twelve year-old boy, just lay on the ground shuddering. Desperate and starving, the survivors began to eat Patrick Dolan. The Indians would not engage in this act of cannibalism, and left when they were told that many were planning to eat them after the others were roasted. The party made sure that no one ate his or her kin by the labeling of the meat. This small expedition was an obvious failure.
Many died in the months at the lake. Among the dead were: Milt Donner, Jacob Donner, Margaret Graves, Mr. Elliot, Mrs. Eddy, Sam Schumaker, Joseph Reinhart, and James Smith. On New Year’s another storm hit and many prayers were said. On January 17, 1847, a bleeding skeleton of a man showed up at the Grave’s door. It was William Eddy and the six other survivors from the recent expedition. Only two out of the ten men survived, but all five women lived through the journey. The seven survivors told their stories: Sarah Fos*censored* told of the eating of her husband and the others talked about their discovery of the two starved/dead Indians. They had endured twenty days in the wilderness with no food but each other.
Relief for the Donner party was being arranged at Sutter’s Fort. On January 10, James Reed rushed to San Francisco to obtain relief for his family and friends, but it was two weeks before anyone agreed to come. On February 5, the first relief party left Johnson’s ranch, and the second, headed by James Reed, left two days later. On February 19, the first party made up of seven freezing men, reached the lake. At first they thought that it was deserted, but a ghostly figure of a woman soon appeared followed by anyone who was able to move.
The party found twelve emigrants dead and forty-eight who had either gone crazy or were barely clinging to life. Only twenty-four individuals could leave with the first relief party, and since no children had died in the Reed, Donner, or Breen families, they (the Donners and the Breens) stayed behind along with eight others. The first relief party left and during the party’s voyage back to Sutter’s Fort, two children died. Margaret Reed and her children had been separated from their father for five months, and when the first and second relief parties ran into each other, they were finally reunited.
By February 26, the second relief party still hadn’t come and the remaining survivors began to eat dead human flesh. When the second relief party had finally come and gone, the worst storm of the season occurred. Mrs. Graves and two Donner children died during the journey to the fort and were eventually consumed. The party was stranded for two days before the third relief party found them. The fourth party was stranded for one month due to horrid storms, and when they finally reached the lake they found seven more survivors. Among them was Lewis Keseberg who was found crazy with many half consumed bodies around him. It took two months and four relief parties to rescue the entire surviving Donner party.
There were many statistics gathered from this horrid event. Two-thirds of the men in the party perished, while two-thirds of the women and children lived. Forty-one individuals died, and forty-six survived. The Donners suffered the most; everyone in their family died, but the entire families of the Breens and the Reeds survived. The survivors of the tragic Donner party went on to do various things. Some got married, others sought gold, and one individual, Lewis Keseberg, opened a restaurant.
It is human nature to want to blame an individual for the tragedies that occur in our lives. Some blame power hungry Lansford W. Hastings for this tragedy. Others blame James Reed for not heeding Clyman’s warning about the deadly route, and others just plain blame the weather for this horrible occurrence. Blame is an excuse that we have invented to cover up our mistakes and in my opinion this was a vast mistake of the human mind. If we weren’t always so eager to take the easy or the short way, we would save ourselves expansive amounts of trouble. It’s funny how we learn the most valuable lessons from tragedies such as this, but I guess that’s just another example of our human nature.
King, Joseph A., The Donner Party
New York: G. Braziller, 1972
McGlachan, C.F., History of the Donner Party
Ann Arbor University: Microfilms, 1966
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