By the mid-1800s land and opportunities in the East were no longer plentiful. Cholera outbreaks had become common place in the overpopulated eastern cities where sanitation was poor. People began to cast wistful eyes in a westerly direction. Thousands of pioneers packed family and belongings for the move west.
George Donner, a sixty-five year old farmer, eagerly responded to a proposal by neighbor James Reed. He promptly posted a bulletin in the Springfield Gazette that began “Westward Ho!” and promised free travel to California for up to eight able-bodied young men capable of driving a team of oxen.
The Donners and the Reeds left Springfield, Illinois on April 16, 1846, for Independence, MO. Their party consisted of thirty-two people. The twenty-five hundred mile trip from Independence to San Francisco was expected to take four months. Survival would depend on nearly perfect timing: they could not leave until the spring rains stopped and they had to make it over the Sierra Nevada Mountains before the first snowfall. Neither Donner nor Reed was worried. They would follow the new Hastings route over the mountains and cut three to four hundred miles from the trip.
The Donner party left Independence on May 12th, just one in the thousands of wagon trains heading out that spring. There was hardship from the beginning. Thunderstorms soaked the trail daily, creating muddy bogs that mired the wagons and oxen down. Progress was limited to two miles a day.
Despite the poor beginning, they reached Fort Laramie on the edge of the Rockies just one week behind schedule. James Reed ran into an old friend, James Clyman, who emphatically warned Reed to take the old, established route; the wagons would never make it through the pass. Reed respectfully declined the advice.
The wagon trains pressed on toward the Continental Divide. On July 17th a horseman rode up with a message from Hastings urging the emigrants to keep on to Fort Bridger where Hastings, himself, would be present to escort them over the new pass. Three days later the caravan came to the Little Sandy River where the old trail turned north to cross the Sierras well above San Francisco. While most of the pioneers elected to take the known route, Reed remained convinced that Hastings had been right about the shortcut. So the nine wagons comprising the Reed and Donner parties along with the eleven wagons of people who had elected to join them turned south towards Fort Bridger.
On arrival, they discovered Hastings had left with another wagon train. Undaunted, James Reed led the company of nine families and sixteen single men onto the new trail. The party made the excellent time of ten to twelve miles a day. Then on August 6th a note from Hastings urged them to find an alternate route, as the way ahead was impassable. Leaving the trail, the wagons started down the canyon. Their progress through the thick brush and cottonwood trees was grueling and agonizingly slow. When they reached the Great Salt Lake, they were a month behind in the journey and eighty miles of Great Salt Desert lay ahead.
It took the party five days to cross the desert. Wagons, foundered axle deep in a quagmire of wet salt, had to be abandoned. Oxen went mad from thirst and ran off or died. On the far side of the desert, an inventory of food was taken and found to be less than adequate for the six hundred mile trek still ahead. That night, the first snow powdered the mountain peaks.
They reached the Humbolt River on September 26th. The diversion had cost them an extra one hundred and twenty-five miles. Nerves were shattered and fights began to break out. James Reed killed a man in self-defense and was banished from the party. He left his family and rode on to California alone.
By October 19th a relief party loaded with extra food found the weary pioneers fifty miles from the summit and assured them that the pass wouldn’t be blocked for at least another month. They were wrong.
October 31st, only one thousand feet from the granite peaks, on the edge of Truckee Lake, snow began to fall. The party raced to climb through the pass, but the women were too exhausted from carrying their children. The decision was made to stop for the night and cross the pass the next morning. Heavy snow continued falling. By morning the pass had been completely blocked by twenty-foot snowdrifts. The tired and hungry emigrants had arrived one day too late.
Over the next four months, the eighty-one remaining men, women, and children huddled together in two abandoned cabins, make shift lean-tos, and tents. The cattle had all been killed and eaten by mid-December; one man had died of malnutrition. The people began to eat bark, twigs, and boiled hides.
In desperation, a group of nine men, five women, and a twelve year old boy packed scanty rations and on snowshoes made from oxbows and rawhide, set out to cross the pass for help. Nine days later they realized they had become lost in the snow-covered mountains. Completely without food for three days and on the verge of starvation a suggestion was made to draw lots; the loser would sacrifice his life to save the others. Patrick Dolan drew the fatal slip, but no one could bring themselves to kill him. Malnutrition soon carried out what the group could not do. Two other men followed quickly. Ten members of the party butchered their dead companions, then wrapped and carefully labeled the packages so no one would have to consume their relatives. Eighteen days after they had started from the main camp, six survivors stumbled to a cabin and repeated the horrendous tale of death and cannibalism. Fort Sutter was notified that there were people on Truckee Lake who needed immediate rescue, but it would be nearly a month before the first search party reached them.
On February 19th, the rescue team found forty-eight survivors at the camp. Bodies had been spread on the snow and covered with quilts. No one at the camp had yet been forced into cannibalism, instead subsisting on boiled rawhide. The noble resolution would not last.
It took four relief parties two months to get all the survivors out. The second relief party, led by James Reed, reported that when they arrived at the camp, “half-eaten bodies” littered the ground and the survivors “surrounded by the remains of their unholy feast, looked more like demons than human beings.”
Reed had been spectacularly lucky, his wife and all four children had survived the ordeal. All of the Donners, save one child, succumbed.
Eighty-seven people had started over the new passage to California. Two thirds of the women and children along with one third of the men had survived. Forty-one people had died.