Little Bits of History

Westward, Ho!

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 14, 2013
The Donners

The Donners

April 14, 1846: George and Jacob Donner and James Frazier Reed begin a journey westward. Each man and his family had three wagons as well as hired teamsters to run the oxen. They left Springfield, Illinois and headed first for Independence, Missouri. The first leg of the journey was about 250 miles and they arrived safely on May 10. The entire 2,500 mile trip to California was planned to begin after the spring rains and end before the winter snows blocked passage through the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Wagon trains were not static entities and people joined or left the group throughout the journey. The successful farmer and his friends joined in the rush westward across the Great Plains, two mountain ranges, and the desert of the Great Basin. Accounts differ, but about 36 people are thought to have been in the original group leaving from Springfield. The date is also sometimes given as two days later. However, by May 19, this group joined up with another wagon train about 100 miles west of Independence.

The party had difficulty crossing swollen waterways and by June 18, William Russell handed over leadership of the group to George Donner. Russell left the group to buy mules to hasten his journey. The Donner Party heard of “Hastings cutoff,” a shortcut supposed to lessen the journey by hundreds of miles. They rushed to join, but missed Hastings who was leading others across the mountains. They could, however, follow his tracks. It was now August.

September 1 found the group in the desert and without water. They finally got across but lost 36 head of cattle. On October 11, they were attacked by Paiutes, a tribe of Native Americans, who killed 21 oxen, stole 18, and injured several more. Tempers flared and there were several confrontations between the men of the wagon train with some of the party dying violently and others being sent from the group. The entire group straggled apart as they moved into the mountains. By early November, the snow was already 5 feet deep in places. By the end of November, the group was trapped. Rather than backtrack, they set up camp at Alder Creek and eventually a second stop at Lake Camp. Many starved to death and some were cannibalized to ensure the survival of the rest. Of the 89 members of the Donner Party, only 48 survived. The Donner brothers were not among them.

“The Donner Party’s experience was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as everybody’s been told.” – Julie Schablitsky

“The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.” – unknown

“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” – Dr. Hans Selye

“Life is an error-making and an error-correcting process, and nature in marking man’s papers will grade him for wisdom as measured both by survival and by the quality of life of those who survive.” – Jonas Salk

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: George Donner was born in 1784 near Salem, North Carolina. He was the third child and eldest brother in his family. Jacob was born in 1789. George was married three times. The children from his first marriage remained in Illinois when the family went westward. The children from his second and third marriages were with the travelers as they headed for California. Elitha and Leanna were from his second marriage and Francis, Georgia, and Eliza were from his third. All five children survived the trek to California and lived until the 20th century. Georgia was the first child to die in 1911 and Leanna was the last to die. She lived to be about 90 years old and died in 1930. All five children lived the rest of their lives in California, settling there after their rescue.

Also on this day : “I’m the King of the World!” – In 1912, RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg.
Black Sunday – In 1935, the dust bowl got a lot dustier.
Too Early for July Fourth – In 1944, the SS Fort Stikine exploded.

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