History of the Donner Party

The pioneers of a new country are deserving of a niche in the country’s
history. The pioneers who became martyrs to the cause of the development
of an almost unknown land, deserve to have a place in the hearts of its
inhabitants. The far-famed Donner Party were, in a peculiar sense,
pioneer martyrs of California. Before the discovery of gold, before the
highway across the continent was fairly marked out, while untold dangers
lurked by the wayside, and unnumbered foes awaited the emigrants, the
Donner Party started for California. None but the brave and venturesome,
none but the energetic and courageous, could undertake such a journey.
In 1846, comparatively few had dared attempt to cross the almost
unexplored plains which lay between the Mississippi and the fair young
land called California. Hence it is that a certain grandeur, a certain
heroism seems to cling about the men and women composing this party,
even from the day they began their perilous journey across the plains.
California, with her golden harvests, her beautiful homes, her dazzling
wealth, and her marvelous commercial facilities, may well enshrine the
memory of these noble-hearted pioneers, pathfinders, martyrs.

The States along the Mississippi were but sparsely settled in 1846, yet
the fame of the fruitfulness, the healthfulness, and the almost tropical
beauty of the land bordering the Pacific, tempted the members of the
Donner Party to leave their homes. These homes were situated in
Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, and Ohio. Families from each of
these States joined the train and participated in its terrible fate; yet
the party proper was organized in Sangamon County, Illinois, by George
and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed. Early in April, 1846, the party set
out from Springfield, Illinois, and by the first week in May reached
Independence, Missouri. Here the party was increased by additional
members, and the train comprised about one hundred persons.

Independence was on the frontier in those days, and every care was taken
to have ample provisions laid in and all necessary preparations made for
the long journey. Ay, it was a long journey for many in the party! Great
as was the enthusiasm and eagerness with which these noble-hearted
pioneers caught up the cry of the times, “Ho! for California!” it is
doubtful if presentiments of the fate to be encountered were not
occasionally entertained. The road was difficult, and in places almost
unbroken; warlike Indians guarded the way, and death, in a thousand
forms, hovered about their march through the great wilderness.

In the party were aged fathers with their trusting families about them,
mothers whose very lives were wrapped up in their children, men in the
prime and vigor of manhood, maidens in all the sweetness and freshness
of budding womanhood, children full of glee and mirthfulness, and babes
nestling on maternal breasts. Lovers there were, to whom the journey was
tinged with rainbow hues of joy and happiness, and strong, manly hearts
whose constant support and encouragement was the memory of dear ones
left behind in home-land. The cloud of gloom which finally settled down
in a death-pall over their heads was not yet perceptible, though, as we
shall soon see, its mists began to collect almost at the outset, in the
delays which marked the journey.

The wonderment which all experience in viewing the scenery along the
line of the old emigrant road was peculiarly vivid to these people. Few
descriptions had been given of the route, and all was novel and
unexpected. In later years the road was broadly and deeply marked, and
good camping grounds were distinctly indicated. The bleaching bones of
cattle that had perished, or the broken fragments of wagons or cast-away
articles, were thickly strewn on either side of the highway. But in 1846
the way was through almost trackless valleys waving with grass, along
rivers where few paths were visible, save those made by the feet of
buffaloes and antelope, and over mountains and plains where little more
than the westward course of the sun guided the travelers. Trading-posts
were stationed at only a few widely distant points, and rarely did the
party meet with any human beings, save wandering bands of Indians. Yet
these first days are spoken of by all of the survivors as being crowned
with peaceful enjoyment and pleasant anticipations. There were beautiful
flowers by the roadside, an abundance of game in the meadows and
mountains, and at night there were singing, dancing, and innocent plays.
Several musical instruments, and many excellent voices, were in the
party, and the kindliest feeling and good-fellowship prevailed among the

The formation of the company known as the Donner Party was purely
accidental. The union of so many emigrants into one train was not
occasioned by any preconcerted arrangement. Many composing the Donner
Party were not aware, at the outset, that such a tide of emigration was
sweeping to California. In many instances small parties would hear of
the mammoth train just ahead of them or just behind them, and by
hastening their pace, or halting for a few days, joined themselves to
the party. Many were with the train during a portion of the journey, but
from some cause or other became parted from the Donner company before
reaching Donner Lake. Soon after the train left Independence it
contained between two and three hundred wagons, and when in motion was
two miles in length.

With much bitterness and severity it is alleged by some of the survivors
of the dreadful tragedy that certain impostors and falsifiers claim to
have been members of the Donner Party, and as such have written
untruthful and exaggerated accounts of the sufferings of the party.
While this is unquestionably true, it is barely possible that some who
assert membership found their claim upon the fact that during a portion
of the journey they were really in the Donner Party. Bearing this in
mind, there is less difficulty in reconciling the conflicting statements
of different narrators.

The members of the party proper numbered ninety, and were as follows:

George Donner, Tamsen Donner (his wife), Elitha C. Donner, Leanna C.
Donner, Frances E. Donner, Georgia A. Donner and Eliza P. Donner. The
last three were children of George and Tamsen Donner; Elitha and Leanna
were children of George Donner by a former wife.

Jacob Donner, Elizabeth Donner (his wife), Solomon Hook, William Hook,
George Donner, Jr., Mary M. Donner, Isaac Donner, Lewis Donner and
Samuel Donner. Jacob Donner was a brother of George; Solomon and William
Hook were sons of Elizabeth Donner by a former husband.

James Frazier Reed, Margaret W. Reed (his wife), Virginia E. Reed,
Martha F. (Patty) Reed, James F. Reed, Jr., Thomas K. Reed, and Mrs.
Sarah Keyes, the mother of Mrs. Reed.

The two Donner families and the Reeds were from Springfield, Illinois.
From the same place were Baylis Williams and his half-sister Eliza
Williams, John Denton, Milton Elliott, James Smith, Walter Herron and
Noah James.

From Marshall County, Illinois, came Franklin Ward Graves, Elizabeth
Graves (his wife), Mary A. Graves, William C. Graves, Eleanor Graves,
Lovina Graves, Nancy Graves, Jonathan B. Graves, F. W. Graves, Jr.,
Elizabeth Graves, Jr., Jay Fosdick and Mrs. Sarah Fosdick (nŽe Graves).
With this family came John Snyder.

From Keokuk, Lee County, Iowa, came Patrick Breen, Mrs. Margaret Breen,
John Breen, Edward J. Breen, Patrick Breen, Jr., Simon P. Breen, James
F. Breen, Peter Breen, and Isabella M. Breen. Patrick Dolan also came
from Keokuk.

William H. Eddy, Mrs. Eleanor Eddy, James P. Eddy, and Margaret Eddy
came from Belleville, Illinois.

From Tennessee came Mrs. Lavina Murphy, a widow, and her family, John
Landrum Murphy, Mary M. Murphy, Lemuel B. Murphy, William G. Murphy,
Simon P. Murphy, William M. Pike, Mrs. Harriet F. Pike (nŽe Murphy),
Naomi L. Pike, and Catherine Pike. Another son-in-law of Mrs. Murphy,
William M. Foster, with his wife, Mrs. Sarah A. C. Foster, and infant
boy George Foster, came from St. Louis, Missouri.

William McCutchen, Mrs. W. McCutchen, and Harriet McCutchen were from
Jackson County, Missouri.

Lewis Keseberg, Mrs. Phillipine Keseberg, Ada Keseberg, and L. Keseberg,
Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Wolfinger, Joseph Rhinehart, Augustus Spitzer, and
Charles Burger, came from Germany.

Samuel Shoemaker came from Springfield, Ohio, Charles T. Stanton from
Chicago, Illinois, Luke Halloran from St. Joseph, Missouri, Mr. Hardcoop
from Antwerp, in Belgium, Antoine from New Mexico. John Baptiste was a
Spaniard, who joined the train near the Santa FŽ trail, and Lewis and
Salvador were two Indians, who were sent out from California by Captain

The Breens joined the company at Independence, Missouri, and the Graves
family overtook the train one hundred miles west of Fort Bridger. Each
family, prior to its consolidation with the train, had its individual
incidents. William Trimble, who was traveling with the Graves family,
was slain by the Pawnee Indians about fifty miles east of Scott’s Bluff.
Trimble left a wife and two or three children. The wife and some of her
relatives were so disheartened by this sad bereavement, and by the fact
that many of their cattle were stolen by the Indians, that they gave up
the journey to California, and turned back to the homes whence they had

An amusing incident is related in the Healdsburg (Cal.) Flag, by Mr. W.
C. Graves, of Calistoga, which occurred soon after his party left St.
Joseph, Missouri. It was on the fourth night out, and Mr. Graves and.
four or five others were detailed to stand guard. The constant terror of
the emigrants in those days was Indians. Both the Pawnees, the Sioux,
and the Snakes were warlike and powerful, and were jealous, revengeful,
and merciless toward the whites. That night a fire somehow started in
the prairie grass about half a mile from camp. The west wind, blowing
fierce and strong, carried the flames in great surging gusts through the
tall prairie grass. A resin weed grows in bunches in this part of the
country, generally attaining the height of four or five feet. The night
being very dark, these weeds could be seen standing between the fire and
the guards. As the flames swayed past the weeds, the impression was very
naturally produced upon the mind of a timid beholder that the weeds were
moving in the opposite direction. This optical illusion caused some of
the guards to believe that the Indians had set fire to the grass, and
were moving in immense numbers between them and the fire with intent to
surround them, stampede the cattle, and massacre the entire party. The
watcher next to Mr. Graves discovered the enemy, and rushed breathlessly
to his comrade to impart the intelligence. Scarcely had Mr. Graves
quieted him before it was evident that a general alarm had been spread
in the camp. Two other guards had seen the Indians, and the aroused
camp, armed to the teeth, marched out to give battle to the imaginary
foe. It was a rich joke, and it was some time before those who were
scared heard the last of the resin Indians.

Only once, before reaching Salt Lake, did death invade the joyous Donner
company. It was near the present site of Manhattan, Kansas, and Mrs.
Sarah Keyes was the victim. This estimable lady was the mother of Mrs.
J. F. Reed, and had reached her four score and ten years. Her aged frame
and feeble health were not equal to the fatigues and exposure of the
trip, and on the thirtieth of May they laid her tenderly to rest. She
was buried in a coffin carefully fashioned from the trunk of a
cottonwood tree, and on the brow of a beautiful knoll overlooking the
valley. A grand old oak, still standing, guards the lonely grave of the
dear old mother who was spared the sight of the misery in store for her
loved ones. Could those who performed the last sad rites have caught a
vision of the horrors awaiting the party, they would have known how good
was the God who in mercy took her to Himself.

Chapter II.

Mrs. Donner’s Letters
Life on the Plains
An Interesting Sketch
The Outfit Required
The Platte River
Five Hundred and Eighteen Wagons for California
Burning “Buffalo Chips”
The Fourth of July at Fort Laramie
Indian Discipline
Sioux Attempt to Purchase Mary Graves
George Donner Elected Captain
Letter of Stanton
One Company Split up into Five
The Fatal Hastings Cut-off
Lowering Wagons over the Precipice
The First View of Great Salt Lake.

Presenting, as they do, an interesting glimpse of the first portion of
the journey, the following letters are here introduced. They were
written by Mrs. Tamsen Donner, and were published in the Springfield
(Illinois) Journal. Thanks for copies of these letters are due to Mrs.
Eliza P. Houghton of San Jose, Mrs. Donner’s youngest daughter.
Allusions are made in these letters to botanical researches. Mrs.
Donner, C. T. Stanton, and perhaps one or two others who were prominent
actors in the later history, were particularly fond of botany. Mrs.
Donner made valuable collections of rare flowers and plants. Her
journal, and a full description of the contents of her botanical
portfolios, were to have been published upon her arrival in California.

Though bearing the same date, the letters here presented were written at
different times. The following appeared in the Springfield Journal, July
23, 1846:

Near the Junction of the North
and South Platte, June 16, 1846.

My Old Friend: We are now on the Platte, two hundred miles from Fort
Laramie. Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good,
and food plentiful. The water for part of the way has been indifferent,
but at no time have our cattle suffered for it. Wood is now very scarce,
but “buffalo chips” are excellent; they kindle quickly and retain heat
surprisingly. We had this morning buffalo steaks broiled upon them that
had the same flavor they would have had upon hickory coals.

We feel no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our
encampment unmolested.

Two or three men will go hunting twenty miles from camp; and last night
two of our men lay out in the wilderness rather than ride their horses
after a hard chase.

Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done,
I shall say the trouble is all in getting started. Our wagons have not
needed much repair, and I can not yet tell in what respects they could
be improved. Certain it is, they can not be too strong. Our preparations
for the journey might have been in some respects bettered.

Bread has been the principal article of food in our camp. We laid in 150
pounds of flour and 75 pounds of meat for each individual, and I fear
bread will be scarce. Meat is abundant. Rice and beans are good articles
on the road; cornmeal, too, is acceptable. Linsey dresses are the most
suitable for children. Indeed, if I had one, it would be acceptable.
There is so cool a breeze at all times on the plains that the sun does
not feel so hot as one would suppose.

We are now four hundred and fifty miles from Independence. Our route at
first was rough, and through a timbered country, which appeared to be
fertile. After striking the prairie, we found a first-rate road, and the
only difficulty we have had, has been in crossing the creeks. In that,
however, there has been no danger.

I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little
difficulty. The prairie between the Blue and the Platte rivers is
beautiful beyond description. Never have I seen so varied a country, so
suitable for cultivation. Everything was new and pleasing; the Indians
frequently come to see us, and the chiefs of a tribe breakfasted at our
tent this morning. All are so friendly that I can not help feeling
sympathy and friendship for them. But on one sheet what can I say?

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