Since we have been on the Platte, we have had the river on one side and
the ever varying mounds on the other, and have traveled through the
bottom lands from one to two miles wide, with little or no timber. The
soil is sandy, and last year, on account of the dry season, the
emigrants found grass here scarce. Our cattle are in good order, and
when proper care has been taken, none have been lost. Our milch cows
have been of great service, indeed. They have been of more advantage
than our meat. We have plenty of butter and milk.
We are commanded by Captain Russell, an amiable man. George Donner is
himself yet. He crows in the morning and shouts out, "Chain up, boys -
chain up," with as much authority as though he was "something in
particular." John Denton is still with us. We find him useful in the
camp. Hiram Miller and Noah James are in good health and doing well. We
have of the best people in our company, and some, too, that are not so
Buffaloes show themselves frequently.
We have found the wild tulip, the primrose, the lupine, the eardrop, the
larkspur, and creeping hollyhock, and a beautiful flower resembling the
bloom of the beech tree, but in bunches as large as a small sugar-loaf,
and of every variety of shade, to red and green.
I botanize, and read some, but cook "heaps" more. There are four hundred
and twenty wagons, as far as we have heard, on the road between here and
Oregon and California.
Give our love to all inquiring friends. God bless them. Yours, truly,
Mrs. George Donner.
The following letter was published in the journal of July 30, 1846:
South Fork of the Nebraska,
Ten Miles from the Crossing,
Tuesday, June 16, 1846.
Dear Friend: To-day, at nooning, there passed, going to the States,
seven men from Oregon, who went out last year. One of them was well
acquainted with Messrs. Ide and Cadden Keyes, the latter of whom, he
says, went to California. They met the advance Oregon caravan about 150
miles west of Fort Laramie, and counted in all, for Oregon and
California (excepting ours), 478 wagons. There are in our company over
40 wagons, making 518 in all, and there are said to be yet 20 behind.
To-morrow we cross the river, and, by reckoning, will be over 200 miles
from Fort Laramie, where we intend to stop and repair our wagon wheels.
They are nearly all loose, and I am afraid we will have to stop sooner,
if there can be found wood suitable to heat the tires. There is no wood
here, and our women and children are out now gathering "buffalo chips"
to burn, in order to do the cooking. These chips burn well.
Mrs. George Donner.
At Fort Laramie a portion of the Donner Party celebrated the Fourth of
July, 1846. Arriving there on the evening of the third, they pitched
camp somewhat earlier than usual, and prepared a grand dinner for the
Fourth. At the Fort were a large party of Sioux who were on the war-path
against the Snakes or Pawnees. The Sioux were, perhaps, the most warlike
Indian nation on the great prairies, and when dressed in their war paint
and mounted on their fleet ponies, presented a truly imposing
appearance. The utmost friendliness prevailed, and there was a mutual
interchange of gifts and genial courtesies. When the Donner Party
pursued their march, and had journeyed half a day from the Fort, they
were overtaken and convoyed quite a distance by about three hundred
young warriors. The escort rode in pairs alongside the train in true
military fashion. Finally halting, they opened ranks; and as the wagons
passed, each warrior held in his mouth a green twig or leaf, which was
said to be emblematic of peacefulness and good feeling.
The train was never seriously molested by the Sioux. On one occasion,
about fifty warriors on horseback surrounded a portion of the train, in
which was the Graves family. While generally friendly, a few of the
baser sort persisted in attempting to steal, or take by force, trivial
articles which struck their fancy. The main body of Indians were
encamped about half a mile away, and when the annoyances became too
exasperating, W. C. Graves mounted a horse, rode to the encampment, and
notified the Chief of the action of his followers. Seizing an
old-fashioned single-barreled shotgun, the Chief sprang upon his horse
and fairly flew over the plain toward the emigrant wagons. When within
about a hundred yards of the train he attracted attention by giving an
Indian whoop, which was so full of rage and imprecation that the
startled warriors forthwith desisted from their petty persecutions and
scattered in every direction like frightened quail. One of the would-be
marauders was a little tardy in mounting his pony, and as soon as the
Chief got within range, the shotgun was leveled and discharged full at
the unruly subject. Three of the buckshot entered the pony's side and
one grazed the warrior's leg. As if satisfied that his orders to treat
the emigrants in a friendly manner would not be again disregarded, the
Chief wheeled his horse about, and in the most grave and stately manner
rode back to his encampment.
On another occasion, Mary Graves, who was a very beautiful young lady,
was riding on horseback accompanied by her brother. They were a little
in the rear of the train, and a band of Sioux Indians, becoming enamored
with the maiden, offered to purchase her. They made very handsome
offers, but the brother not being disposed to accept, one of the Indians
seized the bridle of the girl's horse and attempted to carry her away
captive. Perhaps the attempt was made in half jest. At all events the
bridle was promptly dropped when the brother leveled his rifle at the
On the twentieth of July, 1846, George Donner was elected Captain of the
train at the Little Sandy River. From that time forward it was known as
the Donner Party.
One incident, not at all unusual to a trip across the plains, is
pointedly described in a letter written by C. T. Stanton to his brother,
Sidney Stanton, now of Cazenovia, New York. The incident alluded to is
the unfriendliness and want of harmony so liable to exist between
different companies, and between members of the same company. From one
of Mr. Stanton's letters the following extract is made:
"At noon we passed Boggs' company on the Sweetwater; a mile further up
the river, Dunlavy's; a mile further, West's; and about two miles beyond
that, was Dunbar's. We encamped about half way between the two latter.
Thus, within five miles were encamped five companies. At Indian Creek,
twenty miles from Independence, these five companies all constituted
one, but owing to dissensions and quarreling they became broken into
fragments. Now, by accident, we all again once more meet and grasp the
cordial hand; old enmities are forgot, and nothing but good feeling
prevails. * * * * * The next morning we got rather a late start, owing
to a difference of opinion arising in our company as to whether we
should lie by or go ahead. Those wishing to lie by were principally
young men who wished to have a day's hunting among the buffaloes, and
there were also a few families out of meat who wished to lay in a supply
before they left the buffalo country. A further reason was urged that
the cattle were nearly fagged out by hard travel, and that they would
not stand the journey unless we stopped and gave them rest. On the other
side it was contended that if we stopped here the other companies would
all get ahead, the grass would all he eaten off by their thousand head
of cattle, and that consequently, when we came along, our cattle would
starve. The go-ahead party finally ruled and we rolled out."
As will presently be seen, the dissension existing in the company, and
the petty differences of opinion and interest, were the fundamental
causes of the calamities which befell the Donner Party.
When the company was near Fort Bridger, Edward Breen's leg was broken by
a fall from a horse. His mother refused to permit amputation, or rather
left the question to Edward's decision, and of course, boy-like, he
refused to have the operation performed. Contrary to expectation, the
bone knitted, and in a month he walked without a crutch.
At Fort Bridger, which was at this time a mere camp or trading post, the
party heard much commendation bestowed upon a new route via Salt Lake.
This route passed along the southern shore of the Lake, and rejoined the
old Fort Hall emigrant road on the Humboldt. It was said to shorten the
distance three hundred miles. The new route was known as the Hastings
Cut-off, and was named after the famous Lansford W. Hastings, who was
even then piloting a small company over the cut-off. The large trains
delayed for three or four days at Fort Bridger, debating as to the best
course to pursue. It is claimed that but for the earnest advice and
solicitation of Bridger and Vasquez, who had charge of the fort, the
entire party would have continued by the accustomed route. These men had
a direct interest in the Hastings Cut-off, as they furnished the
emigrants with supplies, and had employed Hastings to pilot the first
company over the road to Salt Lake.
After mature deliberation, the party divided, the greater portion going
by Fort Hall and reaching California in safety. With the large train,
which journeyed the old road, this narrative is no longer interested.
Eighty-seven persons, however, took the Hastings Cut-off. Their names
are included in the ninety mentioned in the preceding chapter, it being
remembered that Mrs. Sarah Keyes had died, and that Lewis and Salvador
were not yet members of the party. For several days the party traveled
without much difficulty. They reached Weber River near the head of the
well-known Weber Canyon. At the first crossing of this river, on the
third of August, they found a letter from Hastings stuck in the split of
a stick, informing them that the road down the Weber Canyon was in a
terrible condition, and that it was doubtful if the sixty-six wagons
which L. W. Hastings was then piloting through the canyon would ever
succeed in reaching the plain. In the letter, Hastings advised all
emigrants to avoid the canyon road, and pursue over the mountains a
course which he faintly outlined. In order to obtain further
information, and, if possible, to induce Hastings to return and act as
guide, Messrs. Reed, Stanton, and Pike were sent forward to overtake the
advance company. This was accomplished after a fatiguing trip, which so
exhausted the horses of Stanton and Pike that these gentlemen were
unable to return to the Donner Party. Hastings was overtaken at a point
near the southern end of Great Salt Lake, and came back with Reed to the
foot of the bluffs overlooking the present city of Salt Lake. Here he
declared that he must return to the company he was piloting, and despite
the urgent entreaties of Reed, decided that it was his duty to start
back the next morning. He finally consented, however, to ascend to the
summit of the Wahsatch Mountains, from which he endeavored, as best he
could, to point out the direction in which the wagons must travel from
the head of Weber Canyon. Reed proceeded alone on the route indicated,
taking notes of the country and occasionally blazing trees to assist him
in retracing the course.
Wm. G. Murphy (now of Marysville, Cal.) says that the wagons remained in
the meadows at the head of Weber Canyon until Reed's return. They then
learned that the train which preceded them had been compelled to travel
very slowly down the Weber River, filling in many irregular places with
brush and dirt; that at last they had reached a place where vast
perpendicular pillars of rock approached so closely on either side that
the river had barely space to flow between, and just here the water
plunged over a precipice. To lower the wagons down this precipice had
been a dreadful task.
The Donner Party unanimously decided to travel across the mountains in a
more direct line toward Salt Lake. They soon found rolling highlands and
small summit valleys on the divide between Weber River and Salt Lake.
Following down one of the small streams, they found a varying, irregular
canyon, down which they passed, filling its small stream with brush and
rocks, crossing and recrossing it, making roads, breaking and mending
wagons, until three weeks' time had expired. The entire country was
heavily covered with timber and underbrush. When the party arrived at
the outlet of this stream into Salt Lake Valley, they found it utterly
impassable. It was exceedingly narrow, and was filled with huge rocks
from the cliffs on either side. Almost all the oxen in the train were
necessary in drawing each wagon out of the canyon and up the steep
overhanging mountain. While in this canyon, Stanton and Pike came up to
the company. These gentlemen encountered great hardships after their
horses gave out, and were almost starved to death when they reached the
Instead of reaching Salt Lake in a week, as had been promised, the party
were over thirty days in making the trip. No words can describe what
they endured on this Hastings Cut-off. The terrible delay was rendering
imminent the dangers which awaited them on the Sierra Nevada. At last,
upon ascending the steep rugged mountain before mentioned, the vision of
Great Salt Lake, and the extensive plains surrounding it, burst upon
their enraptured gaze. All were wild with joy and gratitude for their
deliverance from the terrible struggle through which they had just
passed, and all hoped for a prosperous, peaceful journey over pleasant
roads throughout the remainder of the trip to California. Alas! there
were trials in the way compared with which their recent struggles were
insignificant. But for the fatal delay caused by the Hastings Cut-off,
all would have been well, but now the summer was passed, their teams and
themselves were well-nigh exhausted, and their slender stock of
provisions nearly consumed.
A Grave of Salt
Members of the Mystic Tie
A Desolate Alkaline Waste
Abandoned on the Desert
A Night of Horror
A Steer Maddened by Thirst
Yoking an Ox and a Cow
The Emigrant's Silent Logic
A Cry for Relief
Two Heroic Volunteers
A Perilous Journey
Letters to Capt. Sutter.
Near the southern shore of great Salt Lake the Donner Party encamped on
the third or fourth of September, 1846. The summer had vanished, and
autumn had commenced tinting, with crimson and gold, the foliage on the
Wahsatch Mountains. While encamped here, the party buried the second
victim claimed by death. This time it was a poor consumptive named Luke
Halloran. Without friend or kinsman, Halloran had joined the train, and
was traveling to California in hopes that a change of climate might
effect a cure. Alas! for the poor Irishman, when the leaves began to
fall from the trees his spirit winged its flight to the better land. He
died in the wagon of Captain George Donner, his head resting in Mrs.
Tamsen Donner's lap. It was at sundown. The wagons had just halted for
the night. The train had driven up slowly, out of respect to the dying
emigrant. Looking up into Mrs. Donner's face, he said: "I die happy."
Almost while speaking, he died. In return for the many kindnesses he had
received during the journey, he left Mr. Donner such property as he
possessed, including about fifteen hundred dollars in coin. Hon. Jas. F.
Breen, of South San Juan, writes: "Halloran's body was buried in a bed
of almost pure salt, beside the grave of one who had perished in the
preceding train. It was said at the time that bodies thus deposited
would not decompose, on account of the preservative properties of the
salt. Soon after his burial, his trunk was opened, and Masonic papers
and regalia bore witness to the fact that Mr. Halloran was a member of
the Masonic Order. James F. Reed, Milton Elliott, and perhaps one or two
others in the train, also belonged to the mystic tie."