The Donner Party’s Outrageous Challenge to Survive: (Falling Snow, Falling Lives Blog Series Part 1 of 2)
California lured countless emigrant family groups and bachelors in the 1840s. It showed to those who were already bewitched or acquainted with prosperity. James Reed, brothers George and Jacob Donner, were like his old and warm friends. George was a rich farmer and was set to take his wife, Tamsen, and their five children. And Jacob Donner was set to take his wife, Elizabeth, and seven children. Also, the Donner’s friend, John Denton. (Another of Reed’s close friends, Abraham Lincoln, was intrigued too; but, he resisted the draw of the wagon trains headed west to seek better lives.) Soon they’d be met by families of the Breens, Eddys, Graves, Kesebergs, McCutcheon’s, Murphys, and the Wolfingers. Final counted, were the several teamsters and bachelors. (The original group included 32 persons and nine wagons and eventually grew to 87 persons and 23 wagons.)
An Endless Yearning For Achieving A Reachable Dream
Many families were unsatisfied with continuing life in Springfield, Illinois; they simply sought happier lives than they already had. Also, passionate about adventure and all its declared benefits. Below are the main three causes or reasons.
1. Easier bought real estate like farmland.
2. Fertile land to cultivate a number of crops.
3. Kindly Winters, the specific and rare gifts that were only discovered in the generously sunny, mild climate of the California Valley.
With high hopes, the Donner Party (Reed-Donner Party, sometimes called) left rather late during the pioneer period of wagon trains leading West to California and Oregon. All had considered and realized the dangers of the Indians which increased whenever they were at war with different tribes. They prepared items to offer for trade. Also, concealed their money, as it was cleverly sewn inside quilts and clothing.
Dangerous Persuasions from the Greedy Author and Adventurer Hastings
However, dealing with time delays worried them little, if at all. The Donner Party’s uncertainties were totally rushed away by reading Landsford W. Hastings’s Guidebook, The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.
The heavily promoted Hastings Cutoff promised to save 350-400 days and be an easy clear path by horseback or wagon.
The Donner Party mistakenly relied on this shortcut as fair luck. They recognized it not as an extreme risk but an adventure they could handle. It would spare some time, food supplies, animals, tools, and water. Enough to realize their clear pass over the Sierra Mountains and ultimately to Alta, California. Before, any first abundance of falling snow would have the opportunity to ambush them and trap them there.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened, then came falling lives. Almost all perished during that horrific winter. Most would agree on the leading cause: The Donner Party’s decision to take that untested shortcut. Their trust in a singular man and his respected name and writings.
Yet, the dream of the Donner Party to settle in California was too powerful. Where their children would grow enormous field crops, corrals of cattle and horses, and various farm animals to graze among ample estates. All the pioneer emigrants understood this unyielding desire for migration and high adventure. The California trail West was doomed to be the adult Donner’s last. Although, some of their children did survive. The Reeds and the Breens families had all mercifully managed to survive. The complete tragedy is that just 40 members of the Donner Party survived. Most died of dreadful cold and deprivation at Truckee Lake (presently Donner Lake) camps and nearby Alder Creek.
Ill Preparation, Complete Dependence on the Overloaded Wagons
Reed was a successful furniture maker. He wished that his wife, Margret’s health, may be improved. She wasn’t like most folks–fully convinced by every recorded word of Hastings’ guidebook. The Hastings Cut-off, California Trail, she declared it with a lot of doubt.
Like all of them, Margret’s dread was of the Indians watching too intently on the emigrants. Yet, she backs her husband Reed’s ideas and judgments on everything. Margret’s elder mother, Sarah Keyes, was headstrong like Reed. No persistence from her sons made her hesitate to leave with her only daughter. (She died near Marysville, Kansas, early on May 25 of the Journey.)
Reed’s custom-made wagon was influenced by careful thought for the comforts of his mother-in-law, Sarah Keys, his wife, and four children. It was tall, with two platforms, and had extra conveniences like a stove, bed, and more space for storage. They used the two-story wagon well for sleeping and cooking. Followed Hastings’ advice, from the amount of food to take on the journey to the type of clothing to wear. They felt as totally prepared as the seasonal California and Oregon wagon train pioneers.
Reed and his stepdaughter, Virginia, regularly went riding on horseback. Instead of experiencing the roughness of the wagon created by the movement of pairs of yoked oxen. Many emigrants frequently selected to ride on horses, mules, and ponies. Even walking beside the wagon was slightly better except for the elderly, young, or individuals with poor health.
Three wagons for each pioneer clan. In one wagon, they relaxed in, cooked, and slept. One wagon held their life’s possessions. And one wagon carried food and other essential supplies. The families took their dogs, beef cattle, oxen, horses, ponies, and mules, besides acquiring a few teamsters, assistants, or bachelors to accompany them.
The Donner Party surmised, somewhat incorrectly, that they could always hunt. Or had the insurance of animals if the worst came to survive. Never seriously thought that many animals could be lost, taken, or killed. Or afraid they’d drift off unseen in a desperate search for water or to eat grass. Oxen, dogs, horses, mules, and ponies, they simply never pondered the risk; and, the results of them being gone. They did appear to take some essential safeguards against sickness or injury and included remedies in their supplies.
A sum of nine wagons started for Independence, Missouri. They arrived in May 1846 when it should have been mid-April. Nearly a month wasted. They’re progressing on the California trail was slow by mistakes of overloaded wagons, holding unnecessary discussions, and extra resting. It added further delay. Sarah Keyes’s burial at the Kansas river put them another day behind. Meanwhile, the Donner Party was adding emigrants to their expanding caravan.
Reaching one of the supply posts, Fort Laramie, Wyoming. It’s right before turning toward the Great Salt Lake Desert (presently Utah) and Wasatch Mountains. James Clyman, a mountain man and old friend of James Reed: Not to pick up the unreliable shortcut, The Hastings Cut-off. “barely passable on foot..” Yet Reed had persuaded the skeptics it would be fine. Clyman’s idea about Hastings Cutoff being “… impossible with wagons.” They believed it to be ridiculous. They had to cut down and remove trees and brush to make a new trail in the Wasatch Mountains. They had to give up their possessions in the desert to make it through the salt flats. They had lost 32 oxen to thirst or wandered away. They were forced to leave behind about five wagons.
The vote was in favor of taking this new route.
The warnings were rejected. Unimpressed by known adventurer and party organizer Clyman. Except perhaps some of the Donner Party’s wives weren’t allowed to vote. Being able to recover sometime seemed suspicious and even foolish to them. George Donner and James Reed trusted Hasting’s guidebook practically as the bible. The Donner Party eventually cursed Hasting for their physical and mental pressures, violence, and deaths of illness and starvation within the Truckee Lake and Alder Creek camps. Ironically, George Donner and James F. Reed would be partially faulted.
The Hastings Cut-off was a fatal error that caused them a critical nearly month’s delay in their journey to California. And a safely pass before the earliest snowy blizzards come to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Further lowered their resources to almost nothing.
Questions for Objective Study:
- The Donner Party didn’t return immediately to the traditional California trail?
Was it the bravery and doggedness of George Donner and James Reed as lead pioneers? Or simply an illogical thought system when evaluating vital situations to the risk of life?
Facts to Consider:
Had they received the letter by journalist Edwin Bryant at the Wyoming trading post addressed to James F. Reed warning that the Hastings Cut-off was “too rough for the Donner Party’s wagons,” would it have made any important difference? (Jim Bridger had failed to deliver it.)
James Clyman warned at the last trading post about the desert being not passable by wagon, and all would be at serious risk of thirst and dying. Why were they inflexible, determined to gamble for high stakes, saving time against the most merciless and firm of the Great Salt Lake Desert, Utah?
What are your answers?
- The reasons the Donner Party didn’t better maintain their supplies and beasts? Underestimate or Overestimate of their real skills and control? Or, blind to the conditions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and Sierra Nevada Mountain Range? Or had their common sense left them altogether?
Facts to Consider:
They were in extreme terror of the numerous Indian tribes. Justified certainly. However, they appeared to plan for that. Taking things with them for trading. Or resolved to possess protection for themselves with guns, knives, and other weapons. Though peculiarly, and most significantly, not in much terror of the consequences if they ran out of good storage of food, water, or intangible time.
- The reason for their lack of evasion of dangerous conflict and erupting violence within their own party? Were they capable of much better and calmer communication? Or merely stunned by desperation, exhaustion, hunger, sickness, and thirst.
Facts to Consider:
When the Donner Party rejoined the California Trail close to present-day Elko, Nevada. Two teamsters had clashed over yoked oxen getting tangled together, ceasing the wheels of their wagons. James Reed tried to interrupt this strife. He was hit like the oxen with the sharp whip. In self-defense, Reed struck John Snyder and killed him with his knife. He was banished and left with his ally, Walter Herron. Although they wanted to execute him, the begging of Mrs. Reed and the loyalty of a couple of others combined, probably saved him.
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