The "If" Wagon Train
Donner Party - 1846
With the location
of the California Trail Interpretive Center determined and committees meeting
to decide all sorts of things for the facility, it's time to talk about
the most infamous of wagon trains. Set to be constructed at the Hunter
Interchange west of Elko, the Center will be on a hillside overlooking
where the Donner Party finally joined the main trail after suffering delay
after delay on the Hastings Cutoff.
On September 18, 1846, the group of trail
weary travelers camped at the northern end of Steptoe Valley. The last
month had been devastating on everyone. It seemed like everything had gone
wrong after they turned off the main trail to California. If they had not
followed the advice of Lansford Warren Hastings in The Emigrant's Guide
to Oregon and California, which he published in 1841, they wouldn't
have been in such a pickle. Hastings claimed that his new route saved 400
Actually, all had gone pretty well until the
Donner Party reached the Wasatch Mountains. Considering they didn't have
an experienced guide or, for that matter, a guide at all, that the wagons
were overloaded, and none of the party was trail-wise, the trip hadn't
been bad at all. Then, for weeks, they hacked out a 36-mile wagon trail
through heavy brush and trees. What normally would have been a three or
four day journey stretched into 21 days.
Hardly recuperated from the back-breaking
road building in the mountains, they tackled the salt desert. They had
never seen the likes of this strange land which was white as snow, but
hotter than hell. The guide book said 35 to 40 miles, it was closer to
After six days and nights of battling the
salt plain, they lost five wagons and 36 oxen out there on those damned
death dealing flats. They rested near Pilot Peak (north of present Wendover)
and a short journey of two days found them looking toward the majestic
Their guide book instructed them to head for
the mountain range, turn south down the valley (Ruby), skirt the end of
the range, then turn north (through Mound Valley), and join the California
Trail (between Elko and Carlin). Fourteen days were spent on that dumb
piece of advice from Lansford.
Traveling was easier once they were
back on the main trail along the Humboldt River. A smaller desert, not
nearly as deadly as the salt flats back east, was crossed and they traveled
down into Truckee Meadows (now the site of Reno). There the weary travelers
rested for a week before tackling the final assault over the Sierra Nevada
Mountains into the "promised land.".
In late October, the wagon train started toward
the tops of the mountains. Five days later they arrived at the east end
of Truckee Lake. Snow had been falling for a couple of days. Deciding to
wait until the weather cleared, they camped near the lake. For five days
they watched for a clear view of the summit but the snow continued.
Finally they saw the summit through patches
of gray clouds. Fear struck them for they saw nothing but snow on the formidable
mountains. A small group decided to head for the summit anyway. Soon they
were struggling through five feet of snow with more falling. Within three
miles of the crest there were forced to turn back. By the time they got
back to camp, another four days had been marked off the calendar. A great
white wall of frozen death had trapped them, almost within shouting distance
of their goal.
They settled down into two camps, one around
an old cabin built against a large rock near the east end of the lake,
the other at Dog Valley, a few miles back down the trail.
It was not until February 18, 75 days later,
that the first of four rescue parties arrived from Sutter's Fort. The last
arrived in mid-April.
When a final tally was taken the score was appalling. On the
trail, six members of the party had died; 22 did not survive the rigors
of the two camps, and 14 died from the hardships of the rescue treks. Only
44 of the 87 people who started the trip made it to California.
There wouldn't have been much trouble to speak
of if they had hired an experience guide; if they had not followed the
untried Hastings Cutoff; if they had not spent three weeks chopping out
a road in the Wasatch; if they had not taken the southern route around
the Ruby Mountains; and if they had not spent a week at Truckee Meadows.
If they had eliminated just one of these misadventures, they probably would
have made it over the pass in safety. So sad.
That's almost all the tale. Truckee Lake was
renamed Donner and the high Sierra pass is also known as Donner. It is
common knowledge that most of them resorted to cannibalism following only
one rule: "Don't eat a relative."
One survivor remained when the fourth and
last rescue party made it to the death camp. Lewis Keseberg was found tending
a pot of human stew while legs of oxen, dug from the snow, were untouched.
He looked at the rescuers and simply said that the beef was "too dry eating."
Virginia Reed, who was 12 at the time of the
ordeal, later wrote to a friend back east: "Never take no cut ofs and hury
along as fast as you can."
Note: This story is a bare description of the Donner
Party. Those who want to know more can read about the tragedy in several
books available at libraries or wait a couple of years and experience the
disaster at the Trails Center just west of Elko.
©Copyright 2001 by Howard Hickson. Permission to
use is given but, if any portion or all of this article is quoted, proper
credit must be given.
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