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 miles.
     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 80.
     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 Ruby Mountains.
     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."

Howard Hickson

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.

[Back to Hickson's Histories Index]