The Donner Party Essay

This essay has a total of 2861 words and 12 pages.

The Donner Party

The Donner Party

It's one of the greatest tragedies of all time, yet few of us know the whole story. The
story is of the misled, inexperienced Donner Party. It is the story of eighty-one
emigrants who traveled in hopes of reaching the land of California. Forty-seven, whose
hopes were crushed by many contributing factors. The most horrible and misleading factor
of all was the human mind and its persistent need to explore and conquer everything,
whether within reach or not in the shortest and fastest way possible. This aspect of
taking the shortest route that led to the downfall, and in some cases, to death, of the
Donner Party.

It was advertised as a new and shorter route west to California and saved pioneers 350 to
400. Unfortunately some crucial things weren't mentioned in this advertisement, one of
which was the fact that the new route had never been traveled upon; and two, that the
writer was a power hungry man whose only motive was to lure settlers into California under
his direction so he could establish the area as an independent republic. This route was
known as Hasting's Cutoff and was mentioned in Lansford W. Hasting's book, "The Emigrant's
Guide to California and Oregon." Many pioneers eager to make their fortunes, escape
disease, or to satisfy their hankering for a new experience read this book and, I might
add, all as quickly as possible. Among the readers of the book was James Reed.

James Frasier Reed was a business man who had made a small fortune in his Illinois
practice. He had logical reasons for moving to California. One, his wife, Margaret Reed,
suffered from horrible headaches and it was assumed that she would fare better in a nicer
climate and James Reed wanted more money. He felt that this could be accomplished in a
land as rich as California. Reed also had four children: Virginia, Martha, James, and
Thomas whom he wanted better lives for, and he believed this could be attained in
California. When James Frasier Reed first read "the book" he was blown away by the idea of
getting to California safely and quicker, he acted upon it and found others to travel with
him. Among these other travelers were the Donners, the Graves, the Breens, the Murphys,
the Eddys, the McCutcheons, the Kesebergs, and the Wolfingers. Thanks to an advertisement
in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette, two Mexican boys, and a number of bachelors.

On April 16, 1846, the emigrants that would soon be named the Donner Party, loaded their
nine wagons and, departed from Springfield, Illinois. Their 2500 mile journey to San
Francisco would take them approximately four months and they would cross three mountain
ranges, deserts, plains, and rivers. Little did they know they would be the first ever to
travel this route.

The party's first stop was Independence, Missouri, where they bought food and traded for
any necessities. When they left Independence on May 12, 1846, they were amidst a violent
thunderstorm. This storm soon ceased and they eventually reached the eastern bank of the
Big Blue River where they attempted to build ferries that would transport them and the
wagons to the other side. During this a two-day process, the Donner Party experienced its
first death. Margaret Reed's mother, Sarah Keyes, who had been suffering from consumption,
died at the river and was immediately buried there. On May 31, the last of the wagons was
ferried over the river, and the Donner Party was on its way again.

On June 16, the party was two hundred miles from Fort Laramie and had traveled, so far,
without difficulty. Finally on June 27, one week behind schedule, they reached Fort
Laramie where Reed ran into an old friend from Illinois, James Clyman, and quickly
interrogated him about the new route. Clyman gave his honest opinion stating that the road
was barely possible on foot and would be impossible with wagons. He advised Reed to take
the regular wagon trail, not this new, false route, but Reed, too enchanted by the idea of
a shorter and briefer route, ignored Clyman's warning and embarked on the path to Fort

On July 17, when the party was attempting to cross the Continental Divide, a man carrying
a letter from Lansford W. Hastings met them. The letter stated that Hastings would meet
the party at Fort Bridger and that he would personally take them over the pass. The party
was happy about this and continued on in good spirits.

On July 20, they reached the Sandy River, which was the parting of the routes. It was
either Hasting's new cutoff or the normal, withered wagon path. The Donner Party went the
risky way towards Fort Bridger while all of the other wagons took the other route. This
was the point of no return. The Donner Party had sealed its fate with Lansford W. Hastings
and his new route to California.

While on their way to Fort Bridger, the party decided to pick a leader, and though James
Reed was the obvious choice, some believed that he was too aristocratic, so they chose
Donner. One week after this they rolled into Fort Bridger where they were greeted with a
note from Lansford W. Hastings, not the man himself. The note said that he had left with
another group of emigrants and that they should follow and try to catch up. The Donner
Party spent four days at Fort Bridger and then they pressed on for the rest of what they
thought was a seven-week journey.

On July 31, the party entered Hasting's cutoff and for the first week they made ten or
twelve miles a day, pretty good for a group of nine wagons. On August 6, the party came to
a halt. They had received another note from Hastings. It stated that the road was
impassable, they were four days behind the other party and Hastings wouldn't come back to
lead them. He wrote that they should take the other trail through the salt basin. The
party heeded this warning and turned off into the wilderness. They decided to tackle
Emigrant Canyon and due to this they barely made two miles a day. It took the party six
days to travel eight miles and when they discovered that some of their wagons would have
to be abandoned, morale sank to the deepest depths. Finally reached the Salt Lake Shore.
It had taken them one month, not one week as Hastings had claimed, to reach this shore,
and since they were tired of blaming Hastings, they blamed James Reed instead.

On August 25, Luke Halloran, one of the young men traveling with the Donners died of
consumption. On August 30, the party began to cross the desert. They believed it would
only take them two days and two nights (according to Hastings). The desert sand was very
moist and deep and due to this, the wagons sank into the sand causing major delays for the
slow party. On the third day of desert travel the water ran out and Reed's oxen ran away.
When they finally emerged from the eighty-mile desert two days later they had lost a total
of thirty-two oxen and had to abandon one of the wagons. The desert had cost them most of
their desperately needed supplies. Since they couldn't get back to Fort Bridger, two of
the two young men traveling with the Donners, William McCutcheon and Charles Stanton rode
ahead to retrieve more supplies.

On September 26, they reached the Humboldt River where Hasting's second cutoff met up with
the original. They had traveled extra 125 miles on that second route and cursed Hastings
for this extra mileage. The Donner Party would now have to travel the rest of the way
alone. Hastings had made it to Sutter's Fort with eighty other wagons in early September
and was no longer there to leave notes for them. The members of the Donner Party were
furious at this point.

On October 5, this tension took its toll. Two wagons became entangled and John Snyder the
teamster of one wagon began whipping the oxen of the other. James Reed was infuriated and
ordered him to stop. When he wouldn't, Reed grabbed his knife and stabbed John Snyder in
the stomach. Snyder, died, and James Reed had to be protected by his family so no one
could harm him in retaliation for the death. His family, however, couldn't protect him. He
was to be banished, although Lewis Keseberg claimed hanging was the rightful punishment
for such a crime. Reed was last seen riding off towards the west.

Another example of the harshness of the Donner party occurred on October 7, when Lewis
Keseberg turned Mr. Hardcoop, a Belgian traveling with him, out of his wagon. Mr. Hardcoop
went around knocking on the wagon doors, but no one would let him in. He was last seen
sitting by the roadside, unable to walk.

On October 12 another tragedy occurred. The Piute Indians killed twenty-one oxen with
poison tipped arrows, which made a grand total of one hundred animals dead on the trip.

On October 16, they reached the Truckee River, the gateway to the Sierra Nevada. On
October 19, when their food source was completely wiped out, Stanton and McCutcheon
emerged leading seven mules loaded with food, two Indian guides, and news of a clear path
through the Sierra Nevada. On October 31, when they were 1,000 feet from the summit, the
Donner wagon broke, and when George Donner was fixing it he cut his hand. The party fell
greatly behind.

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