Donner-Reed Party Utah/Nevada Tragedies
By Donald J. Rosenberg
Much has been recorded about the tragic events suffered by the members
of the Donner-Reed Party at Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
This article is not meant to rehearse the events of their tragedies
at Donner Lake in 1846. Instead, it will make an honest attempt
to tell about some of the main difficulties encountered after they
entered Utah, which in turn, was responsible for their late arrival
to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and their terrible winter of suffering
was near the end of July 1846 when the wagon caravan reached a point
on the Little Sandy, a branch of the Green River in Wyoming. There
the Oregon Trail makes its bend towards the Northwest. This became
known as the Parting of the Ways, for at this point
the Donner-Reed group decided to follow the Lansford Hasting Cut
Off that was supposed to shave two to three weeks off the
trek to California.
Aug. 3, 1846 the Donner-Reed Party arrived at the Weber River Crossing,
now the present site of Henefer, Utah. Here they found a note from
Hasting that was stuck in the cleft of a tree. He advised them to
wait there for his return and not to go down Weber Canyon, because
it was almost impassable.
with two companions, set out to find Hasting. They found him by
the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Hasting, not waiting for
the party as he promised, caused a week delay. He refused to return
but gave them instructions on the route to follow.
party started up what today is called East Canyon, and past the
area now known as East Canyon Reservoir. This is where their real
trouble began. After about three weeks of hard, discouraging labor
of cutting through obstacles, they finally, by attaching four, six
and at times eight yoke of oxen to each of the heavily laden wagons,
reached the summit. This summit is now known as Big Mountain,
or Donner-Reed Pass.
in mind these pioneers were entirely on their own. Not one of them
had ever seen the country. They had to pick their route each day,
trying to determine which mountain, which pass, or canyon to follow.
This had to be a tiring and discouraging trial. Here they made a
big error: they thought going down the big canyon in front of them
(todays Parleys Canyon), would be their best route. But after
several more days they found the canyon impassable, and, returned
towards Big Mountain. Eventually, they made their way down over
the ridges and through what is now known as Immigration Canyon.
this trail and pass came Brigham Young with his band of Mormon Pioneers
a year later. That began a migration that continued for many succeeding
years. The 30 miles of trailhewed out of the brush and tree-covered
canyons by the Donner-Reed Party at a rate of about a mile a daywas
a lifesaver for the Mormons the following year. They were able to
cover the same distance in a little less than a week.
his book, President George Albert Smith gratefully acknowledges
this service rendered unknowingly to the Mormon Pioneers by the
Donner-Reed Party. It saved the Mormons from arriving in Salt Lake
Valley two weeks later than July 24. The Donners misfortune
became a blessing for the Mormons, enabling them to get a crop planted
and harvested that year. Another two weeks delay would have prevented
a crop maturing in time.
this trail, which the Donner-Reed Party started, came thousands
of immigrants to Western America. Many involved the Forty-niners
on their way to California Gold fields, the Overland Stage, freight
wagons, and caravans sometimes a mile or more in length. The Pony
Express Riders, and Johnsons Army, constituted some of the
traffic to travel the historic pass. Big Mountain is
written prominently and permanently into our history.
Donner-Reed Party camped on the banks of the Jordan River near the
Utah State Fair Grounds on Sept. 2, 1846. At this time the party
consisted of 87 members from six states, two foreign countries,
with Illinois furnishing more than half of the party membership.
Of this group 39 would die and 48 would survive.
much difficulty was encountered crossing the Salt Lake Valley around
the Oquirrh Mountains and past Black Rock Beach into Tooele Valley.
Their next campsite was at Twenty Wells, a series of
small pot hole springs located about one mile northwest from todays
this site they traveled around the north end of the Stansbury Mountains,
then 15 miles south into Skull Valley to Kanaka Springs. In 1889
this site became Iosepa, the settling place for the Hawaiian converts
to the Mormon Church.
Kanaka Springs the immigrants had been instructed by Hasting to
lay in an ample supply of water and feed for their oxen. After resting
and storing all the water they could, they headed across Skull Valley
(then named Spring Valley by Hastings) and stopped at Reden Springs,
located on the east slope of the Cedar Mountain Range. Afterward,
they began to ascend Hastings Pass.
the top of the pass they could see Pilot Peak toward the western
horizon. That would be their next stop for water. They estimated
the distance to be 35 to 45 miles, which they considered could be
easily traveled in two days. But in reality the distance was over
70 miles. This trip would prove to be their greatest test before
reaching the Sierra Mountains.
the end of the third day their water supplies were gone, and both
animals and people were on the verge of perishing. By this time
they had reached the edge of the Mud Flat, about 20 miles from Pilot
Peak Spring. The oxen could go no further without water, so the
pioneers unhitched the oxen from the wagons to take them to water,
and then bring them back for the wagons. But many of the oxen and
cattle, wild from thirst, ran off and were never found.
the party moved across the mud flat, wheels had to be scrapped clean
every few turns because the mud was soft and sticky. Some wagons
were abandoned as oxen dropped in their tracks. Prized pieces of
furniture and personal belongings were removed from wagons to make
the loads lighter.
the party finally reached Pilot Springs, both people and animals
were so spent they stayed for several days before continuing. Just
a few miles north the mud flat is narrower and harder. If the party
had known this their crossing would have been easier.
have visited the site from Pilot Springs many times, and it was
in about 1965 that I last saw the tracks in the mud left by the
Donner-Reed Party wagons. As I stood on the east slopes of the foothills
of Pilot Mountain and looked towards the east across the mud flat,
I could easily make out the wagon tracks left by the party. This
was 120 years after the tracks were made.
times since I have looked for the tracks but I have not been able
to see them; however, I have recently been told that the tracks
can still be seen when the light is reflecting off the flat just
they departed from their Pilot Mountain camp, the party took an
inventory of their stock and supplies. This revealed their food
supply was entirely insufficient to carry them through to California,
even when granting that they might encounter no prolonged delays.
Sutters Fort, now in Sacramento, CA., was the only possible
source from which needed supplies could be obtained.
was passing and with each day, time became more precious. One morning
they awoke to see a white mantle on the twin peaks of Pilot Mountain,
a grim reminder of the lateness of the season. However, there could
be no turning back. The best that could be done was to press forward
as rapidly as the poor, exhausted, labor-worn oxen were able to
drag the wagons.
at this point in the story, I would like to back up several years.
Capt. Bonneville was conducting his study of the Western United
States. He had hand-picked 40 men with a Lt. Joseph Walker as their
leader. This group, after making a trip to the coast, was returning
easterly in the area of the Humboldt River. While traveling eastward
up the valley, they encountered numerous poor, helpless River Indians.
The Walker Party brought upon themselves lasting disgrace by the
ruthless slaughter of scores, perhaps hundreds of these utterly
defenseless nativesjust for sport.
murders and barbarous practices the Indians charged to white men
in general, and that awaited the time when conditions afforded an
opportunity for revenge. The Indians code of ethics was not
an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a life for
according to the Indian code of ethics, white man sooner or later
must pay the penalty. Who would be the victims? They had already
waited years with no opportunity for revenge since no white men
had entered the valley. Finally, the Donner-Reed Party, already
in a weakened, perilous condition, presented an opportunity for
the Indians to balance the score for what they had suffered at the
hands of the Walker Party.
Donner-Reed Partybecause of its own lack of efficient organization,
its petty jealousies, differences of opinion and interest, which
had marred their progressnow became divided into groups or
sections some larger and others smaller. Each group pursued its
own course, guided by its own judgment of what offered the greater
advantages. Each group or section was a law unto itself.
groups, into which the party had become divided, were frequently
widely separated. Sections ahead were often days in advance of those
in the rear. Each knew little or nothing about the other. This small
group arrangement played directly into the plot of the Indians,
and furnished just the opportunity for which they had long awaited.
not only furnished the opportunity, but also offered advantages
and protection to the Indians as the groups were too widely separated
and too much engrossed with their own life and death problems to
be of mutual assistance to each other.
Humboldt Indian method of wrecking revenge was not to go out in
open combat, as they were not yet armed with guns, but to steal
and destroy, to swoop in at every opportunity, and kill or run off
with oxen and otherwise delay progress by every means conceivable.
Donner-Reed Party was so sorely harassed by these tactics that it
became imperative that wagons with their contents be abandoned or
cached. Most were forced to walk, and many carried loads on their
this method, the Humboldt Indians took no lives directly. Indirectly
they were responsible for untold losses, hardships and suffering
that resulted in the loss of many lives.
an example of the Indians tactics, the William Eddy Family,
who were members of the last section of the party, lost a large
number of their animals one early dawn while preparing a hasty breakfast.
A band of Indians killed or ran off with a large number of oxen.
This final Indian attack cost the family everything they had toiled
and labored long and hard to bring from Belleville, Ill. Now all
was lost in a single day. Others in the group suffered in much the
and laboriously the party trudged along. Each day grew more difficult
and wearisome than the previous day. The question in every individuals
mind was, Will we be able to make the Pass before the snows
of winter sets in?
first snows came on Oct. 20 and Oct. 23. When the first big storm
hit, the party was so exhausted they did not bother to corral or
tie up the remaining oxen. Normally this would be acceptable for
under such conditions the animals would stay close to the wagons.
But because of the intensity of the storm, the animals ran off.
most of their remaining food supply, that could have seen them through
the winter, was lost. By Oct. 28 the main part of the Donner-Reed
Party wagons had reached the lake region. But more snow fell. By
Oct. 30 five to eight feet of snow stood in their way.
people in Sacramento, CA knew the Donner-Reed Party was trapped
in the snowbound mountains, but they also knew when the party left
Little Sandy, Wyo., they had cattle and oxen that would provide
plenty of food to survive the winter until help could be sent in
people in Sacramento had no idea the party had lost almost all of
their wagons and animals before reaching Donner Lake.
the end it could be said that if any of the delays the Donner-Reed
Party had along the way could have been avoided, the party would
have made it over Donner Pass, and would not have suffered the terrible
fate that awaited them at Donner Lake.
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