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The Donner Party Tragedy

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The Donner Party Tragedy is a dark hour in the History of California, a group people travelled through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the year 1846 fighting for survival in hope of reaching California.

The Donner party had to face terrain problems, scarcity of food and water, horrendous weather conditions to get to California. This party consisted of men, women, children and elderly. The weaker ones were lost due to starvations and exhaustions, the rest turned to cannibalism to survive the terrible cold and stay alive as they waited for their help from Fort Sutter.

One can not find a tale of such horrific events and such valor as that of The Donner Party anywhere else in the History of Colonization.

This paper describes the harsh conditions of their struggle throughout the journey and how the circumstances led them to break the laws of humanity.

Three families of George Donner, Jacob Donner and James Reed left Springfield, Illinois in their wagons in the year April 1846. They were headed west and it was in May when they reached Independence Missouri that they were joined by others making the same journey. The Donner Party now consisted of almost 88 people on 40 wagons who were un-aware of the horrible fate that awaited them.

Among the travelers, many of them were from Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, New Mexico, Spain, Belgium and Germany. A few others also joined their camp but departed soon and did not face the tragedy that awaited them in the Sierra Mountains.

In the beginning of this journey, there were not many difficulties that had to be over come by the Donner Party yet soon their luck started to change. It all began when the ninety year old mother of Mrs. James Reed died of exhaustion. It was near, what is known today in America as Manhattan Kansas. Soon after the Donner Party celebrated July 4th at Fort Laramie and just after that George Donner was elected the Captain for this caravan on July 20.

From here a new turn took in their journey, when the Party arrived at Fort Bridger they learned of a new route forged by Lansford W. Hastings that was thought to have a shorter distance as compared with the then traditional Fort Hall route. While most wagon trains were taking the newly discovered Fort Hall route the Donner Party decided to take the Hastings Cut Off.

The first week from now, proved to be quite peaceful, it was a letter from Hastings that gave this journey a new twist, Hastings who was responsible for another party of almost 66 wagons insisted on finding an alternative pathway as the terrain that lay ahead was treacherous. The trail was then changed, the party started down the canyon but it did not turn out at they had expected, this route cross-mountain route was extremely difficult and had taken a lot more days to pass then they had originally thought. Now, the hardships had started to abrupt on each step, many of the wagons had to abandoned as they were caught in the marsh of wet salt. Livestock was reducing in number due to scarcity of water, food was running out fast and to top it all, the first snow had started to gather on the mountain peaks. Analyzing this situation two brave volunteers, were sent ahead to Sutter’s Fort to gather sustenance for the rest of the party. Faith of many people began to shatter and people began to find themselves in meaningless fights. This also led to an un-fortunate carnage of John Snyder by James Reed, to James this was an act of self-defense but the party had voted against him, from here Reed left the camp and rode to California alone.

The remaining party reached Humboldt River on September 24th and from here the troubles seemed to only get worse, firstly some of the Indians captured their livestock and another death occurred of a sixty year old man due to exhaustion October 9th.

The two men that had been sent out to Sutter’s Fort now returned with supplies and two Indian guides, the camp now continued forward. When they reached Prosser Creek October 26th, the temperature had already begun to drop, frost had begun to show its clear cold face.

The Donner Party was in for an early winter, there was six inches of snow on the ground and their provisions were running low. The remaining livestock was exhausted and shelter began to be their top most priority. It was then when the people began searching for shelter means between Prosser Creek and Truckee Lake. Families began to raise cabins to escape the harsh cold weather. They did not have much to construct proper cabins, they used logs for walls, wagon parts for doors and leather hides as roofs all they could to survive the cold.

The Donner party had successfully coped up with one of their problems, yet many others remained. In Late November and Early December many attempts were made to get help form Sutter’s Fort but all of them ended in vain. A few still awaited Reed’s return with aid and food but that was not going to happen soon, The Mexican-American War was fuming in California where he joined to serve in the war and prayed that his loved ones who were left behind with the party, would be able to fight and make it to California. It was then a group of 15 brave souls, who decided to attempt the Donner Pass on December 15, 1846.

This group consisted of: Charles Stanton, Franklin Graves, his daughter Mary Graves, another daughter Sarah Fosdick, Sarah’s husband Jay Fosdick, William Eddy, Lemul Murphy, his sister Sarah Foster, and her husband William Foster. Lemul’s other sister Harriet Pike, Amanda MacCutchen, Patrick Doolan, Antonio (Mexican), Luis and Salvadore the Indians and called themselves the ‘Forlorn Hope’. (Tripod, 2007). With poor clothing and inadequate rations, these 15 traveled through heavy snow and among them Charles Stanton who had brought the necessities from Sutter’s Fort was the first one to die, they soon discussed among the left who would sacrifice their lives to save the others. A snow storm added to their wretchedness and members of the group started dying; it was at this point when this terrible journey of mankind took a dreadful turn, the remaining survivors of the group turned to cannibalism, massacring their dead companions, then wrapped and carefully marked the packages so no one would have to devour their relatives. The two Indians who had escorted the group as guides refused the ghastly sustenance and vanished into the woods. Six survivors from the group reached an Indian Village in Late January 1847 and repeated the atrocious tale of death and cannibalism. An immediate notification was sent to Fort Sutter but it would take nearly a month get the aid to the party. On February 19th, 48 survivors were salvaged from the camp where as many others had died of starvations. A second attempt was made soon after that was led by James Reed himself who reported

“When we arrived at the camp side, we found remains of half-eaten bodies all over the camp site; they looked like demons and not human beings”. (Essortment, 2002).

He was blessed to found that his wife and all his four children had survived this battle. A third relief party found George Donner and his family. The final relief party arrived on April 7th for the last survivor. Forlornly, the survivors were reduced to cannibalism in an endeavor to hold on until aid came. For those of you who are wondering, the rest of the wagon train pursued the traditional route and arrived at the planned destination in California. The Donner misfortune resulted in Truckee Lake being re-christened Donner Lake as a commemorative to them and their campsite has been set aside as Donner State Park.

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