The Donner Party

by

Daniel M. Rosen

In honor of the 150th anniversary of the Donner Party, I created a daily diary of the Donner Party's journey.  The daily information includes diary entries and quotes from original sources and histories.  Now that the anniversary is over, I will keep the diary on the web for your research, education and enjoyment.  

The Donner Party was the most famous tragedy in the history of the westward migration.  Almost ninety wagon train emigrants were unable to cross the Sierra Nevada before winter, and almost one-half starved to death.  Perhaps because they were ordinary people -- farmers, merchants, parents, children -- their story captures the imagination.  The logs on this site contain the words of the participants from their diaries, letters and first-hand accounts, balanced by the perspective of later historians.  The logs describe the locations of their trail and camps in detail so you can follow in the Donner Party's wagon tracks and footsteps.  

 


One-hundred and sixty-eight years ago this month, the Donner Party weathered storms in their cabins.  They had beef from the cattle they had slaughtered, but not much other food.  And they did not have much beef, because many cattle had wandered off and were lost in the snow.  The cold, harsh conditions and limited food supply took their toll.  Jacob Donner, Joseph Reinhardt, Samuel Shoemaker and James Smith died at the Donner tents on Alder Creek, shown in the drawing, below.  The Reed's servant Baylis Williams died at the lake cabins.  


Franklin Graves and Charles Stanton prepared for another attempt to cross the mountains by making snowshoes.  On the 16th, seventeen people set out, carrying only eight pounds of beef each.  Two, Charles Burger and eleven-year old William Murphy, turned back.  The other fifteen, ten men and five women, with Charles Stanton guiding, crossed the Pass and proceeded down the Yuba River.  But Stanton weakened and fell behind.  The others had to leave him, and quickly became lost when they missed the crossing over Emigrant Gap to Bear Valley.  Instead, they started down the steep canyons of the North Fork of the American River, where they were stopped by a storm on Christmas Eve. Unable to keep a fire lit, and without food, they huddled together for warmth for six days.   Franklin Graves, the teamster Antonio, Patrick Dolan, and twelve-year old Lemuel Murphy died.  Faced with starvation and death, the others did what they had to do to survive, and ate the flesh of the dead.  They called this the "Camp of Death," shown in the drawing below.   

 

Back at the cabins, conditions remained harsh, and the trapped emigrants celebrated Christmas and New Years the best they could.  Mrs. Reed brought out some dried fruit and bacon that she had put away for a Christmas treat.  Mrs. Murphy boiled bones for her family.  But the emigrants continued to suffer, and Charles Burger died on the 29th.

 


Read the Donner Party Diary:


View maps of the Donner Party's route (the Hastings Cut-off), the camps at Alder Creek and Donner Lake, and the route of the Snowshoe Party.

Read what happened to the members of the Donner Party, those who survived, and those who didn't.

Read about the salvage operations, and the remains of the Alder Creek campsites and the Lake Cabins.

Read reports from other Donner Party buffs who visited historic sites and made new discoveries, or re-discovered a bit of history.


Fortunate and Unfortunate Families

The families of the Donner Party faced horrible choices and made tough decisions the best they could.  Even today, people face these same horrible choices of whether to wait for rescue or go for help. 

Yahoo! News published a Good Morning America report about a woman who survived for six days by eating tomatoes and snow after being stuck in the snows in the Sierra Nevada mountains south of Lake Tahoe, California.  The woman and her boyfriend were on their way home from Citrus Heights, CA to Gardnerville, NV on November 29 when they apparently took their Jeep Cherokee off-road, where it became stuck in the snow.  The boyfriend went for help on foot.  When he failed to return, the woman set off on foot, eating some tomatoes she had with her and taking shelter in a hollow tree.  The couple was reported missing after they failed to reach their home, but the police search was hampered by bad weather and limited cell phone coverage.  The woman's brother continued searching along the highway until he found her crawling along the road.  Searchers later found the boyfriend's body several miles from the highway.


Sources

On January 16, 1847, The California Star, Yerba Buena, reported a "most distressing situation" for "a party of emigrants."  Ever since then, there has been no shortage of printed material about the Donner Party.  The challenge has been to find accurate accounts. Often, the contemporary sources have not been the most reliable, such as the newspaper reports of the Relief parties and the first book published about the Donner Party. There have been almost as many fictional accounts as histories.  The best selling "history" is actually told as a "dramatized" story. I have tried to rely on first-person accounts and well-researched histories, as listed in my bibliography of Donner sources.


Links to Other Donner Party Websites

Visit other websites for more information on the Donner Party, and related history websites.


What's New

Frank Fara included his song "Donner Pass" on his new CD "Songs of the Untamed West."  Mr. Fara has been a performer and songwriter since he was a teen in Phoenix, Arizona.  For years he and his wife Patty performed at Lake Tahoe casinos and on the road, where they couple enjoyed visiting historical sites, including Donner Memorial Park, the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona and Coffeyville, Kansas where the Dalton Gang met their end.  "Donner Pass" tells the story including their abandonment by a guide who promised them a short-cut to California. You can learn more about Frank and hear his songs on his web site.  You can buy his CD or download the MP3s from cdbaby.

 

 

 

 

For those who want a better idea of Donner Pass, Arcadia Publishing announced the newest addition to their Images of America and Postcards of America series.  Donner Summit from local author Arthur Sommers  includes more than 200 vintage photographs, with a postcard set of 15 historic images.  The book includes images of trains, automobiles and skiing in the Donner Pass region.  Arthur Sommers has previously authored Auburn, a visual history of Placer County's seat, and Placer County, both for Arcadia's Images of America series. In this volume, Sommers used many images from his personal photograph collection to bring Donner Summit's past to life. Additionally, he used images from the Donner Summit Historical Society, Nevada County Historical Society, Placer County Museums Division, and the California State Library in Sacramento. Available at area bookstores, independent retailers, and online retailers, or through Arcadia Publishing at (888)-313-2665 or www.arcadiapublishing.com.

 

 

 There is a new contender for the single book to read to learn about the Donner Party.  Historian, novelist and poet Allan W. Eckert, seven-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, has written Dark Journey:  The Tragedy of the Donner Party."  Mr. Eckert, author of the historical narrative series The Winning of America, says that "Dark Journey is fact, not fiction.  ...  certain techniques normally associated with the novel form have been utilized to help provide continuity and narrative flow."  Thus, Mr. Eckert follows in the tradition of George Stewart, who said his book Ordeal by Hunger "is strictly factual, based upon the evidence of the sources and upon reasonable deduction from that evidence; it is not fiction."  Dark Journey also includes quotes from primary sources, which follows the tradition of C.F. McGlashan's History of the Donner Party.  Even with the extensive footnotes and quotations from source materials, a few errors crept into "Dark Journey."  For example, Eckert refers to Margaret Reed as "Peggy" throughout the book, but it was Margaret Breen, not Margaret Reed, who was known as Peggy.  So when Eckert attributes to Margaret "Peggy" Reed the greeting to the First Relief:  "Are your men from California or are you angels come from heaven?" we're not sure who said it.  Daniel Rhoads, who told the story to Prof. Bancroft in 1873, simply called her "the first woman" who had emerged from a hole in the snow.  Margaret Reed's daughter Virginia wrote in 1891 that Mr. Breen, not a woman, was the first one up the icy steps, so it could have been Mrs. Breen who spoke the words.  Either way, it's a great story, and that's what "Dark Journey" is.  Available from the publisher Jesse Stuart Foundation.

 

Anacapa Entertainment brought its movie The Donner Party "based on the true story of survival," direct to DVD on January 26, 2010.  You can order a copy from Amazon.com.  The movie was a featured film at the Austin Film Festival.  You can watch a clip at MovieWeb.com.  The movie was originally titled "The Forlorn" which was much more evocative of the story and more accurate (the movie is about the Snowshoe Party known as the Forlorn Hope, not a story of the entire Donner Party).  It was written and directed by TJ Martin and stars Crispin Glover ("Beowulf" and "Back to the Future") as William Foster, and Clayne Crawford ("Wristcutters: A Love Story") as William Eddy.  The issue of cannibalism was on the minds of the filmmakers, as it is a recurring plot device.  The actors took up the theme, such as Crispin Glover who said that "This historical incident is a fascinating portion of American history and rich material for an actor to sink one's teeth into. The pun is intended."  Other actors include Mark Boone Junior ("Thirty Days of Night") as Franklin Graves, Jamie Allman ("The Notebook") as Eleanor Eddy, Catherine Black ("American Psycho") as Ann Fosdick, and Christian Kane ("Friday Night Lights") as Charles Stanton. The movie was filmed near the actual site and most of the actors are near the ages of the characters they portray, with the notable exception of star Crispin Glover, 48, playing 28 year-old William Foster.  There have been two name changes, probably to avoid the confusion of having characters with similar names.  Sarah Foster sounds like Sarah Fosdick but most Donner buffs don't notice because we refer to these two married women by the names of their families, Murphy and Graves.  For the movie audience, the filmmakers call Mrs. Fosdick "Ann."  William McCutcheon was changed to "Milt," no doubt because there were already two other Williams (Foster and Eddy).  The movie has a fairly realistic look, which you can see on stills from the movie website.  None of the actors took the extreme steps taken by Emile Hirsch who lost 41 pounds to play Chris McCandless in "Into the Wild."  Celia Hayes, author of "To Truckee's Trail", a novel about the Stephens Party of 1844, reviewed the The Donner Party movie on her blog.  I agree with her view that the movie looked realistic, since it was filmed on location, but in the name of drama they changed some events so the movie is not strictly accurate in historical detail.  I won't catalog all the historical inaccuracies, but Kristin Johnson, author of "Unfortunate Emigrants", did a good job of mentioning the most significant in her Donner Blog.

 

  Students at Elitha Donner Elementary School in Elk Grove, California, won a SEVA award in the 4th to 6th Grade category for their documentary video about their school's namesake Elitha Donner.  Elitha was the daughter of George Donner.  She survived the Donner Party and settled in the Elk Grove area after marrying Benjamin Wilder.  The students interviewed experts, including California State historian Steve Beck from Sutter's Fort and historical novelist Naida West, author of River of Red Gold: The True Story of Donner Party Survivors.  Ms. West lives on the property along the Cosumnes River east of Elk Grove where Elitha's house was located, and shows the site in the video.  The SEVA awards are presented by the Sacramento Educational Cable Consortium.  You can see the video on the SECCTV website.

 

Celia Hayes has published "To Truckee's Trail," a novel based on the 1844 journey of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party, who were the first party to successfully bring wagons to California over the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The Party, guided by the Mountain Man Caleb Greenwood, met a Paiute Indian named Truckee who showed them a route over a desert to a river that flowed from a lake below a pass in the mountains.  The Stephens Party were able to bring their wagons over Truckee's Pass, although they were unable to bring them down the mountains until the next Spring.   Ms. Hayes tells their story with imagined diary entries from the participants in addition to the narrative.  The book is available from the publisher BookLocker.  The Donner Party followed Truckee's Route two years later, and their fame led to the renaming of Truckee's Pass and Truckee's Lake to Donner Pass and Donner Lake.  Only the river remains named for Truckee. 

 

Poet Shana Youngdahl has written a long poem entitled "Donner: A Passing."  This is not a history in poem form, but the author's attempt to convey the emotional difficulty of the journey and tragedy.  Each of the 25 poems describes a particular event, from leaving Springfield to the rescue of Keseburg.  The poems are short and terse, similar to haiku, but they cause the reader to pause and consider the event.   Ms. Youngdahl is originally from Paradise, CA and draws on the history and landscape of the west in her poetry.  Her poetry has been anthologized is the book White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press, 2007), and appeared in many national literary magazines including Shenandoah, Margie and Paper Street.  She has received writing residencies from Norcroft and Devil's Tower national monument. She holds a BA in English from Mills College and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Minnesota.  The book is available from Finishing Line Press as a chapbook (a short book of 26 pages).

 

The Metropolitan Playhouse in New York presented Mortal Decisions: a diary of the Donner Party, a one-man show written by and starring Stu Richel.  Mr.Richel explores the questions surrounding the Donner Party, such as "why them?" and "how would I have measured up?"  Mortal Decisions was premiered by Northside Theater Company in San Jose, California in 1994, and Mr. Richel performed it at the 150th Anniversary gathering in Reno, Nevada.  The show ran on February 8, 9, 15 and 16, 2008.
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Author and photographer Mark McLaughlin received the Northern California Publishers and Authors award for Best Nonfiction Book of 2006, for his new book The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm. a history of the Donner Party enhanced with research into the weather conditions.  The Donner history is well written and includes numerous quotations from primary sources, especially concerning the weather.  Among other topics, Mark addresses the evidence that the winter of 1846-47 was unusually wet, and the evidence that the snow depth at Donner Lake was 22 feet.  He supplements the history with recent archaeology including the excavations at Alder Creek.  The book is available from Mark's website.  The website also includes climate data, snowfall and snowpack measurements from 1879, a collection of weather stories and other interesting information.

 

 

"The Donner Party," Ric Burns' 1992 documentary for the PBS series The American Experience, is now available on DVD, and for only $19.98, from Shop PBS.   This is an excellent documentary that tells the story of the Donner Party using traditional sources and the then-new research of Prof. Joseph A. King.  With readings from primary sources, and footage of scenes from the Trail and the cabins, this is an easy way to learn a lot about the Donner Party in 90 minutes of enjoyable viewing  For other Ric Burns films, including The Way West, about the conflict between the Native Americans and the European, visit Steeplechase Films.

 

 

 

Thanks to the efforts of the Historic Donner Trail Committee a portion of the California Trail from Donner Lake to the Summit won't be abandoned as a public road.  This section of the Trail saw less use after the discovery of Roller Pass in 1846, but it became the main route with the construction of the Dutch Flat and Donner Lake Wagon Road in 1852, and later the Lincoln Highway.  It decayed after the construction of US Highway 40 and became a "Jeep" trail until a landowner blocked it.  A group of citizens has been fighting to preserve the old trail, and has stopped an attempt by Nevada County to abandon the road.  The fight isn't over so visit the Historic Donner Trail Committee website to see how you can help.

 

Frankye Craig, Donner Party buff and author of the soon to be released book, "The Fateful Journey of Tamsen Donner" hosted a very successful Donner Party cross-country bus tour and symposium in October, 2006.  The guided bus tour went from Independence, Missouri to Donner Lake  The guides were Trail historian Ross Marshall and Donner Party historian Frank Mullen author of the Donner Party Chronicles.  The commemoration and symposium was held at Boomtown Hotel near Reno, Nevada, and included a dinner with Frank Mullen Jr. as a story-teller.  The commemoration included a bus tour of the trail from Verdi through the encampments and the summit.  Thanks to  symposium and tour organizer Frankye Craig,  E-Mail: FrankyeEBD@aol.com,  Phone: +1 (775) 747-1139

 

 

The Meadow Brook Theater presented "Devour the Snow", described as "a riveting courtroom drama drawn from the harrowing saga of the ill-fated Donner Party and encompasses the struggles of man vs. nature and man vs. man. One of the earliest recorded slander trials in American history this factual account follows Lewis Keseberg, a German emigrant and survivor of the tragic Donner Party expedition, and his suit for slander against several other survivors, who have accused him of being a grave robber and murderer. Directed by David Regal this production features award winning MBT actor Dennis E. North (Art, Of Mice and Men)."  Actually Keseburg did not sue other survivors, he sued Ned Coffeemeyer of the Fourth Relief. The Meadow Brook Theater is on the campus of Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.  The performances ran from March 15 to April 9, 2006.

 

Cathy Ward and Eric Wright mounted an exhibition entitled "Destiny Manifest - Eden's End" at Cafe Gallery Projects London, The Gallery by the Lake, Southwark Park, London SE 16 2UA from 13th July to 7th August 2005.  Destiny Manifest is a body of work inspired by a 7500 mile journey that traced the wagon roads of pioneer America. This journey was precipitated by a long-standing interest in the tragic Donner Party story.  The exhibit comprised a 10 ft by 40 ft panoramic painting, sculptures, video projections and photographs.  Visit the exhibition website for more information.

 

 

 

You'd have to be pretty brave to write a Donner Party Cookbook, and Terry Del Bene, Ph.D. is.  His book combines a history of the Donner Party with recipes for meals similar to those prepared by wagon train emigrants.  Mr. Del Bene is an anthropologist who has participated in archaeological digs and living history demonstrations of life on the Oregon-California Trail.  So he knows what it takes to survive for five months on the Trail.  He also knows what it takes to sell books, so in the proud tradition of previous Donner Party books he plays on the lurid aspects of the story.  He includes sample invitations to a "Donner Party ... Lose Weight and Party All at the Same Time!"  But other than the gory cover art and a few shocking statements such as "None of the members had any recipes for human flesh before starting their journey,"  the book is a solid history of the Donner Party and a solid cookbook of trail food.  Recipes range from home style favorites such as corn bread and mince meat to camp-out specials such as antelope pudding and elk roast.  The recipes use modern ingredients and methods, although Mr. Del Bene details how food was prepared in the 19th Century.  Mr. Del Bene puts his own spin on history, such as calling Stanton's return and Reed and McCutcheon's attempted return "Relief Expeditions" when that title is usually associated with the parties that reached the survivors in the Spring, which Del Bene calls "Rescue Parties."  But other than a few minor points, this is a well-researched history with endnotes to explain the more subtle points, even though Del Bene says in the preface that he "tried to refrain from the cumbersome system of footnoting."  Available from the publisher Horse Creek Publications and from bookstores near you, including Amazon.com.

The Discovery Channel showed an episode about the Donner Party on its Unsolved History series.  The Discovery Channel sponsored a dig at the Donner family campsites along Alder Creek, led by Oregon state archaeologist Julie Schabilitsky.  The dig uncovered fire-cracked rocks, bone fragments and various artifacts.  The bones exhibit evidence of butchering and are being analyzed at the University of Oregon to determine if they are human remains.  You can buy the show on DVD or VHS

You can see a National Park Service video about an earlier dig in 1994 by University of Nevada students, at the Have Fun with History.com website.

Michael Bitterman and T.G. Harper have written a musical Forlorn Hope:  A Donner Party Musical, based on the writings of Virginia Reed and focuses on the Reed family.  The play follows the Reeds from their hopeful sendoff in Springfield, Illinois, through their troubles on the Trail and entrapment at the Lake, to James Reed's rescue of his family.  Michael Bitterman is a veteran Broadway composer.  

Disney's "One More Mountain" is no longer available from Disney. This made-for-TV movie tells the story from Margaret Reed's viewpoint, and emphasizes her struggle to keep her family alive.  Starring Meredith Baxter. When it was available, Disney charged $99 a copy.

Trails West Inc., is a non-profit corporation formed by volunteers dedicated to preserving trail markers on the California Trail through Nevada.  Starting June 23, 2000 Trails West volunteers revised some signs, and relocated others, to reflect new research about the trail from the Humboldt Sink to Truckee.  This created a controversy, as reported by Frank Mullen, Jr. in the Reno Gazette-Journal of June 10, 2000.  You can also judge for yourself by examining maps and reading diaries describing the Truckee Meadows.

The preservation of the Emigrant Trail is an ongoing battle.  The County of Washoe, Nevada considered a request by A&K Earthmovers to build a new gravel pit in the southeast Truckee Meadows area.  The proposed plans include leveling a 200-foot knoll covering 68 acres that overlook the Emigrant Trail.  According to retired high school teacher and trail historian Fred Horlacher, the gravel pit won't disturb the Trail, but it will be an eyesore.  Read the complete story in the Reno Gazette-Journal of October 11, 1999,

Marian Calabra has written The Perilous Journey of the Donner Party, a highly regarded book for readers aged 9 to 12. Ms. Calabra tells the story from Virginia Reed's point of view, supplemented by other sources and historical details. The book has been critically praised for its sensitive handling of the issue of cannibalism, allowing young readers to understand the hard choices faced by the Donner Party. Includes a complete transcript of Virginia Reed's 1847 letter. My then 9 year old daughter read the book to prepare for her trip to Sutter's Fort, where she portrayed Virginia Reed. My daughter enjoyed the book almost as much as I did. Published by Clarion Books.  Available at Amazon.com.

The 3rd edition of Winter of Entrapment by Joseph A. King was published posthumously.  The late Prof. King offered a new perspective on the Donner Party, and explored the biases in the previous histories.  The older editions are carried at most of the historical sites and visitor centers in "Donner County".  The new edition is also available from the publisher: K&K Publication, P.O. Box 564, Lafayatte, CA 94549, phone and fax: 925-228-9205.  Also available at Amazon.com

The Emigrant Trail Museum at Donner Memorial State Park, Donner Pass Road, 2 miles west of Truckee, contains displays about the emigrant trail over the Sierra, including artifacts from the Donner Party.  Artifacts include William Foster's rifle, right, Tamsen Donner's china, and wagon parts excavated from the Salt Desert.  The bookstore sells many of the histories of the Donner Party.  The rangers lead regular Donner Party History hikes at least twice and some-times three times a week which start at 10:00 am in front of the museum. They are free to the public.  For information and reservations for trips, call (530) 582-7892.

 

The Oregon-California Trails Association conducts numerous events to preserve the emigrant trail.  Local chapters include MissouriKansas, Nebraska, Utah, California/Nevada, and the Northwest.


Donner Party Descendants

The survivors of the Donner Party settled throughout California, and some became quite famous. As it happens, I used to live in Elk Grove, California, the final resting place of Elitha Cumi Donner Wilder, daughter of George and Mary Blue Donner. John Jameson, a descendant of Elitha Donner, has opened a Web page and is interested in keeping track of other Elitha Donner descendants.


For years Sue Montgomery managed the Denton Family Genealogy website.   Her family continues her efforts, including a page on John Denton.


If you are searching for genealogical information about your family, the US Gen Web Project is an excellent source.


Send a Message

I am very much an amateur historian.  You are welcome to assist in this effort. If you have any corrections, information, pictures, maps or other Donner memorabilia to share, let me know. If you want to send me a message about the Donner Party, or any other topic...E-mail me.


  visitors since April, 2008

Thank you everyone

(c) 1996-2012 Daniel M. Rosen