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 the following bibliography.
Breen, Patrick, Manuscript Diary. The only known journal kept by a member of the Donner Party during the winter of entrapment. Transcribed and published in many later works. Available online in original manuscript at the University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library.
Bryant, Edwin, What I Saw in California, University of Nebraska Press, 1985, originally published by D. Appleton & Company, 1848, is probably the most literate of the first-hand accounts of the 1846 migration. Bryant started out with Russell, as did the Donners, Reeds, Keseburgs, Eddys, and probably most of the other families, so his description of the journey through Kansas and Nebraska also describes the Donner Party’s journey. He also includes Sinclair’s statement based on Eddy’s journal, and an early transcription of Breen’s Diary.
Curran, Harold, Fearful Crossing, Nevada Publications, 1982, is the most thorough tracing of the Trail through Nevada. Pictures and maps locate the Hastings Cutoff and the Humboldt Trail, and diary entries describe the crossing.
DeLafosse, Peter, editor, Trailing the Pioneers: A Guide to Utah’s Emigrant Trails, 1829-1869, Utah State University Press, 1994, is a guidebook to the five major Utah emigrant trails, including the Hastings Cut-off. It describes how to reach the surviving portions of the Cut-off from Skull Valley to Donner Spring (Pilot Peak).
Farnham, Elizabeth, California, In-doors and out, (1856). An early published account of the Donner tragedy, based on interviews with the Breen family. Republished in Johnson’s Unfortunate Emigrants, and Available online at the Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
The Itch to Move West, National Geographic, Vol. 170, No. 2, August 1986, provides information about the California and Oregon Trails, and the usual excellent photos, including a photograph of one of the few surviving copies of Hasting’s Guide.
Graydon, Charles K., Trail of the First Wagons Over the Sierra Nevada, The Patrice Press, 1986, is the most accurate tracing of the 1844-46 Trail from Truckee Meadows (Reno) to Mule Spring, using USGS topographic maps and photographs. Includes some diary accounts to verify the trail location.
Hall, Carroll, Donner Miscellany, The Book Club of San Francisco, 1947, is a transcription of the Miller-Reed diary and the various documents found in it when it was donated to Sutter’s Fort by the estate of Martha
Patty Reed Lewis. The existence of this diary was not known for 100 years, which led King to question its authenticity.
Hawkins, Bruce R. and Madsen, David B., Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons, University of Utah Press, 1990, provides information about the trail near the Great Salt Lake, and a thorough archaeological analysis of the remnants of the Reed and Donner wagons.
Hardesty, Donald, The Archaeology of the Donner Party, University of Nevada Press (1997), details the 1984 excavation of the Murphy Cabin site, and the several 1980’s excavations at Alder Creek searching for the Donner campsite. Hardesty has published his findings in historical society journals, but this book adds historical perspective and an article by Donald Grayson, one of the co-authors, analyzing the causes of death among the party.
Hastings, Lansford, The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, originally published in 1845, was an influential work promoting emigration from the US to British Oregon and Mexican California. The Donner Party followed Hastings over his Cutoff until they became trapped by the snows. Reprinted by Applewood Books, Bedford, MA. Available online at the University of Virginia’s American Studies hypertext collection.
Hill, William, The California Trail Yesterday and Today, Tamarack Books, 1993, provides a good history of the trail with historic and contemporary photographs of the landmarks on the Trail.
Houghton, Eliza Donner, The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate, University of Nebraska Press, 1997, is a reprint of the long out of print history by one of the surviving Donner girls. Available online at the Library of Congress American Memory Collection. As the author was only three at the time of the events, her book is actually based on stories told her by her older sisters and half-sisters. Some of her notes of those stories have been published elsewhere, notably in The Dogtown Territorial Quarterly.
Johnson, Kristin, ed., Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party, Utah State University Press, 1996, contains reprints of long out of print accounts, including the 1871 articles by Reed and McCutchen, William Graves’ 1877 article, and Eliza Farnham’s 1856 article based on interviews with the Breens. Also includes Thornton’s chapters related to the Donners, and Virginia Reed’s Century Magazine article. Annotated with reference to Morgan, Stewart and other authorities. Ms. Johnson is the most active of present Donner historians, as editor of the Crossroads (Utah) Chapter of the Oregon California Trail Association, and author of the excellent Donner Blog .
Kelly, Charles, Salt Desert Trails, Western Printing Co. (1930), reprinted with new material by Peter DeLafosse, Western Epics, Inc., Salt Lake City (1996), is Kelly’s account of his exploration of the Hastings Cut-off and excavation of the remains of the Reed and Donner wagons. Contains the 1930 photographs and excerpts from the accounts by Leinhard, Harlan, Clyman and others who crossed the cut-off. Copies are available for $13.95 plus shipping from Sam Weller’s Bookstore, 254 South Main Street, Salt Lake City, Utah, 84111, 801-328-2586.
King, Joseph A., Winter of Entrapment, 3rd edition, K&K Publication (P.O. Box 564, Lafayette, CA 94549, phone and fax: 925-228-9205), (P.D. Meany published the book in 1992, and the 2d edition in 1994), provides information about the Breen family, and a copy of John Breen’s manuscript dated November 19, 1877. King takes a different view of the participants than does Stewart, and offers an extensive criticism of the earlier histories, particularly Thornton and Stewart. King has the most extensive Donner bibliography published. The 1994 edition is more of a history and less of an attack on Stewart, but not much. King’s work was the basis for the 1993 PBS program The Donner Party, Ric Burns’ documentary for the PBS series The American Experience. The program is available on DVD from The American Experience.
William G. Murphy’s Lecture and Two Letters to Mrs. Houghton, and with Jack Steed,
Newly-Discovered Documents on the Donner Party: The Donner Girls Tell Their Story, Dogtown Territorial Quarterly, Bill and Penny Anderson, publishers, Paradise, California, 1996 Summer Issue # 26, contains a transcript of Eliza Donner Houghton’s notebook and two letters from William Murphy. Amazingly, Mrs. Houghton’s notebook had not been known to exist until 1994, when her granddaughter Mrs. Ann Houghton Smith donated her grandmother’s papers to the Huntington Library, and provided a typewritten transcript of the notebook to Prof. King. Murphy’s lecture had originally been published in the Marysville Appeal, Sunday, February 9, 1896. The Dogtown Territorial Quarterly is available online.
Korns, J. Roderic and Dale Morgan, editors, West from Fort Bridger: The Pioneering of Immigrant Trails Across Utah, 1846-1850, originally published 1943, revised and updated by Will Bagley and Harold Schindler, Utah State University Press, 1994, contains the journals of Clyman, Bryant, Lienhard and Reed, as well as associated documents such as Jefferson’s notes (but not the map) and Hasting’s waybill and map. All sources are thoroughly annotated with references to the present roads and landmarks. The 1994 edition includes a fold-out map of the Trail. The book also covers the Bidwell-Bartleson 1841 route and campsites, and Hensen’s Salt Lake Cut-off.
Lienhard, Heinrich, From St. Louis to Sutter’s Fort, 1846, Translated and edited by Erwin G. and Elisabeth K. Gudde, University of Oklahoma Press,1961, is the manuscript prepared by one of the five German boys who followed Hastings across the Cut-off just ahead of the Donner Party. Although currently out of print, the Lienhard manuscript will soon be republished by the Southern Illinois University Press, which has just published the first volume of Lienhard’s manuscript as New Worlds to Seek: Pioneer Heinrich Lienhard in Switzerland and America, 1823-1846, John C. Abbot, editor, (1999). Available online at the Library of Congress American Memory Collection
McGlashan, C.F., History of the Donner Party, 1881, Stanford University Press, 1940, was the first comprehensive history, based on previously published letters and journals, and on interviews and correspondence with 24 survivors. McGlashan’s writing is sometimes overly sentimental, but his is probably a fairer and more accurate account than Stewart’s work of fifty years later. Available online at Project Gutenberg, the Internet’s oldest provider of free electronic books.
Morgan, Dale, Overland in 1846, Talisman Press, 1963, republished by Bison Book/University of Nebraska Press, 1993, volumes 1 and 2, provides diaries and letters of the California-Oregon Trail, including the diaries of Hiram Miller, James Reed, Patrick Breen and the Relief Parties, letters from Virginia Reed, James Reed, Charles Stanton, George Donner and Tamsen Donner, and newspaper accounts from various correspondents. Importantly, this work contains the map drawn by T.H. Jefferson, who traveled with the Dunleavy party ahead of the Donner Party over the Hastings Cut-off. This map is extraordinarily accurate and detailed, and shows the trail as it existed before the Mormons and the 49’ers improved it.
Mullen, Frank, The Donner Party Chronicles: A Day-by-Day Account of a Doomed Wagon Train, 1846-1847, Nevada Humanities Committee, 1997, is a compilation of the weekly articles Mullen wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for the 150th anniversary. The articles provide a mostly accurate chronology of events, with present-day photographs of the sites. To order, send $30, plus $6 for postage and handling to the Nevada Humanities Committee, PO Box 8029, Reno, NV 89507, 800-382-5023, fax 702-784-6527.
Murphy, Virginia Reed, Across the Plains in the Donner Party, Vistabooks, 1995, previously published Outbooks, 1980, originally published in Century Magazine, July, 1891, includes original illustrations by Frederic Remington and others. Later editions include photographs from Kelly’s 1929 expedition to the site of the abandoned Reed wagons. This is one of the few first-hand accounts by someone who probably remembered the events (Virginia was 12), unlike the popular book by Eliza Donner Houghton (who was four years old in 1846). Even so, Virginia copies factual errors from Thornton and others, rather than relying on her own 1847 letter.
Steed, Jack and Richard, The Donner Party Rescue Site, published by the authors, 1991, is the phenomenal story of two amateur historians/archaeologists who rediscovered and excavated Johnson’s Ranch adobe, which had been incorrectly located on maps and by historians for 125 years. The 1994 edition is updated with additional maps and information locating the original and later 49er trails from Bear Valley to Johnson’s.
Stewart, George R., The California Trail, University of Nebraska Press, 1962, provides information about the establishment of the Trail, with a brief summary of the Donner story.
Stewart, George R., Ordeal by Hunger, University of Nebraska Press, 1960, is probably the most popular telling of the Donner story. As noted by King, Stewart was an English professor, not a historian, and his work, first published in 1936, is told more as a novel than a history. However, Stewart tells the story dramatically and his location of the trail and major encampments has proven to be quite accurate. The 1960 edition contains a reconciliation of Stewart’s theories with the Miller-Reed diary and other materials not available in 1936. It also contains transcripts of Patrick Breen’s diary and Virginia Reed’s 1847 letter.
Thornton, J. Quinn, Oregon and California in 1848, Harper Brothers, 1849, was the first book account of the Donner Party. Thornton’s journal of his crossing with the Russell party in 1846 provides details of the Trail and the Donners and Reeds up to the
parting of the ways at the Little Sandy. Thornton describes the difficulties he faced taking the Applegate Cutoff to Oregon and excoriated Applegate as a liar for promoting the route. Two years later he traveled to California where he interviewed Donner Party survivors and rescuers including William Eddy and researched accounts previously published in the California newspapers. Thornton’s description of the events set the tone for most of the Donner Party histories to this day. Thornton’s chapters about the Donner Party were excerpted and published as The California Tragedy, Biobooks, 1945, and Camp of Death, Outback Books, 1986.