What Was the Donner Party?
In late October 1846, one last push was all that was needed. One last push for the men, women, and children to reach the mountain summit—its highest peak—and cross to the other side. But the pass to the summit was a steep slope covered with several feet of snow. It was too deep for wagons.
The group would have to gather their most precious possessions and walk. There were arguments about what to take. Men wanted to bring boxes of tobacco; women insisted on taking rolls of cloth. A man named Charles Stanton urged them to hurry. If more snow fell, the pass would be blocked. Then there would be no way over the mountain. They had to seize their chance now. Finally, in the early afternoon, the group set out.
Stanton took two Miwok guides, Luis and Salvador, to scout ahead. They were soon pushing through chest-high snow. With great effort, the men reached the summit. There, they stood high on the Sierra Nevada, a mountain range running through western North America. Below, a vast swath of California stretched out before them. This is the place the group known as the Donner Party had traveled thousands of miles to reach. Their journey from the eastern United States had been one of severe hardships. They had endured treacherous mountains, suffocating desert heat, and an almost impassable shortcut. Now, after six exhausting months, the end was in sight. One last push was all that was needed.
Carrying their children and sacks of their belongings, the group struggled in the deep snow. They stepped up and over the top layer only to sink down into it with the next step. Tired and hungry, the group inched forward.
Stanton, Luis, and Salvador tracked back down the pass to help the group to the summit. But to their dismay, everyone had stopped. The group was sitting in the snow, seemingly unable to move. Someone had set fire to a pine tree covered with resin. Hands were being warmed in the glow. Above them, the moon shone as the light faded. Luis warned that a ring around the moon meant more snow was coming.
More snow would surely block the pass ahead of them. If they were to reach the summit, they must leave now. Stanton pleaded with the group to stand up and start walking. They were so close. Just one last push . . . Chapter 1: Westward Ho!
The town of Springfield, Illinois, was alive with activity in April 1846. Families in covered wagons pulled by oxen filled the muddy streets. They were emigrants—people who relocate to settle elsewhere in the hope of better lives—on their way west to California and Oregon. These territories were seen as places where dreams could come true, with warm weather, fertile soil, and enough space for everyone. Thousands of families in the eastern United States made the journey west in the 1840s. They traveled in covered wagons towed by oxen. They were also known as pioneers.
The settlers from Illinois would not be traveling alone. They were joining a train of over five hundred wagons in Independence, Missouri, around three hundred miles west. The two wagon trains would meet up and make the 2,500-mile journey together. It would take six months, across prairies, deserts, and mountain ranges. They were leaving in the spring so they did not become trapped by snow during the winter. They had to plan their journey west carefully.
The Springfield families included the Reeds and Donners. They each had different reasons for emigrating to California. George and Tamzene Donner and their five children were farmers who wanted to leave rising crop prices and infertile land behind. California promised vast green pastures. George’s brother Jacob, his wife, Elizabeth, and their seven children were also with them.
James and Margaret Reed ran a successful mill and a furniture business in Springfield. But Margaret suffered from headaches that James thought the California climate might cure. To make the journey as comfortable as possible for his family, James built a luxurious wagon called the “Pioneer Palace Car.”
Most covered wagons were made simply from wood with a canvas roof. The driver sat on a wooden bench at the front to steer the oxen. Passengers got in and out from an opening in the back. But the Pioneer Palace Car had a side door, a wood-burning stove, cushioned seats, and bunks for sleeping. The Pioneer Palace Car was a marvel but also heavy—it took a team of eight oxen to pull it instead of the usual four.
Oxen were the best animals for towing wagons long-distance. Unlike mules and horses that only ate grass, oxen could eat sagebrush and other shrubs. They were also less likely to run away than mules and horses—but they were slower. Fifteen miles a day by oxen was considered good progress. This meant the families could walk alongside their wagons, which most men did. Others rode horses and mules, while men called “teamsters” were hired to drive the wagons themselves. Including their teamsters, the Springfield families made up thirty-two people. They became known as the Donner Party. A party is another name for a group.
Each family had three wagons. The first wagon was for living in. The second wagon was like a moving truck, with the family’s furniture and other possessions. The third wagon carried supplies for the journey: food, clothes, cooking utensils, and tools. A guidebook at the time suggested travelers take the following quantities of food: 150 pounds of bacon; 200 pounds of flour; 20 pounds of sugar, 10 pounds of coffee, and 10 pounds of salt. Cornmeal, cured meat, dried beans, tea, pickles, mustard, and dried fruit were also suggested.
The Donner Party reached Independence, Missouri, on May 10. The town was buzzing with last-minute preparations. Two days later, the wagon train would “jump off” into the prairie land of what is modern-day Kansas. George Donner’s youngest daughter, Eliza, later wrote:
“[We] took a last look at Independence, turned our backs to the morning sun, and became pioneers indeed to the far West.”
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