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A Winter Tragedy: The Donner Party in 1846/47 (Part 3)

January 1, 2012

A little introductory information was offered in a previous post about the Donners leaving Sangamon County, Illinois to emigrate to California. James Reed had organized a wagon train of families from the Springfield area who wanted to move to the west coast. He was spurred on by reading of a shortcut through the Great Basin and by much conversation that was sweeping the nation at the time. California was still owned by Mexico, but would soon be a territory of the U.S.

The original wagon train left in mid-April, 1846. By the end of June, they had arrived at Fort Laramie, a travel oasis of sorts, in what we now know as the state of Wyoming. At least two significant events happened at this stop. First, James Reed met a friend of his there who had just taken the “shortcut” and strongly encouraged Reed to not take it–a recommendation Reed ignored. The path was barely passable and would be terrible with wagons. Second, Landsford Hastings, the author of the book recommending the “shortcut” had left a message at Fort Laramie for emigrants that he would meet up with them at Fort Bridger (also in present-day Wyoming) and take them through the pass.

The wagon train journeyed forward and when they arrived at Little Sandy River (Wyoming) in mid-July the party split into two factions. There were two trails to take and most of the participants chose to take the better known and safer trail, even though it would be a longer path. A minority chose to stay with the Hastings shortcut; that group elected George Donner to be their new leader.

As they continued traveling that summer and early autumn, the group of emigrants being led by George Donner had ongoing difficulties. The journey through the Wasatch Mountains took much longer than they had anticipated; the trek through the Great Salt Lake Desert was fraught with obstacles which left their food and water supply dangerously low. They also lost a couple of wagons in the difficult crossing. Recognizing their plight, they sent two young men ahead to buy supplies and bring them back to the wagon train.

The party continued to travel through the autumn but with the strain of the journey taking its toll on the people. One of the tragic accidents along the way was when a wagon axle broke on one of the Donner wagons. While repairing it, George Donner seriously injured his hand–an injury which ultimately led to his death in the mountains and separated the family from the rest of the group. As Eliza P. Donner Houghton (daughter of George) described it in her book, The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate:

Uncle was giving the finishing touches to the axle, when the chisel he was using slipped from his grasp, and its keen edge struck and made a serious wound across the back of father’s right hand which was steadying the timber. The crippled hand was carefully dressed, and to quiet uncle’s fears and discomfort, father made light of the accident, declaring that they had weightier matters for consideration than cuts and bruises (from Chpt 6).

 . . . Father’s hand became worse. The swelling and inflammation extending up the arm to the shoulder produced suffering which he could not conceal. Each day that we had a fire, I watched mother sitting by his side, with a basin of warm water upon her lap, laving the wounded and inflamed parts very tenderly, with a strip of frayed linen wrapped around a little stick. I remember well the look of comfort that swept over his worn features as she laid the soothed arm back into place. (from Chpt 8)

Because of this accident, the George and Jacob Donner families and their help stayed behind while the other kept moving forward toward a location that had a cabin. When the early winter snow storm stopped all forward movement, the Donners were still about six miles behind the others and had to build makeshift tents of the blankets they had with them. As the storms got worse, it became clear everyone would be stranded in the mountain snow without adequate food and shelter.

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From → Aderman/Bates

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