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A Winter Tragedy: The Donner Party in 1846/47 (Part 2)

December 31, 2011

In Part 1, I shared some resources for reading more about the Donner Party Tragedy and explained the Donner Family relationship to our family tree. Now, let’s go back to the beginning of the journey in Sangamon County, Illinois.

George Donner was born soon after the Revolutionary War, his father having fought for the new nation in that war. He had lived in  North Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Texas, then back to Illinois where he accumulated wealth and land as a farmer in Sangamon County. He and his brother, Jacob, decided to join the company which had formed in the Springfield area to emigrate to California. As George’s daughter, Eliza P. Donner Houghton, wrote in her 1911 book, The Expedition of the Donner Party and its Tragic Fate

Mr. James F. Reed, a well-known resident of Springfield, was among those who urged the formation of a company to go directly from Sangamon County to California. Intense interest was manifested; and had it not been for the widespread financial depression of that year, a large number would have gone from that vicinity. The great cost of equipment, however, kept back many who desired to make the long journey.

James Reed was the leader of the wagon train when it left. According to the Legends of America story of the Donner Party, Reed had read a book by Landsford Hastings, The Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, which told of a shortcut across the Great Basin which would eliminate as much as 400 miles from the trip. As it turns out, it seems Mr. Hastings had never actually taken the journey to know if it really worked and in an ironic twist, left California to test out the shortcut on the same day the Reed/Donner wagon train left Illinois.

On April 15 or 16, 1846, the Donners said good-bye to their grown children who stayed behind in Sangamon County and left with the younger children for their last great adventure. With several other families in addition to the Reed and Donner families, the nine wagons began their journey. Along the way they had experiences with Indian attacks, murder and intrigue from with the group, changes of leadership among the party, delays, and several changes of who was traveling with the convoy at any given time. With all that happened, what had been anticipated to be a four-month expedition turned into a ten-month trial.

Here is a map from The Donner Party Diaries showing their path:

Donner Party Map

The Journey of the Donner Party to California (Source: The Donner Party Diaries)


The story continues here.

From → Aderman/Bates

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