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The Donner Party was a group of Californiamarker-bound Americanmarker emigrants caught up in the "westering fever" of the 1840s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846–1847, some of them resorted to cannibalism.

Party formation

The nucleus of the party consisted of the families of George Donner, his brother Jacob, and James F. Reed of Springfield, Illinoismarker, plus their hired hands, about 33 people in all, with nine covered wagons. They set out for California in mid-April 1846, arrived at Independencemarker, Missourimarker, on May 10, 1846, and left two days later.

On May 19, 1846, the Donners and Reeds joined a large wagon train captained by William H. Russell. Most of those who became members of the Donner Party were also in this group. For the next two months the travelers followed the California Trail until they reached the Little Sandy River, in what is now Wyomingmarker, where they camped alongside several other overland parties. There, those emigrants who had decided to take a new route ("Hastings Cutoff," named after its promoter, Lansford Hastings), formed a new wagon train. They elected George Donner their captain, creating the Donner Party, on July 19. At its height, it numbered 87 emigrants with 23 wagons.

The Donner Party continued westward to Fort Bridgermarker, where Hastings Cutoff began, and set out on the new route on August 31. They endured great hardships while crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desertmarker, finally rejoining the California Trail near modern Elkomarker, Nevadamarker, on September 26. The "shortcut" had taken them over three weeks longer than had they used the customary route. They met further setbacks and delays while traveling along Nevada's Humboldt River.

Snow at Donner Pass

When they reached the Sierra Nevada at the end of October, a snowstorm blocked their way over what is now known as Donner Passmarker. Demoralized and low on supplies, about three quarters of the emigrants camped at a lake (now called Donner Lakemarker), while the Donner families and a few others camped about six miles (ten kilometers) away, in the Alder Creek Valley.

The emigrants slaughtered their remaining oxen, but there was not enough meat to feed so many for long. In mid-December, fifteen of the trapped emigrants, later known as the Forlorn Hope, made snowshoes and set out for Sutter's Fortmarker, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away. This group consisted of 10 men and five women. When one man gave out and had to be left behind, the others continued, but soon became lost and ran out of food. Caught without shelter in a raging blizzard, four of the party died. The survivors resorted to cannibalism, then continued on their journey; three more died and were also cannibalized. Close to death, the seven surviving snowshoers—two men, and all five of the women—finally reached safety on the western side of the mountains on January 18, 1847.

Relief efforts

Californians rallied to save the Donner Party and equipped a total of four rescue parties, or "reliefs." When the First Relief arrived, 14 emigrants had died at the camps and the rest were extremely weak. Most had been surviving on boiled ox hide, but there had been no cannibalism. The First Relief set out with 21 refugees on February 22.

When the Second Relief arrived a week later, they found that there had been no more deaths, but some of the 31 emigrants left behind at the camps had begun to eat the dead. The Second Relief took 17 emigrants with them, leaving 14 alive at the camps. When the Third Relief arrived later in March, they found nine left. They rescued four children, but had to leave five people behind. By the time the Fourth Relief reached the camps on April 17, only one man was left alive. After salvaging property from the Alder Creek camp, the relief left, taking Louis (or Lewis) Keseberg with them. The last survivor of the Donner Party arrived at Sutter's Fort on April 29.

Of the original 87 pioneers, 39 died and 48 survived. Five died before reaching the Sierra Nevada, 14 at the lake camp, eight at Alder Creek, and 12 while trying to escape the mountains. Two Native American who helped bring supplies from Sutter's Fort were trapped along with the emigrants and also died, bringing the total to 41 dead.


  • Donner Memorial State Parkmarker, near the town of Truckee, Californiamarker, at the eastern end of Donner Lake, commemorates the disaster; the area where the Donner families camped at Alder Creek has been designated a National Historic Landmark.
  • Several places in western states take their names from the Donner Party: Donner Hill, Donner-Reed Pass, and Donner Spring in Utah; Donner Springs in Nevada; and Donner Lake, Pass, Peak, and Summit in California.
  • The route the Donner Party blazed into the Salt Lake Valley via Emigration Canyon was used the following year by the vanguard company of Mormon pioneers. The section from Fort Bridger to the valley became part of the Mormon Trail and remained the main route to Salt Lake City into the 1860s.
  • The memory of the Donner disaster prompted Californians to fund relief teams during the gold rush. They sent men eastward along the trails to take food and water to overland emigrants, saving many lives.


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