The Donner Party Tried a Shortcut
If the group of emigrants had had just a few "breaks," almost no one today would have even heard of the Donner Party. The lake and summit would probably be named after Elisha Stephens who successfully pioneered the route two years earlier, in 1844.
The Donner Party missed making its Sierra crossing by about two days. On the way from the east, the group had taken a shortcut that turned out to be 125 miles, and at least two weeks longer, than the then established, Oregon and California Trails. Greed, hubris, blunders, weather, misrepresentations, illness, and mistakes all played a part in the story, but fate also played a hand.
Lansford Hastings, Promoter
One key player in the saga was Lansford W. Hastings, an attorney originally from Ohio. He traveled west to Oregon in 1842 and on down to California, then owned by Mexico, in 1843. He dreamed up a scheme to wrest California from Mexico, which then "owned" California. As part of the scheme, he needed an influx of Americans. He wrote The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California glorifying the west and encouraging easterners to follow him to the "garden of the earth."
The book did influence immigration to California as well as promote Hastings himself and his shortcut. His "new" route, the now infamous Hastings Cutoff, ran south of the Great Salt Lake, The established California trail west ran to the north of the lake. Hastings had never actually traveled over his shortcut at the time of his book.
He followed up on his book when, in1846, he sent an open letter eastward inviting emigrants to meet him at Fort Bridger (WY). Jacob Donner had a copy of the book in his saddlebag as the nine wagons in the Reed-Donner group left, first, Springfield, Illinois (April 16, 1846) and, then, Independence, Missouri (May 12).
This group joined a larger, wagon train and struggled west along the trail toward the land of sunsets. Both the Reeds and the Donners were relatively wealthy, and the Reed-family wagon was an extravagant, two-story land yacht with a built-in, iron stove and fancy seats and beds. Eight oxen were required to pull it, and some historians say it slowed the Reed-Donner group from the normal 10-miles-a-day pace of the main wagon train.
On June 27 the Reeds and Donners reached Fort Laramie (WY), an isolated trading post in the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There, James Reed ran across an old friend, a James Clyman, who had just come from California using the Hastings Cutoff. Reed asked Clyman what he thought of the new route. Clyman, who had just covered the route on horseback, told Reed: "Don't do it. Don't do it because you can't take wagons that way. Go the old route. Be safe. You'll perish."
Reed replied: "There's a newer route and we might as well take it."
On July 18 the main wagon train crossed the Continental Divide into Oregon Country. The travelers were now 1,000 miles from Independence and they had over 1,000 miles to go to the California valley. On about this date, a lone horseman came riding along from the west with a message for all the hundreds of wagons and pioneers in the wagon train that was making its way on the established trail. The message was an open letter from Lansford Hastings. It was addressed to "All emigrants now on the road." It encouraged them to come on together in one large group to Fort Bridger where he would be waiting to escort them over the shortcut.
Fork in the Road
The wagon train came to the point of decision on July 20, when it reached the Little Sandy River (WY). Most of the emigrants turned right (northwest) to follow the established trail. Twenty wagons, including the nine with the Reeds and Donners, turned left toward Fort Bridger and the entrance to the Hastings Cutoff. The next day the men in the re-formed, smaller wagon train met to elect a captain. James Reed was the obvious choice, according to students of the emigration, but the men chose George Donner, 62, instead. Reed, a business person, has been labeled as "headstrong" and "aristocratic." Donner had been a farmer. This was the actual beginning of the Donner Party, as people today know of it.
A week later the smaller party arrived at Fort Bridger, which consisted of two log cabins and a corral. Lansford Hastings was not there. He had started west to California a week earlier as the guide for another train of wagons. He left instructions for any other emigrants to "follow along behind."
On July 31 the nine families (including over 40 children) and 16 single men left Fort Bridger and entered the Hastings Cutoff.
On August 6 the Donner Party found a note stuck to some sage. It was from Hastings himself. It stated that the road ahead was impassable for wagons and that he advised people to wait until he could show them a better way. James Reed took over as the pilot for the party at that point. The next day the members of the party turned off the minimal trail they had been on and into the wilderness on their own.
The Donner Party encountered tremendous hardships crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert (Utah). In today's Nevada, they had to detour south around the Ruby Mountains, another time-eating event that increased frustration among the party members.
On September 26 the party finally rejoined the established "California" trail at the Humboldt River near modern Elko, NV. The party had lost three to four weeks of time on the shortcut.
An interesting side note is that in early September, 1846, Lansford Hastings rode into Sutter's Fort (Sacramento) at the head of the "battered" train of 60-80 wagons he had led. Except for the Donner Party, essentially all the emigrants of 1846 had made it safely through to California. The Donner Party was the detached caboose on the 1946 wagon train.
The weary Donner Party reached what is today the Truckee River, on October 16. The weather was already cold and there were heavy clouds over the mountains (Sierra) to the west. The party rested five days (near today's Reno) just 50 miles from the summit so its remaining oxen would be ready for the push over the top.
The party reached the area west of (now) Donner Lake on October 31. It snowed heavily that night. Party members started up the granite wall toward the summit the next day, but huge drifts of snow stopped them. Exhausted, they had to retreat to the lake below for the extreme winter of 1846-47.
The rest is history. Of the 80-plus men, women, and children in the Donner Party, over half survived and eventually completed the last 100 miles of their 2,000-mile journey to central California.
One lesson from the story: Beware of shortcuts.
Editor's Note: Historian George R. Stewart says in his book, "The California Trail," that in March 1962 there was a strong movement in California to place the Elisha Stephens' name on the summit where the, then, new I-80 freeway crosses the Sierra Crest. I-80 crosses 1-2 miles north of the original, 1840s emigrant crossing point.