Donner Party Tracker: A Fight & Death - October 5, 1846

One hundred and sixty-plus years ago this week, members of the Donner Party were traveling west along the Humboldt River in present-day Nevada as fast as they could. Along with their frantic pace, the pioneers did their best to thwart the daily attempts by Shoshone Indians to steal the group's livestock and horses.

Up to this point the, opportunistic Indians had managed to grab only one mare and two head of cattle, but that good fortune would change for the worse when the Donner people reached Paiute Country farther west in Nevada.

Early October
By October 2, 1846 the company had put forty miles behind it since finally reaching the Humboldt River (and the traditional California Trail) near the end of September. That night the group camped on the north bank of the river, in the vicinity of the future town of Battle Mountain. Meanwhile, the wagons that Lansford Hastings had led through the Wasatch ahead of the Donner Party were now descending the west slope of the Sierra Nevada; that group's long journey was nearly over.

James Reed and his friend from Springfield, teamster Hiram Miller, had been keeping a diary of the trip, but on October 4 Reed mysteriously ended his series of daily entries with just one word: "Still." It may have been a premonition, because the very next day Reed would be expelled from the Donner Company.

For weeks, each day Reed had chronicled how many miles the group traveled, given descriptions of the landscape, and sometimes detailed the daily events. After October 4 Reed wrote nothing more about the journey. This has left historians guessing just how far the company traveled each day and exactly where it camped along the Humboldt River.

As this last group of 1846 pioneers made its way along the Humboldt, the wagon train was spread out with the two Donner families and their teamsters well in the lead. The Reed, Graves, and Breen families followed them, more than a day's travel behind. Other members struggled along as best they could.

Fight & Death
On October 5 the fragmented, exhausted Donner Party was further traumatized by a violent fight and what many in the party concluded was murder. For weeks, tensions had been running high among the luckless emigrants: on this day the simmering feelings of frustration and anger erupted.

In one tragic moment along the Humboldt River near present-day Golconda, Nevada, James Reed killed John Snyder, a well-liked member of the party. Snyder, a hired teamster, was driving a wagon for the Graves family. Snyder's team of oxen became entangled with those pulling Reed's family wagon, which was handled by Reed's employee Milt Elliot.

Reed rode up to the scene on horseback and he and Snyder sparred with harsh words. Snyder suddenly lashed out with his bullwhip handle and struck Reed in the head, drawing blood.

In what some eyewitnesses later described as an act of self-defense, Reed responded to Snyder's angry outburst by pulling out his large hunting knife. When Reed's wife, Margaret, entered the fray to separate the men, she, too, was hit with Snyder's whip stock. Snyder attacked Reed twice more before Reed plunged his knife into Snyder's chest, killing him.

In disgust, Reed threw his weapon to the ground, but the deed was done.

Some members of the wagon company, including German immigrant Louis Keseberg, wanted to hang Reed right there; but others felt killing another man made no sense. Someone proposed that a trial could be held in California. In the end, Reed was banished from the wagon train after the mortal fight. He forced to leave his wife and four children behind.

Reed, Banished, Rides for Help
Reed was determined to seek help for the pioneers. Accompanied by his employee, Walter Herron, Reed raced west on horseback toward Sutter's Fort. Three weeks later, the two men successfully reached the Sacramento Valley, just before a severe snowstorm blasted the California mountains and closed the pass for the winter to pioneers with wagons.

Louis Keseberg photo courtesy of Bancroft Library

Editor's Note: This installment is #14 in an exclusive, weekly series tracing the actual experiences of the Donner Party as it worked its way into American history. Mark McLaughlin, weather historian, who lives on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, wrote the series for Tahoetopia.

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