By Donald J. Rosenberg
Much has been recorded about the tragic events suffered by the members of the Donner-Reed Party at Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This article is not meant to rehearse the events of their tragedies at Donner Lake in 1846. Instead, it will make an honest attempt to tell about some of the main difficulties encountered after they entered Utah, which in turn, was responsible for their late arrival to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and their terrible winter of suffering and cannibalism.
It was near the end of July 1846 wen the wagon caravan reached a point on the Little Sandy, a branch of the Green River in Wyoming. There the Oregon Trail makes its bend towards the Northwest. This became known as the “Parting of the Ways,” for at this point the Donner-Reed group decided to follow the Lansford Hasting “Cut Off” that was supposed to shave two to three weeks off the trek to California.
On August 3, 1846, the Donner-Reed Party arrived at the Weber River Crossing, now the present site of Henefer, Utah. Here they found a note from Hasting that was stuck in the cleft of a tree. He advised them to wait there for his return and not to go down Weber Canyon, because it was almost impassable.
Reed, with two companions, set out to find Hasting. They found him by the south shore of the Great Salt Lake. Hasting, not waiting for the party as he promised, caused a week delay. he refused to return but gave them instructions on the route to follow.
The party started up what today is called East Canyon, and pst the area now knows as East Canyon Reservoir. This is where their real trouble began. After about three weeks of hard, discouraging labor of cutting through obstacles, they finally, by attaching four, six and at times eight yoke of oxen to each of the heavily laden wagons, reached the summit. This summit is now known as “Big Mountain,” or “Donner-Reed Pass.”
Take in mind these pioneers were entirely on their own. Not one of them had ever seen the country. They had to pick their route each day, trying to determine which mountain, which pass, or canyon to follow. This had to be a tiring and discouraging trial. Here they made a big error: they thought going down the big canyon in front of them (today’s Parley’s Canyon), would be their best route. But after several more days they found the canyon impassable, and, returned toward Big Mountain. Eventually, they made their way down over the ridges and through what is now known as Immigration Canyon.
Over this trail and pass came Brigham Young with his band of Mormon Pioneers a year later. That began a migration that continued for many succeeding years. The 30 miles of trail—hewed out of the brush and tree-covered canyons by the Donner-Reed Party at a rate of about a mile a day – was a lifesaver for the Mormons the following year. They were able to cover the same distance in a little less than a week.
In his book, President George Albert Smith gratefully acknowledges this service rendered unknowingly to the Mormon Pioneers by the Donner-Reed Party. It saved the Mormons from arriving in Salt Lake Valley two weeks later than July 24. The Donner’s misfortune became a blessing for the Mormons, enabling them to get a crop planted and harvested that year. Another two weeks delay would have prevented a crop maturing in time.
Over this trail, which the Donner-Reed Party started, came thousands of immigrants to Western America. Many involved the Forty-niners on their way to California Gold fields, the Overland Stage, freight wagons, and caravans sometimes a mile or more in length. The Pony Express Riders, and Johnson’s Army, constituted some of the traffic to travel the historic pass. “Big Mountain” is written prominently and permanently into our history.
The Donner-Reed Party camped on the banks of the Jordan River near the Utah State Fair Grounds on September 2, 1846. At this time the party consisted of 87 members from six states, two foreign countries, with Illinois furnishing more than half of the party membership. Of this group 39 would die and 48 would survive.
Not much difficulty was encountered crossing the Salt Lake Valley around the Oquirrh Mountains and past Black Rock Beach into Tooele Valley. Their next campsite was at “Twenty Wells,” a series of small pot hole springs located about one mile northwest from today’s Grantsville.
From this site they traveled around the north end of the Stansbury Mountains, then 15 miles south into Skull Valley to Kanaka Springs. In 1889 this site became Iosepa, the settling place for the Hawaiian converts to the Mormon Church.
At Kanaka Springs the immigrants had been instructed by Hasting to lay in an ample supply of water and feed for their oxen. After resting and storing all the water they could, they headed across Skull Valley (then named Spring Valley by Hastings) and stopped at Reden Springs, located on the east slope of the Cedar Mountain Range. Afterward, they began to ascend Hasting’s Pass.
From the top of the pass they could see Pilot Peak toward the western horizon. That would be their next stop for water. They estimated the distance to be 35 to 45 miles, which they considered could be easily traveled in two days. But in reality the distance was over 70 miles. This trip would prove to be their greatest test before reaching the Sierra Mountains.
By the end of the third day their water supplies were gone, and both animals and people were on the verge of perishing. By this time they had reached the edge of the Mud Flat, about 20 miles from Pilot Peak Spring. The oxen could go no further without water, so the pioneers unhitched the oxen from the wagons to take them to water, and then bring them back for the wagons. But many of the oxen and cattle, wild from thirst, ran off and were never found.
As the party moved across the Mud Flat, wheels had to be scrapped clean every few turns because the mud was soft and sticky. Some wagons were abandoned as oxen dropped in their tracks. Prized pieces of furniture and personal belongings were removed from wagons to make the loads lighter.
When the party finally reached Pilot Springs, both people and animals were so spent they stayed for several days before continuing. Just a few miles north the mud flat is narrower and harder. If the party had known this their crossing would have been easier.
I have visited the site from Pilot Springs many times, and it was in about 1965 that I last saw the tracks in the mud left by the Donner-Reed Party wagons. As I stood on the east slopes of the foothills of Pilot Mountain and looked towards the east across the mud flat, I could easily make out the wagon tracks left by the party. This was 120 years after the tracks were made.
Several times since I have looked for the tracks but I have not been able to see them; however, I have recently been told that the tracks can still be seen when the light is reflecting off the flat just right.
Before they departed from their Pilot Mountain camp, the party took an inventory of their stock and supplies. This revealed their food supply was entirely insufficient to carry them through to California, even when granting that they might encounter no prolonged delays. Sutter’s Fort, now in Sacramento, CA., was the only possible source from which needed supplies could be obtained.
September was passing and with each day, time became more precious. One morning they awoke to see a white mantle on the twin peaks of Pilot Mountain, a grim reminder of the lateness of the season. However, there could be no turning back. The best that could be done was to press forward as rapidly as the poor, exhausted, labor-worn oxen were able to drag the wagons.
Now at this point in the story, I would like to back up several years. Captain Bonneville was conducting his study of the western United States. He had hand-picked 40 men with a Lt. Joseph Walker as their leader. This group, after making a trip to the coast, was returning easterly in the area of the Humboldt River. While traveling eastward up the valley, they encountered numerous poor, helpless River Indians. The Walker Party brought upon themselves lasting disgrace by the ruthless slaughter of scores, perhaps hundreds of these utterly defenseless natives — just for sport.
These murders and barbarous practices the Indians charged to white men in general, and that awaited the time when conditions afforded an opportunity for revenge. The Indian’s code of ethics was not “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but a life for a life.”
So, according to the Indian code of ethics, white man sooner or later must pay the penalty. Who would be the victims? They had already waited years with no opportunity for revenge since no white men had entered the valley. Finally, the Donner-Reed Party, already in a weakened, perilous condition, presented an opportunity for the Indians to balance the score for what they had suffered at the hands of the Walker Party.
The Donner-Reed Party — because of its own lack of efficient organization, its petty jealousies, differences of opinion and interest, which had marred their progress — now became divided into groups or sections some larger and others smaller. Each group pursued its own course, guided by its own judgment of what offered the greater advantages. Each group or section was a law unto itself.
These groups, into which the party had become divided, were frequently widely separated. Sections ahead were often days in advance of those in the rear. Each knew little or nothing about the other. This small group arrangement played directly into the plot of the Indians, and furnished just the opportunity for which they had long awaited.
It not only furnished the opportunity, but also offered advantages and protection to the Indians as the groups were too widely separated and too much engrossed with their own life and death problems to be of mutual assistance to each other.
The Humboldt Indian method of wrecking revenge was not to go out in open combat, as they were not yet armed with guns, but to steal and destroy, to swoop in at every opportunity, and kill or run off with oxen and otherwise delay progress by every means conceivable.
The Donner-Reed Party was so sorely harassed by these tactics that it became imperative that wagons with their contents be abandoned or cached. Most were forced walk, and many carried loads on their backs.
By this method, the Humboldt Indians took no lives directly. Indirectly they were responsible for untold losses, hardships and suffering that resulted in the loss of many lives.
As an example of the Indians’ tactics, the William Eddy Family, who were members of the last section of the party, lost a large number of their animals one early dawn while preparing a hasty breakfast. A band of Indians killed or ran off with a large number of oxen. This final Indian attach cost the family everything they had toiled and labored long and hard to bring from Belleville, Ill. Now all was lost in a single day. Others in the group suffered in much the same way.
Slowly and laboriously the party trudged along. Each day grew more difficult and wearisome than the previous day. The question in every individual’s mind was, “Will we be able to make the Pass before the snows of winter sets in?”
The first snows came on October 20 and October 23. When the first big storm hit, the party was so exhausted they did not bother to corral or tie up the remaining oxen. Normally this would be acceptable for under such conditions the animals would stay close to the wagons. But because of the intensity of the storm, the animals ran off.
Thus, most of the remaining food supply, that could have seen them through the winter, was lost. By October 28 the main part of the Donner-Reed Party wagons had reached the lake region. But more snow fell. By October 30 five to eight feet of snow stood in their way.
The people in Sacramento, California knew the Donner-Reed Party was trapped in the snowbound mountains, but they also knew when the party left Little Sandy, Wyoming, they had cattle and oxen that would provide plenty of food to survive the winter until help could be sent in the Spring.
The people in Sacramento had no idea the party had lost almost all of their wagons and animals before reaching Donner Lake.
In the end it could be said that if any of the delays the Donner-Reed Party had along the way could have been avoided, the party would have made it over Donner Pass, and would not have suffered the terrible fate that awaited them at Donner Lake.