The Expedition of the Donner Party and Its Tragic Fate

By Eliza P. Donner Houghton | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

Kristin Johnson

What shapes a life? In the modern Western world many of us have abandoned the concept of destiny, of a power that decrees our fate at birth. Instead, we tend to see our life's course as the result of many factors, of circumstances and events that create who we are and what we become. For some this process is so subtle they cannot say exactly what led them to their present state; others have made conscious decisions; and still others feel they have been at the mercy of events that have jerked them from path to path. And for some, a single experience looms over all others and shadows the entire course of their lives.

In this last category we might place the author of this book. Eliza Poor Donner was a child of three in April 1846 when her large and prosperous extended family left Illinois. A year later she was an orphan depending on the charity of strangers in California. What she underwent was not, of course, a single event but a yearlong experience known to history as "the Donner Party."

That experience is recounted in this book. Briefly, a party of emigrants led by George Donner had nearly completed its long and arduous journey to California when an early snowfall trapped the travelers in the Sierra Nevada. Caught unprepared and low on supplies, the emigrants were forced to spend the winter in hurriedly contrived shelters. Donner, his brother Jacob, and their families camped in the Alder Creek Valley, about seven miles east of the main body of emigrants at what is now Donner Lake.

-vii-

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