Tracing a Terrible Trail

Article excerpt

The tragedy of the Donner Party is familiar to all Westerners. But familiarity can be deceptive-as new discoveries confirm

ON THIS CRISP OCTOBER Saturday, our small band of hikers struggles up a faint path past a sheer granite wall and through a narrow cleft in the rocks. Arriving at 7,088-foot Donner Pass, we gasp for breath and close our jackets against the icy air. Pausing, we pivot and gaze down the forbidding Sierra Nevada pass we have ascended. It appears an impregnable rock fortress above the deep blue oblong of Donner Lake.

"Picture this scene cloaked in snow," suggests our guide. "Then imagine trying to get a covered wagon up here." It seems a prescription for disaster. And such was indeed the fate of the men, women, and children of the Donner Party, who spent the nightmarish winter of 1846-47 by the frozen shores of the lake far below us. Along with crowds of history buffs, we're reliving their story on the annual Donner Party hike weekend conducted by the Truckee Donner Chamber of Commerce. During these two days, we walk much of the same ground the pioneers traveled, hearing their sad tale retold in the context of new theories about exactly what happened during those awful months, and why.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Donner Party's fateful journey. The story of 81 desperate souls waylaid in the Sierra Nevada by perhaps the worst winter on record, and forced to resort to cannibalism to keep many of their number alive, has been permanently woven into the fabric of Western lore. Their foolhardy but courageous wagon train has rolled into the territory of legend.

ON COURSE FOR CATASTROPHE

Back along the shores of Donner Lake, we get a picture of the path our subjects followed toward their doom. In the museum at Donner Memorial State Park, we watch a video and pore over exhibits, losing ourselves in the tale that began when these unlucky pioneers joined the 2,000mile Oregon-California Trail.

Just three years had passed since the trail had seen its first large wagon parties: guides were few, and the way often unclear. Prosperous Illinois farmers George and Jacob Donner were both in their 60s when they answered the call of California. In the spring of 1846, they loaded six wagons and headed west, soon joined by the James Reed family. By early summer they were part of a stream of wagons to reach the plains, among 2,700 emigrants on the trail that year.

In Wyoming, they heard of a shortcut farther along the trail that was being touted by Lansford Hastings, known to ra overlanders as the author of The Emigrants' Guide to Oregon and California, one of the few available sources of trail information. It was claimed that the Hastings Cutoff would shave 400 miles from the lengthy journey. On July 19, 19 wagons left the main train to try the untested shortcut; their number included the Donner, Breen, Murphy, Reed, Eddy, Graves, and Keseberg families. Electing George Donner as captain and ignoring objections raised by women who feared leaving the relative safety of the main trail, the party struck out on July 31 from Fort Bridger, Wyoming, for the cutoff.

It was a disastrous decision. They lost time and wore themselves out hacking through woods and crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert, where much of their livestock died or stampeded. "It seemed as though the hand of death had been laid upon the country," the Reeds' daughter Virginia would later write.

The demoralized group rejoined the California Trail near present-day Elko, Nevada, on September 30-dangerously late-and didn't reach the eastern base of the Sierra Nevada until mid-October. Weak and low on supplies, they were 81 contentious souls-all company unity was gone. One man had already been knifed in an argument, and his killer, James Reed, banished. Resting their animals for the push over the mountains, they delayed a fateful week.

At the end of October, the bulk of the party arrived at Truckee (now Donner) Lake. …