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Trapped in the Sierra Nevadas

Updated: Mar 31

The story of how an intended shortcut led to unspeakable tragedy.

Solomon Blue, Sr. married Telitha Ann Morris in Montgomery County, Ohio on 12 July 1806. They would have six children, four boys and two girls. The family would eventually move to Sangamon County, Illinois.

Elizabeth was the eldest child, born about 1807. On 10 June 1829 she married James Hook in Sangamon County. They had two sons, Solomon Elijah (born 11 Jan 1832) and William (born abt. 1834). However, James would pass away within the year, leaving Elizabeth a widow.

Meanwhile, Mary, the second daughter and fourth child, was born in 1812. She married Charles R. Tenant on 26 July 1828, but he died soon after and before they had any children. Mary, like her sister Elizabeth, was a widow.

It was then that the two widowed sisters met two brothers, Jacob and George Donner, Jr.

Jacob and George Donner, Jr. were born in Rowan County, North Carolina in 1781 and 1786, respectively. They moved with their family, which included their parents and four other siblings, to Jessamine County, Kentucky. It was there that George married his first wife, Susannah Holloway on 12 December 1809. They had about four children, one of which was a daughter, Susannah, born in 1818. The extended Donner family then moved to Decatur County, Indiana where, on 5 February 1826, George's wife Susannah died.

In the autumn of 1828, Jacob, George and his children settled in Sangamon County, IL, about three miles northeast of Springfield.

On 10 June 1829, Mary married George and had two daughters, Elitha Cumi (1832) and Leanna Charity (1834).

After the death of her first husband, Elizabeth married her brother-in-law, Jacob. In addition to her two sons from her previous marriage, Elizabeth and Jacob had five more children, George Jacob (1836), Mary Martha (1839), Isaac (1841), Samuel (1843), and Lewis (1844).

In 1837, Mary died, leaving George a widower again and with two young daughters. His daughter Susan had married Barnabus Marshall Blue, one of her step-mother's brothers, on 15 October 1834. A year later, George took his two daughters and, in company with his brother Jacob and family, moved to Texas. They farmed about fifty miles south of Houston. Not liking the country, they all returned to Illinois in 1839.

George then remarried to the third time on 24 May 1839 to a widow named Tamsen Eustis Dozier. George and Tamsen had another three daughters, Frances Eustis (1840), Georgia Anna (1841), and Eliza (1844).

In less than seven years, the families were on the move again.

On 14 April 1846, sixteen members of the George and Jacob Donner families left their farms in Springfield, Illinois and headed for the Mexican territory of Alta California. They were accompanied by the Reed family, which consisted of furniture manufacturer James F. Reed, his wife Margaret, their four children and Margaret's mother, Sarah Keyes.

As a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln often helped his friend James F. Reed in business matters. The two had been messmates during the Blackhawk War and Lincoln counseled Reed through bankruptcy proceedings shortly before the latter left for California. According to one historian, Lincoln considered joining the Donner Party, but his wife Mary Todd was strongly opposed to the idea. American history might look very different if the future president and his family had made the ill-fated voyage.

Their first destination was Independence, Missouri, where they were to make the final preparations for crossing the Plains. They were joined at various points by parties from other places.

In May 1846, they were the last wagon train of the season to leave Independence.

By the end of May, the Donner and Reed families joined the "Russell Party," between Independence and Blue River. It was a company of 49 wagons guided by Captain William H. Russell, who had left Independence a few days before them. Together they followed the well-established California Trail as far as the Little Sandy River in Wyoming.

In mid July, near the Little Sandy River in Wyoming, the Donner and Reed families joined eight other families and a number of teamsters to form the "Donner Party." What followed was a series of unfortunate choices and bad luck.

Their fatal mistake came when then decided to take a new "shortcut" identified by adventurer and guidebook author Lansford Hastings. The "Hastings Cutoff" led them through Utah and over the Wasatch Mountains and across the Great Salt Lake Desert. This route was meant to save time by shortening the journey more than 300 miles. Instead, the rugged terrain, lack of natural water sources, and extreme weather conditions proved disastrous for the pioneers. The decision was made despite the warning from accomplished mountain man James Clyman about the deadly route.

The emigrants might have remained on the main trail if they had received a letter left for them at Fort Bridger, the southwestern Wyoming trading post of mountain man Jim Bridger. The letter was written by journalist Edwin Bryant and addressed to James F. Reed. It warned that the Hastings Cutoff was too rough for the Donner Party's wagons. But as the trading post stood to profit enormously if the new route proved popular, Reed never received the letter. Jim Bridger and his partner Louis Vasquez assured the Donner Party that the Hastings Cutoff was a good route. Satisfied, the emigrants rested for a few days at the fort, making repairs to their wagons and preparing for the rest of what they thought would be a seven-week journey. Both Reed and Bryant later suspected that Bridger had deliberately concealed it in order to improve his business prospects.

As a result of taking the Hastings Cutoff, the Donner Party was delayed by three weeks, all while much of their cattle was stolen or killed in raids by Paiute Indians. Behind schedule and low on supplies as they approached the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was early November when they finally began to climb the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the critical last stage of their journey.

Despite multiple setbacks and mistakes, the group was only 90 miles from Sutter's Fort, their final destination. If they had made it over the pass and out of the mountains, the Donner Party might have been lost in the pages of history; just another one of the hundreds of wagon trains in the first wave of westward migration. Instead, an early snowfall trapped 81 men, women, and children.

When the axle broke on George Donner's wagon, he fell behind the rest of the party. Twenty-two people, consisting of the Donner family and their hired men, stayed behind while the wagon was repaired. Unfortunately, while cutting timber for a new axle, a chisel slipped and Donner cut his hand badly, causing the group to fall further behind.

Snow began to fall as the larger party continued on. With the Sierra pass just 12 miles beyond, the wagon train, after attempting to make the pass through the heavy snow, finally retreated to the eastern end of Truckee lake, where level ground and timber was abundant. At the lake stood one existing cabin and realizing they were stranded, the group built two more cabins, sheltering 59 people in hopes that the early snow would melt, allowing them to continue their travels.

The two groups were now separated by about seven miles. As the snow continued, the twenty-two people with the Donners at Alder Creek hastily built three shelters from tents, quilts, buffalo robes, and brush to protect themselves.

The Donner Party Route

Conditions took a grim and immediate turn. Two attempts were made to get over the pass in twenty feet of snow until they realized that they were snowbound for the winter. Once they ate the few remaining oxen and horses, the travelers relied on mice, tree bark, pine cones, and strips of leather for food. They also boiled ox hides to make a foul smelling, glue-like substance. Some of the men tried to hunt with little success.

After James Reed killed a man in self-defense, he was banished from the wagon train. Forced to leave his wife and four children behind, he had ridden ahead on horseback. He made it down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in late October and organized a party to bring food and supplies to the emigrants. Unfortunately, he was turned back by deep snow.

At this point, most of the able-bodied men in Alta California were caught up in the Mexican-American War. Reed traveled to San Jose to try to raise another rescue party, but volunteers were hard to find. Beyond that, communication lines were down and roads throughout the region were blocked. It was not until February 1847 that he was able to round up enough men and provisions to head back into the mountains.

Photo of stumps from Alder Creek cut by the Donner party that represent the depth of the snow at that time (Abt. 1866)

It took two months and four rescue attempts to bring the last surviving member of the Donner Party to safety at Sutter's Fort on 29 April 1847. Unfortunately, nearly half of the emigrants had perished during one of the most brutal winters on record. One of the saddest facts of the Donner Party's story is that more than half of the 81 people trapped in the camps were younger than 18 years old. Six of them were infants. Mothers, fathers, and older siblings were forced to make terrible choices to protect their youngest family members.

In the most famous case, Margaret Reed made the agonizing decision to leave behind two of her four children when they proved too weak to make it down the mountain with the first rescue team. Eight-year-old Patty said, "Well, mother, if you never see me again, do the best you can." The second relief effort, led by Patty's father James Reed, arrived shortly thereafter. All four Reed children were lucky enough to survive.

In one particular act of incredible sacrifice, George Donner’s wife Tamsen sent her children off with rescuers while she refused to leave her husband's side as he was dying from an infection in his hand that he had cut months earlier.

George Donner died at the Alder Creek camp about 27 March 1847. His wife Tamsen, stayed with her husband until he died, and then attempted to cross the mountains on her own. About the day after George died, Tamsen died at the Lake cabin of Lewis Keseberg.

Both daughters from his marriage to Mary Blue, Elitha Cumi, 14, and Leanna, 12, survived and were rescued by the First Relief.

All of George and Tamsen's daughters survived as well. Frances, 6, Georgia, 4, and Eliza, 3, were all rescued by the Third Relief.

However, George's brother Jacob's family suffered the most of any family. Jacob Donner was among the first, if not the first, to die. He died at the Alder Creek camp in mid-December 1846. His wife Elizabeth died at the Alder Creek camp in early April 1847. Their son George, 9, was rescued by the First Relief. Daughter Mary, 7, and son Isaac, 5, were taken out by the Second Relief, but just two days later they were caught in another blizzard. Isaac died during the storm about 7 March 1847. Mary was then rescued by the Third Relief.

Son Lewis, 3, died at the Alder Creek camp about 7 March 1847. Son Samuel, 4, died at the Alder Creek camp about 12 March 1847.

As for Elizabeth's sons from her previous marriage, Solomon Hook, 14, was rescued by the Second Relief. William Hook, 12, was taken out by the First Relief. He reached camp in Bear Valley safely. Tormented by hunger, he sneaked out at night, gorged on the supplies of biscuits and jerked beef, and became extremely ill. He died the next day, 28 February 1847.

The story of the tragedy of the Donner Party quickly spread across the country. The surviving members had differing viewpoints, biases and recollections so what actually happened was never extremely clear. After the publicity, emigration to California fell off sharply and Hastings’ Cutoff was all but abandoned. When gold was discovered in January 1848, at John Sutter’s Mill, gold-hungry travelers began to rush out West once again. By late 1849 more than 100,000 people had come to California in search of gold near the streams and canyons where the Donner Party had suffered. Truckee Lake was renamed Donner Lake and the Donner Camp has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

At least one Blue - Donner connection had a happier ending. Elizabeth and Mary's brother Barnabus, who had married Susannah Donner, the daughter of George Donner and his first wife, Susannah Holloway, would raise a family of six children.


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