During the off-season months (October through April) I typically write social media posts for Fridays only for the California Trail Interpretive Center. This season I’ve chosen to follow the Donner Party during their ordeal in the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846/1847. I’m calling the posts “Fridays with the Donner Party”. Here are the posts for October.
October 7 – Fridays with the Donner Party
On Fridays from now through April we’re going to track the events associated with the Donner/Reed Party story. The Donners and Reeds left their homes in Illinois in April, 1846. Having traveled from Missouri along the Oregon/California Trail, they reached Fort Bridger in July. Traveling through the Great Salt Lake Valley and along the Hastings Cutoff, they reached the point where the California Trail Interpretive Center is built on September 26, 1846. We’ll be relying heavily on the webpage http://www.donnerpartydiary.com/index.html while compiling these weekly synopses.
Already well behind the majority of the 1846 emigrant migration, the first week in October found the party continuing their journey down the Humboldt River. One of their tragic stories happened this week. On October 6, while struggling with their wagons up a steep hill, James Reed and John Snyder got into an argument which ultimately resulted in Reed stabbing and killing Snyder near present-day Iron Point, Nevada (GPS coordinates -117.322,40.992). Not knowing what else to do, the group banished Reed from continuing on the road with them. He left and went on ahead, leaving occasional messages along the road, and reached Sutter’s Fort in late October. The rest of the party did not. The hill on the left side of the photo by Trail Center staff near Iron Point is a likely location of the altercation between Reed and Snyder.
October 14 – Fridays with the Donner Party
The Donner/Reed party, when it set out initially, consisted of 20 wagons and about 60 people, including the Donners, Reeds, Breens, McCutcheons, Eddys, Murphys, Kesebergs and a Stanton. During the week ending with October 14 the group had traveled from approximately present-day Winnemucca to present-day Lovelock, Nevada. They were getting low on rations and animals were wearing out, so they began to abandon some of their belongings. In a May, 1847 letter to her cousin, Virginia Reed (James’ 13-year old daughter) wrote, “in 2 or 3 days after pa left we had to cash [cache] our wagon and take Mr. graves wagon and cash some more of our things.”
Jesse Quinn Thornton wrote about the Donners in his 1849 book (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101074865070&view=1up&seq=15&skin=2021). In the book he also described how one of the men associated with Lewis Keseberg had fallen behind (or been abandoned): “Hardcoop came to Mr. Eddy, and informed him that Kiesburg had again put him out of the wagon—… and he concluded by requesting Mr. Eddy to carry him in his wagon, as it was utterly impossible for him to travel on foot. Mr. Eddy replied that they were then in the sand, and if he could in some way get forward until they got out, he would do what he could.… As soon as they got into camp, inquiry was made for Hardcoop. Some boys who had been driving cattle stated that they had seen him last sitting under a large bush of sage, or artemisia, exhausted and completely worn out. At this time his feet had swollen until they burst….” The accompanying drawing of a weary explorer (https://hdl.huntington.org/digital/collection/p15150coll7/id/5110) is by J. Goldsborough Bruff from 1850.
October 21 – Fridays with the Donner Party
During this past week, the Donners crossed the 40-mile desert from the Humboldt Sink to the Truckee river and wound their way through the river canyon to Truckee Meadows – the present-day site of Sparks and Reno, Nevada. Jesse Quinn Thornton’s 1849 account of the Donners’ journey (https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101074865070&view=1up&seq=15&skin=2021) tells of William Eddy plight in crossing the desert. The accompanying picture is from that book and illustrates the Eddy family setting out after leaving their things behind. Thornton says, “Here Mr. Eddy cached every thing he had, except the clothing which he and his family had on. On this morning they partook of their last remaining mouthful of food…. Dejected and sullen, he took up about three pounds of loaf sugar, put some bullets in his pocket, and stringing his powderhorn upon his shoulders, took up his boy in his arms while his afflicted Eleanor carried their still more helpless infant, and in this most miserable and forlorn plight, they set out once more on foot to make their way through the pitiless wilderness. Trackless, snowclad mountains intercepted their progress, and seemed to present an impassable barrier to all human succor…. Their painful and perilous way led over broken rocks, presenting acute angles, or prickly pears, which alike lacerated their feet in the most dreadful manner…. They struggled on, however, with their precious charge, without food or water, until 4 o’clock on the morning of the 14th, when they arrived at a spring that jetted up a column of boiling hot water, about twenty feet high.”
October 28 – Fridays with the Donner Party
Tragedy struck again in the Donner party this, the last full week in October. Eliza Farnham interviewed John Breen and wrote about it in her book California, In-doors and Out https://www.google.com/books/edition/California_In_doors_and_Out/MfJl95dANcUC?hl=en&gbpv=1. According to John, “At the last encampment on Truckee river, another life was lost, by the accidental discharge of a pistol. Two men, brothers-in-law, had been handling their arms by the camp fire in the morning. Wood to replenish it was called for, when one said to the other, hold my pistol while I go for some. In the transfer, by some means it went off, and the contents lodged in the body of the unfortunate man who lived only two hours. Death did not startle them now. They were too much engrossed by their own necessities to heed his presence, further than naked decency required. They had buried their first dead in a coffin and shroud, with masonic ceremonies, their second with only a shroud and a board beneath and above him. The last man was buried literally dust to dust, nothing to separate his clay from that of the great parent who opened her bosom to receive him.” This happened in Truckee Meadows (Reno) while they were resting up before tackling the Sierra Nevadas. It was on October 28 that a weak and destitute James Reed arrived at Sutter’s Fort and immediately began making plans to try to take supplies and aid back to the group on the east side of the mountains. The illustration is from dreamstime.com.