Donner Party decisions seal their fate

Author’s Note: To acknowledge the historical significance of the Donner Party and its window into an important era in the West, I will occasionally write a column chronicling the progress and challenges of this cursed wagon train as it made its way to California. The columns will be available in future editions of Tahoe Weekly and my previous columns are available at TheTahoeWeekly.com. Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu.

Lansford Hastings. | Courtesy Frank Titus Collection

During the early summer of 1846, 32 pioneers from Springfield, Ill., the core of a group that would later become known as the Donner Party, found the first portion of the trail to the Mexican province of California quite tolerable and embraced it with the excitement of a life-changing gamble. After all, it was the easiest part of the long odyssey with well-maintained routes, fresh oxen, abundant supplies and favorable weather.

In an oft-quoted June diary entry by Tamsen Donner, the gifted schoolteacher wrote: “Our journey so far has been pleasant, the roads have been good, and food plentiful. We feel no fear of Indians, our cattle graze quietly around our encampment unmolested. Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.”

Over the weeks and months there was a fluid mixing among the numerous companies of settlers and adventurers on the trail that year. In mid-May, the leaders of the Springfield wagon train, James Reed and the Donner brothers George and Jacob, along with their families and hired help, joined up with a large company led by Colonel William H. Russell. A month later Russell resigned as captain due to poor health and was replaced by Lilburn W. Boggs, a controversial former governor of Missouri. In response to escalating threats and violence by persecuted Latter Day Saints, in 1838 Gov. Boggs had issued an executive order calling for all Mormons to be expelled from Missouri: “In open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon people of this State…the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” An unknown person attempted to assassinate Boggs in 1842, severely injuring him, leading some to speculate that he traveled to California for safety.

James Clyman. | Courtesy Library of Congress

On June 26, the Boggs Party reached Fort Bernard, a small trading post a few miles east of the better-known Fort Laramie, an outpost of the American Fur Company in the present-day state of Wyoming. Here some of the pioneers, including Tamsen’s new acquaintance, Edwin Bryant, a Kentucky newspaper editor, traded in their wagons and oxen for sure-footed mules with packsaddles to make better time in the rough country ahead. Near the fort, the greenhorns from Illinois encountered peaceful Sioux Indians. George Donner’s daughter Eliza from his second marriage before Tamsen, later recalled, “Many of the squaws and papooses were gorgeous in white doe skin suits, gaudily trimmed with beads, and bows of bright ribbons.”

In the same time frame, James Clyman, a renowned American frontiersman and trail guide, was leading a small party of travelers eastbound. Among them was Lansford W. Hastings, a lawyer turned California land promoter and author of a top-selling book, “The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California.” In his guidebook, Hastings mentioned a detour to reduce distance and time in the arduous journey. He had never seen the area before and it was during this east-bound journey that Hastings got his first look at the shortcut that he was recklessly advocating. It started with a nearly impossible trek with wagons through the rugged canyons of the Wasatch Mountains, followed by 130 miles across the forbidding and waterless Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings got the idea from an 1845 expedition led by explorer John Frémont, who wrote that he and his men had traversed the arid wasteland southwest of the Great Salt Lake with horses and mules while searching for the most direct trail to California. Frémont thought that the route had potential, but he did not suggest that families with wagons go that way.

Clyman knew the Great Salt Lake region better than anyone. Twenty years before he had explored the area and circumnavigated the expansive alkaline lake in an animal skin canoe. A skeptical Clyman agreed to accompany Hastings with a few men and packhorses as the attorney checked out his new shortcut. After a grueling two-week trek through desert and mountainous terrain, they reached Fort Bridger on the California Trail in mid-June. The main group who had stayed on the traditional route arrived at Jim Bridger’s trading post just days later, proving that Hastings’ cutoff saved little time and was considerably more difficult.

Clyman continued to Fort Laramie and Fort Bernard where he encountered hundreds of westbound wagons. Hastings remained at Fort Bridger to lead any willing emigrants into the desert, but he sent a courier up the trail with an open letter alerting that those who wanted to use the cutoff should hurry ahead to Bridger’s fort where the trailblazer was waiting for them. Hastings and Clyman had diametrically opposed messages to relate to California-bound emigrants. Hastings pitched the advantages of his shortcut while Clyman cautioned that the new route was dangerous and not much shorter. The legendary mountain man warned that Hastings Cutoff was “impracticable” and advised emigrants to stay on the California Trail “and never leave it.”

One evening Clyman walked into the campsite of the Donners and Reeds and everyone gathered round to hear the experienced trapper’s guidance about what to expect on the trail ahead. Reed and the Donner brothers had read Hastings’ book and agreed that the shortcut made sense. Reed and Clyman had history. They knew each other from mustering in the same regiment during the 1832 Black Hawk Indian War in northern Illinois, along with Abraham Lincoln.

Captain John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant and possessor of a large Mexican land grant in the southern Sacramento Valley, had hired Clyman to convince Oregon-bound migrants to choose California instead. Sutter wanted emigrants to buy land from him, populate the region and jump-start a vibrant trade economy. Having just traveled through the shortcut, Clyman advised the Springfield families that the traditional California Trail was difficult but safe. Tamsen Donner and other women in the wagon train listened to Clyman and wanted to follow his recommendations. The headstrong Reed, however, disagreed with his trusted friend and stated, “There is a nigher [shorter] route, and it is of no use to take so much of a roundabout course.”

Clyman shook his head and headed east down the trail to warn others as Reed led his wagons west to Fort Bridger. The elderly Donner brothers were complicit in supporting this arrogant decision that would seal the fate of many members of the Donner Party.

Captain Lilburn Boggs heeded Clyman’s sound judgement, stuck to the proven route and his company reached California in a timely manner without major incident. It was now late July and the window to safely cross the Sierra Nevada before winter was closing. Stay tuned for Part II in the next edition or at TheTahoeWeekly.com.