Charlie Stanton: Unsung Hero of the Donner Party

Charles Stanton. | Courtesy WikiTree

Charles Tyler Stanton was an unlikely hero in the saga of the Donner Party. Stanton had brown eyes, a full beard and was blessed with a strong constitution, but in stature he stood just 5 feet, 5 inches in his stockings. Despite limited formal schooling, the 35-year-old businessman was well read and self-educated in botany and geology. Schoolteacher Tamsen (Tamzene) Donner was also a botanist and the two became fast friends after Stanton joined the wagon train in July as a hired teamster driving George Donner’s wagons.

During the journey to California, Stanton kept up regular correspondence with his older brothers Philip and Sidney. The long and detailed letters that were published in New York newspapers offer insight into what kind of man Charlie was.

He was born on March 11, 1811, in Pompey, N.Y., the youngest of seven children. Philip Stanton remarked that even as a young boy Charlie was generous and always ready to sacrifice his own interests for the welfare of others; he was the favorite among all the siblings. When Charlie was 20, his widowed mother’s health began to fail while they were living in Syracuse, N.Y. A devoted son, he quit his clerical job in a store and took care of her until her death in March 1838.

After her passing, he moved to Chicago where he worked in the mercantile trade until his business failed. Charlie later read Lansford Hasting’s popular but error-filled book, “The Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California.” The glorious depictions of the Pacific Coast inspired Charlie to leave his “dull and monotonous life” and head west.

In a May 12, 1846, letter written from the jumping-off point of Independence, Mo., Charlie wrote: “Well it may surprise you perhaps that I am going to start for California tomorrow. If you have never read Hastings’ [book] Oregon and California, get it and read it. You will see some of the inducements which led me to this step. I am in hopes to get through safe which I think there is little danger as we go in such large crowds that we shall be law unto ourselves and a protection to each other.”

From that point on, Philip Stanton wrote: “I had a map of the California Trail lying on the table before me, and whenever I received a letter from Charlie, I would trace out his course on the map, which enabled me to travel along with him.”

In his first selfless act on the California Trail in September 1846, Charlie Stanton and William “Big Bill” McCutchen left the struggling Donner Party near the present-day Utah-Nevada border to reach California and procure supplies from Captain John Sutter at his fort — the future site of Sacramento. Stanton was a bachelor with no family members in the wagon train so some of the pioneers were skeptical about his return. McCutchen, who had a wife and young daughter in the party, accompanied Stanton as an insurance policy that someone would return with help. Two men also stood a better chance in case of Indian hostilities.

On their arrival in California, Sutter provisioned Stanton with seven mules loaded with supplies and dispatched two Indian vaqueros, Luis and Salvador, to help assist the westbound Donner Party over the Sierra and into the Sacramento Valley. Ironically, McCutchen remained at the fort, claiming that he was too ill and weak to travel. But Stanton was determined to return to his newfound friends with any help that he could provide. Stanton and the vaqueros pushed over Truckee (Donner) Pass shortly before winter storms closed in. The diminutive hero reconnoitered with the Donner Party near present-day Reno, Nev., on Oct. 19 and distributed much-needed food and provisions to the increasingly desperate group. The infusion of protein and news that the Sacramento Valley was only 130 miles away boosted everyone’s spirits.

As the only member with knowledge of the terrain over the pass, the indomitable Charles Stanton stepped up to lead the pioneers over the mountains.

The vanguard of the wagon train reached Truckee (Donner) Lake on Oct. 31. (The Donner families would only make it as far as the Alder Creek Valley, about 5 miles north of the present-day town of Truckee.) During the first week of November, snowstorms struck and snow began piling up. As the only member with knowledge of the terrain over the pass, the indomitable Stanton stepped up to lead the pioneers over the mountains.

Approaching Donner Pass the snow was nearly waist deep, but Stanton forced Sutter’s mules to break trail for those behind him. It was of no use. True to form, the fractious group had stopped to torch a pine tree and bask in its warmth. Stanton’s entreaties could not persuade the others to push forward. That night another foot of snow fell and the pass was blocked for good. The party retreated to the east end of the lake, built cabins and hunkered down for rescue. No one came.

Food supplies were insufficient and as people began to die of starvation, Stanton volunteered to lead a snowshoe party to the Sacramento Valley in a desperate bid to sound the alarm of their dire predicament. On Dec. 16, during a break in the weather, 17 people equipped with 8 pounds of dried beef and some sugar and coffee set out. In a few days the “Forlorn Hope” reached Summit Valley a few miles west of Donner Pass, but Stanton was exhausted, starving and snow blind. Each day he fell farther behind.

On Dec. 21, the first day of winter, Stanton was left by the campfire to die alone. And although it broke their hearts to desert such a noble man, no one in the snowshoe party could do anything to help him. His last words were, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

After crossing the dreaded Donner Pass four times in a Herculean effort to help virtual strangers, Stanton’s life ended there. He was an empathetic and admirable hero who gave his all to save the Donner Party. Despite that, it was unfortunate that this wagon train seemed to do everything wrong to jinx itself.

In 1848, Philip Stanton wrote that it was no surprise that his kid brother “was willing to yield up his life in endeavoring to relieve his perishing companions. His death was indeed a sad and terrible fate; yet it is a consolation, mournful though it be, that the last acts of his life were devoted in the laudable effort in assisting others.”


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.