Donner Party faces calamity in the desert

Calamity in the Desert

Ten-year-old Patty Reed saved her doll from the abandoned wagons. | Courtesy Sutter’s Fort Archives

Crossing Utah’s Wasatch Mountains took a severe toll on the Donner Party with repeated delays, diminishing supplies, loss of morale and increased bickering. At times they made barely a mile a day. At one point they worked feverishly over several days to clear eight miles of tangled wilderness only to find out that they had entered a dead-end box canyon. The 36-mile ordeal through the Wasatch took them 18 days even though trail guide Lansford Hastings had promised a quick three-day passage over the range.

Tamsen Donner must have been angry and in deep despair (her journal was never found) as she had emphatically warned against using Hastings bogus shortcut. Now she saw their previously delightful journey unraveling into potential disaster. As the group spent precious time and energy hacking a primitive road though canyon country, other tardy strangers joined them. The 87 members that now comprised the Donner Party needed to suppress their divisions and join forces to survive.

On Aug. 22, the wagon train finally reached the eastern margin of the Great Salt Lake Valley. Edwin Bryant, Tamsen’s friend and fellow writer who would later publish a memoir of his trek titled, “What I Saw in California,” had reached the same spot three weeks earlier. Bryant was fascinated by the seemingly endless expanse and despite the summer heat wrote: “We had a view of the vast desert-plain before us, which as far as the eye could penetrate, was of a snowy whiteness, and resembled a scene of wintry frosts and icy desolation. Not a shrub or object of any kind rose above the surface for the eye to rest upon…It was a scene which excited mingled emotions of admiration and apprehension.”

Bryant’s group was riding mules and the surface of the desert plain was solid enough that the burros’ hooves left little trace of their passing. Despite harsh deprivations from alkali dust storms, lack of water and nearly a gunfight between them, these nine single men traversed the desert successfully. That would not be the case for the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. After several days they approached the edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert. Hastings had stated that the barren plain was only about 40 miles across and the journey could be accomplished in 24 hours, including short rests. In fact, the desolate wasteland is 83 miles wide with no water or grass. As James Reed and George Donner scanned the horizon, some of the emigrants gathered pieces of a tattered note posted by Hastings. Tamsen Donner assembled the scraps to read an alarming warning: “2 days—2 nights—hard driving—cross—desert—reach water.”

Hastings had lied again, and the pioneers were distressed about the dangers ahead. They prepared as best they could for several days of nonstop travel but had insufficient stores of potable water or nourishing grass for their livestock. On Sunday, Aug. 30 they entered the desert. (Indicative of how much they had fallen behind, Bryant’s fast-moving group had already crossed the Sierra and was only one day from Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley.)

Lansford Hastings had lied again, and the pioneers were distressed about the dangers ahead. They prepared as best they could for several days … but had insufficient stores of potable water or nourishing grass for their livestock.

The Donner Party traveled over the arid wasteland day and night stopping only to feed and water the cattle. The Great Salt Lake Desert appears to be a landscape that can support wagon traffic, but it chiefly consists of gray mud impregnated with salt. When the hot winds of summer blow across these salt flats, surface water evaporates and forms a thin, brittle layer that traps moisture in the mud beneath. The narrow wheels of the emigrants’ heavy wagons broke the crust and cut deep into the quagmire, accelerating the exhaustion of the parched and weak oxen teams trying to pull them. One migrant described it as “walking through deep oatmeal mixed with glue.”   

The seven-day ordeal was a catastrophe for Reed and many others. When the oxen began to falter and then give out completely, Reed saddled his prized racing mare, Glaucus, and set out alone into the darkness in a search for water. Before he left, he told his head teamster Milford Elliott that when the oxen could go no further, unhitch the animals, abandon the wagons and march the livestock forward. Reed eventually found a freshwater spring 20 miles away, but when he returned at midnight to alert the others, he discovered that his desperate cattle had smelled water and bolted into the night.

After days of searching the animals were never recovered with Reed assuming that Native Americans had appropriated them for food. In one fell swoop, Reed lost 18 head of oxen, which forced him to cache two of his three wagons and the supplies they carried. Reed was only able to proceed through the generosity of Patrick Breen, Franklin Graves and William Pike who together lent him two yoke of oxen (four animals).

When they finally escaped the desert nightmare, a considerable number of oxen, cattle and horses were dead or missing. A portion of the remaining livestock was too weak or sick to travel and were simply shot or left to die. Four wagons were abandoned, 36 draft animals lost and critically, an additional 11 days wasted.

On Sept. 10, the search for missing oxen ended and the Donner Party pushed on. That day a quick-moving snowstorm chilled them to the bone, a harbinger of winter and sign that time was running out. The squall “made all the mothers tremble,” but the women of the party were already worried, angry and feared for their children. A few days later when the party stopped for water at a spring, Reed christened it: Mad Woman Camp.

Hastings had lost all credibility among the emigrants, but they had plenty of red-hot animosity for Reed, who as a leader rashly convinced the party to take the devastating shortcut.

In mid-September, the Donner Party reached the Humboldt River in present-day northern Nevada. Weak and famished they were the last wagon train on the California Trail that year. Desperately short of food supplies, they sent a call out for volunteers to ride ahead for help. In keeping with his previous exploits of financial overreach, Reed announced that he would write a letter promising Captain John Sutter that he would be responsible for the cost of all provisions provided.

Chicago bachelor Charles Stanton stepped forward to say that he would go if someone would furnish a horse. His bravery was commendable, but some grumbled that because he was by himself with no family ties, there was little reason to expect his return. At this point no one realized the strength of Stanton’s character, fortitude and commitment to his word.

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 Click on Donner Party under the Explore Tahoe menu.