Expedition pointed their nine brand-new wagons west on a journey… The trek had been organized by James Reed, a businessman who hoped to prosper in California… George Donner

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The Tragic Fate of the Donner Party, 1847

In mid-April 1846, eight families gathered at Springfield, Illinois with a common goal – to find a better life beyond the Rockies. Numbering about thirty-two members that ranged in age from infants to the elderly, the expedition pointed their nine brand-new wagons west on a journey…

The trek had been organized by James Reed, a businessman who hoped to prosper in California… George Donner, a sixty-year-old farmer was chosen as the wagon train’s captain and the expedition took his name. They estimated it would take four months to accomplish their objective. As they traveled to the Mississippi River they joined other adventurers with the same goal until their caravan stretched for two miles while under way…

Before leaving Illinois, James Reed had heard of a newly discovered route through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that promised to cut as many as 300 miles off their journey. It was at Fort Bridger that some eighty-seven members of the wagon train, including the Donner bothers and their families, decided to separate from the main body and travel this new route west. All of those who traveled the old route ended their journey safely. This was not the case with those who took the alternative path.

The culprit was snow. As the Donner Party approached the summit of the Sierra Mountains near what is now Donner Lake (known as Truckee Lake at the time) they found the pass clogged with new-fallen snow up to six feet deep. It was October 28, 1846 and the Sierra snows had started a month earlier than usual. They retreated to the lake twelve miles below… unable to move forward or back. Shortly before, the Donner family had suffered a broken axle on one of their wagons and fallen behind. Also trapped by the snow, they set up camp at Alder Creek six miles from the main group…

Patrick Breen was a member of the Donner Party and kept a diary of their ordeal during the winter of 1846-47… We join his story about three weeks after the Donner Party arrived at the blocked pass:

Truckey’s Lake. November 20, 1846

Came to this place on the thirty-first of last month; went into the pass; the snow so deep we were unable to find the road, and when within three miles from the summit, turned back to this shanty on Truckey's Lake; Stanton came up one day after we arrived here; we again took our teams and wagons, and made another unsuccessful attempt to cross incompany with Stanton; we returned to this shanty; it continued to snow all the time. We now have killed most part of our cattle, having to remain here until next spring, and live on lean beef, without bread or salt. It snowed during the space of eight days, with little intermission, after our arrival, though now clear and pleasant, freezing at night; the snow nearly gone from the valleys.

November 21. Fine morning; wind northwest; twenty-two of our company about starting to cross the mountains this day, including Stanton and his Indians.

Nov. 23. Same weather; wind west; the expedition cross the mountains returned after an unsuccessful attempt.

Nov. 27. Still snowing; now about three feet deep; wind west; killed my last oxen to-day; gave another

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