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The Donner Party Essay, Research Paper

DAVID McCULLOUGH, Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I’m David McCullough.

At the start of spring in the year 1846 an appealing advertisement appeared in the Springfield, Illinois, Gazette. ”Westward ho,” it declared. ”Who wants to go to California without costing them anything? As many as eight young men of good character who can drive an ox team will be accommodated. Come, boys, you can have as much land as you want without costing you anything.” The notice was signed G. Donner, George Donner, leader of what was to become the most famous of all the hundreds of wagon trains to start for the far west, the tragic, now nearly mythic Donner Party.

For years Western scholars and novelists have been drawn to the story, yet until now there has been no documentary. Ric Burns’s film is a first.

Westward ho, indeed. If ever there was a moment when America seemed in the grip of some great, out-of-the-ordinary pull, it was in 1846. The whole mood was for movement, expansion, and the whole direction was westward. It was in 1846 that the Mormons set out on their trek to the Great Salt Lake. It was in 1846 that the Mexican war began and effectively all of Texas, Mexico and California were added to the United States.

And it wasn’t just young men who answered the call. Whole families and people of all stations in life joined the caravan, which is part of the fascination of our haunting story. One is struck, for example, by how many women there were in the Donner party and how many of them survived the horrific ordeal they met. Imagine packing up an entire household, saying good-bye to all you’ve known and setting off to walk essentially to walk to California, a continent away, little knowing what was in store.

ALEXIS DE QUEVILLE: ”It is odd to watch with what feverish ardor Americans pursue prosperity. Ever tormented by the shadowy suspicion that they may not have chosen the shortest route to get it. They cleave to the things of this world as if assured that they will never die, and yet rush to snatch any that comes within their reach as if they expected to stop living before they had relished them. Death steps in, in the end, and stops them before they have grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes them.”

NARRATOR: It began in the 1840s, spurred on by financial panic in the East, by outbreaks of cholera and malaria and by the ceaseless American hankering to move west. When the pioneer movement began, fewer than 20,000 white Americans lived west of the Mississippi River. Ten years later the immigration had swelled to a flood and before it was over more than half a million men, women and children had stepped off into the wilderness at places like Independence, Missouri, and headed out over the long road to Oregon and California. In places their wagon wheels carved ruts shoulder deep in the rocky road. The settlers themselves knew they were making history. ”It will be received,” one emigrant wrote, ”as a legend on the borderland of myth.”

But of all the stories to come out of the West, none has cut more deeply into the imagination of the American people than the tale of the Donner Party, high in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846.

HAROLD SCHINDLER, Writer: Human endeavor and failure, blunders, mistakes, ambition, greed all the elements. And if you call the rescue of the surviving parties a happy ending, it’s a happy ending. But what about those that didn’t make it, that terrible, terrible.

JOSEPH KING, Historian: I think we’re curious, you know, about people who’ve experienced hardship, who’ve gone through terrible ordeals, and certainly the Donner Party, you know, 87 people, went through a crisis the like of which few human beings have ever faced. And we’re curious about that. It can tell us something, I think, about ourselves, about the limits of human experience.

LANSFORD W. HASTINGS: ”March 3rd, 1846. The tide of emigration is unparalleled in the annals of history. The eyes of the American people are now turned westward and thousands are gazing with the most intense interest and anxiety upon the Pacific shores with the full determination to make one more, one last move more, to the far West.”

NARRATOR: As 1846 began, thousands of Americans were on the move west, eager to bring Oregon, Texas, New Mexico and California into the American sphere. No one was keener to possess California than Lansford W. Hastings, an ambitious 27-year-old lawyer from Mount Vernon, Ohio, whose visions of empire would be the Donner Party’s doom.

In 1842, he wandered west to California. What he saw there amazed him. He dreamed of taking California from Mexico and of establishing an independent republic with himself at its head. Hoping to send a tide of Americans flooding west to occupy the province, he published The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California. It painted California as a second Eden and advertised a new and faster route across the Great Basin, a shortcut no one had ever seen, including Hastings himself.

Mr. SCHINDLER: Lansford Hastings was probably ambitious, probably very sure of himself. And he says, ”Come with me. I’ll take you. I’ve been there.” And that is not quite the truth. It was good enough for him, but it killed people. It was a siren call and bad news. Bad news.

WALLACE STEGNER, Writer: It’s all mixed up with the romance and the so-called ”heroism” of the westward migration and the big American dream. The American dream has some nightmares attached to it and this is one of the ways the American dream could go. The American dream probably resulted in for most of the people who followed it like a marsh light in disaster.

Spring

NARRATOR: On April 16th, 1846, nine brand-new covered wagons rattled slowly out of Springfield, Illinois, and headed west. The families of George and Jacob Donner and James Frazier Reed were off to make a new life for themselves in the valley of California. George Donner was a 62-year-old farmer who had migrated five times before settling in Springfield, where he and his older brother Jacob had made enough money never to have to move again. Then land fever swept Illinois and kindled the urge to move one last time.

The originator of the Springfield party was an intelligent, headstrong businessman named James Frazier Reed, who was proud of the fortune he’d made in Illinois, but convinced he could do even better out west. His wife Margaret suffered from terrible sick headaches they hoped would improve in a better climate. With them were their four children: Virginia, Patty, James and little Thomas. Margaret’s elderly mother, Sarah Keyes, came, too, so sick with consumption she could barely walk, but unwilling to be separated from her only daughter.

The Donners and the Reeds made a lavish entourage, 32 men, women and children in all, counting the Reeds’s two hired servants and the seven teamsters who had answered George Donner’s add to drive the big wagons. But the most extravagant luxury was the Reeds’ family wagon, a two-story affair with a built-in iron stove, spring-cushioned seats and bunks for sleeping. It took eight oxen to pull the mammoth ark that 12-year-old Virginia Reed called ”the pioneer palace car.” No one had ever seen anything like it.

VIRGINIA REED: ”My father, with tears in his eyes, tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last we were all in the wagons. The drivers cracked their whips. The oxen moved slowly forward and the long journey had begun.”

NARRATOR: Their immediate destination was Independence, Missouri, the main jumping-off point for the Oregon and California trails. Once beyond Independence, however, they were stepping off into the unknown. All they knew was that the long and dangerous journey would take them 2,500 miles across a huge, windswept plain, three great mountain ranges and half a dozen scorching deserts. Time was everything. The grueling journey couldn’t begin until the spring rains had subsided and had to be over before snow blocked the Sierra Nevada mountains. That spring, talk was everywhere of a new and faster way. In the bottom of Jacob Donner’s saddlebag was a copy of Lansford Hastings’s Emigrant’s Guide, with its tantalizing talk of a faster route to the garden of the earth.

The same day the Donners and the Reeds rolled west out of Springfield Lansford Hastings prepared to head east from California, to see what the shortcut he was promoting was really like.

Mr. SCHINDLER: He’d heard that you could go south of the lake. The idea was to depart just before you got to Fort Bridger, going through the Wasatch, south of the lake, across the salt desert, through the Rubies into California. The problem was, he had never really done it, had never done it with a wagon, and yet it was his ambition to lead what people thought to be 7,000 wagons heading west that year. And Lansford Hastings was going to try to lead his share back.

JAMES CLYMAN: ”Mr. Hastings, our pilot, is looking for some force from the states with which it is designed to revolutionize California. He’s anxious to try this route, but my belief is that it is very little nearer and not so good a road as that by Fort Hall.”

TAMSEN DONNER: ”Independence. May 11th, 1846. My dearest only sister: I can give you no idea of the hurry of this place at this time. It is supposed there be 7,000 wagons this season. We go to California to the Bay of San Francisco, a four months trip. I am willing to go and have no doubt it will be an advantage to our children and to us. Farewell, my sister. You shall hear from me as soon as I have an opportunity.”

NARRATOR: The Donners and the Reeds reached Independence, Missouri, in the second week of May. Heavy spring rains had turned the unpaved streets to mud. Wagons bogged to the hubs, drivers cursed and whipped the straining oxen. Emigrants hurried from store to store, purchasing supplies and anxiously inquiring after the latest news.

EDWIN BRYANT: ”Singular as it may appear, there is as much electioneering here for the captaincy of this expedition as there is for the presidency of the United States.”

TAMSEN DONNER: ”We have some of the best people in our company and some, too, that are not so good.”

NARRATOR: Day by day, week after week, wagons rolled out of Independence. The Donners and the Reeds got started on May 12th.

EDWIN BRYANT: ”Not a living or a moving object of any kind appears upon the face of the vast expanse. The white-topped wagons and the men and animals belonging to them are the only relief to the tomb-like stillness of the landscape. A lovelier scene was never gazed upon, nor one of more profound solitude.”

NARRATOR: A few days out two riders overtook them. They brought mail from Independence and news that hostilities had broken out between the United States and Mexico on the Rio Grande. Each night violent thunderstorms broke over the wagon trains, scattering cattle and drenching the encampments. Each morning the skies cleared, but the trail had turned to mud. The Reeds’ palace wagon had to be laboriously double-teamed over even moderate inclines, to the immense irritation of those forced to crawl along behind.

On May 27th, the wagon train came to a standstill on the east bank of the Big Blue River, too swollen by rain to be forded. The company went into camp to build a makeshift ferry. By then, the journey had become too much for Margaret Reed’s mother.

VIRGINIA REED: ”Grandma became speechless the day before she died. We made a neat coffin and buried her under a tree. We miss her very much. Every time we come into the wagon, we look at the bed for her.”

NARRATOR: On May 31st, two days after the burial of Sarah Keyes, the last of the wagons was ferried safely over the Big Blue.

TAMSEN DONNER: ”June 16th. We are now on the Platte, 200 miles from Fort Laramie. I never could have believed we could have traveled so far with so little difficulty. Indeed, if I do not experience something far worse than I have yet done, I shall say the trouble is all in getting started.”

NARRATOR: On June 27th, just one week behind schedule, the Donners and the Reeds reached Fort Laramie, an isolated trading post in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There, James Reed found an old friend from Illinois, a 54-year-old mountain man named James Clyman, who had just come east from California using Hastings’s cutoff.

”We camped with them,” Clyman remembered, ”and continued the conversation until a late hour.” Reed, anxious to make up for lost time, asked Clyman what he thought of Hastings’s new route.

JAMES CLYMAN: ”I told him about the great desert and the roughness of the Sierras and that a straight route might turn out to be impracticable. I told him to take the regular wagon track and never leave it. It is barely possible to get through if you follow it and it may be impossible if you don’t.”

Mr. SCHINDLER: Clyman, who had just been south of the lake on horseback coming east with Lansford Hastings, says, ”Don’t do it. Don’t do it because you can’t take wagons that way. Go the old route. Be safe. You’ll perish.” And Reed says, ”There’s a nigher route and we might as well take it.”

DONALD BUCK, Historian: Why Reed didn’t take the advice he got at Fort Laramie is I don’t know if there’s an answer to that question. He was an intelligent man, decisive. I don’t know. It’s always, I guess, our insatiable desire to take a shortcut in life, thinking it’ll get us there, and invariably it doesn’t.

NARRATOR: The next day Clyman bid Reed good-bye and continued east, moving fast down the Platte. On July 15th, he crossed the Big Blue River and came to the grave of Margaret Reed’s mother. For a long time he stood looking down at the inscription, wondering what drove his countrymen west.

JAMES CLYMAN: ”This stone shows us that all ages and all sects are found to undertake this long, tedious and even dangerous journey for some unknown object never to be realized, even by those the most fortunate. And why? Because the human mind can never be satisfied, never at rest, always on the stretch for something new, some strange novelty.”

NARRATOR: Sarah Keyes had been a member of what would soon be called the Donner Party. She was the first to die.

Summer

On July 17th, as the Reeds and the Donners toiled slowly up towards the Continental Divide, a lone horseman came riding down from South Pass, bearing an open letter from Lansford Hastings addressed to ”All emigrants now on the road.” It urged them to press on in one group to Fort Bridger, where Hastings himself would be waiting to escort them over the new trail.

On July 18th they crossed the Continental Divide. They were in what the mountain men called ”Oregon country” now, 1,000 miles from Independence with more than 1,000 miles still to go. They moved on, spellbound by the altitude and the landscape and the endless sea of sage.

Mr. BUCK: Once you got beyond Fort Laramie, there was no turning back. A lot of emigrants turned back by the time they got to Fort Laramie, realizing they were into something that they didn’t want. But after that, you’re pretty much committed all the way. Even though you might like to be able to, there was hardly a chance or opportunity. It just wouldn’t work.

NARRATOR: On July 20th, the wagon train reached the Little Sandy River. It was the parting of the ways. Most of the emigrants heeded James Clyman’s warning and turned right, but 20 wagons, including the nine belonging to the Donners and the Reeds, turned left towards Fort Bridger and the entrance to Hastings’s cutoff.

The next day the new party met to elect a captain. James Reed was the obvious choice, but his aristocratic manner and his wealth had rubbed too many families the wrong way. They chose George Donner instead.

One week later the Donner Party rolled into Fort Bridger, two log cabins and a corral run as a trading post by a celebrated mountain man named Jim Bridger. Lansford Hastings wasn’t there. The promoter had started west a week earlier at the head of another group of wagons, leaving instructions for any emigrants who wished to follow along behind. They spent four days resting their oxen and making repairs.

JAMES REED: ”July 31st, 1846. Hastings’s cutoff is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles and a better route. The rest of the Californians went the long route, feeling afraid of Hastings’s cutoff. But Mr. Bridger informs me that it is a fine, level road with plenty of water and grass. It is estimated that 700 miles will take us to Captain Sutter’s fort, which we hope to make in seven weeks from this day.”

NARRATOR: On July 31st, the nine families and 16 single men of the Donner Party left Fort Bridger and entered Hastings’s cutoff. For a week they made good time, 10 sometimes 12 miles a day, working their way deeper into the rugged mountains, following the track of Hastings’s wagons. Then on August 6th, at the bottom of Echo Canyon, the party came to a halt. Stuck in the top of some sage near the trail was a note. It was from Lansford Hastings. It stated that the road ahead was virtually impassable and advised them to wait until he could show them a better way. It took James Reed five days to find Hastings. When he did, the promoter refused to come back to lead the company himself, pointing out what he thought might be a more manageable route from a high peak, instead. The next day, with James Reed as their pilot, the party turned off the track into the tangled wilderness.

Mr. SCHINDLER: When they committed themselves to cross the Wasatch, when they decided legitimately to enter the great basin, to tackle Emigration Canyon, as we know it, and Echo Canyon, as we know it, they were eating up days that were vital to them and they had no way of knowing it.

NARRATOR: They crawled along, making scarcely two miles a day, fighting their way through a chaos of canyons choked with willow trees, cottonwoods and aspen. Time and again the hostile terrain brought them to a standstill while the men cursed and toiled and hacked a road through the dense undergrowth. It took six days alone to chop their way eight miles up Big Mountain.

VIRGINIA REED: ”Finally we reached the end of the canyon, where it looked as though our wagons would have to be abandoned. It seemed impossible for the oxen to pull them up the steep hill and the bluffs beyond, but we double-teamed and the work was at last accomplished. Worn with travel and greatly discouraged, we reached the shore of the Great Salt Lake. It had taken an entire month instead of a week.”

NARRATOR: On August 22nd the 87 members of the Donner Party spilled out of the mountains exhausted and shaken. Some blamed Reed for the delay, but there was little time for recrimination. Summer was unraveling fast and there were still 600 miles to go.

JAMES REED: ”Tuesday, August 25th. Luke Halloran died of consumption this evening. We made him a coffin and buried him at the forks of the road in a beautiful place.”

NARRATOR: The worried emigrants hurried on, following the track of Hastings’s wagons, west then sharply south for a few miles to a cluster of clear, fresh springs. There they found the tattered remnants of another note.

ELIZA DONNER: ”Mother knelt down and began thoughtfully fitting the ragged edges of paper together. The process was watched with spellbound interest by the anxious group around her. The writing was that of Hastings and her patchwork brought out the following words. ‘Two days …two nights … hard driving … across desert … reach water.’ ”

NARRATOR: Taking on as much water and grass as they could, the emigrants climbed through a range of gnarled hills. Beyond them to the west stretched a glittering plain of salt. On August 30th they started across.

Mr. SCHINDLER: Well, you wouldn’t want to get caught out in the salt desert. Even today it’s a man-killer. But for people who thought they could go through in two days and equip a wagon with grass and water foolishness. In the heat of the day, the moisture under the surface bubbles to the top, turns it into a gumbo. If you’re in a wagon, you can count on going down a couple of feet in some of those things. I’m not saying a few inches, but you can go right up to the hubs.

NARRATOR: On the third day the water ran out. That night, crazed with thirst, the Reeds’ oxen bolted into the desert and could not be found. The family took what belongings they could carry and started out.

VIRGINIA REED: ”Papa carried Thomas and all the rest of us walked. We got to the Donners’ wagon and they were all asleep, so we laid down on the ground. We spread one shawl down and spread another over us and then put the dogs on top. The wind blew very hard and if it had not been for the dogs, we would have frozen.”

NARRATOR: The next day the shattered emigrants stumbled out of the salt desert. It had been a disaster. It had taken them five days to cross the 80-mile desert Hastings had assured them was only half as wide. Several emigrants had almost died of thirst. Thirty-six oxen were lost. Wagons would have to be abandoned, the Reeds’ ”pioneer palace car” among them.



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