Westerly Journeys







Although The Donner Party of 1846-7 is the most famous of the emigrant parties to cross the Sierra Nevada along the 'Truckee Route', they were not the first. The Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party succeeded in crossing two years before in the severe winter of 1844-5.

The Donner Party became stranded and met only tragedy two years later. Where the Stephens Party was led by experienced mountain men and included a physician among its members, the Donner Party was composed of farmers and a high proportion of women, elderly and children.

The party was organized by the Donner brothers, Jacob and George, along with James Reed, all of Illinois. They set out in April of 1846 and in a reasonable amount of time had reached South Pass, a landmark on the trail west where they inadvertently made their first fatal error.

A trail guide or promoter named Lansford Hastings had produced a leaflet claiming he had found a shortcut to California. The Donners decided to attempt to follow that cutoff through Utah into Nevada. They lost much precious time and suffered through severe desert conditions. The physical condition of both humans and animals began to deteriorate as did their emotional stability. A stabbing occurred and as a result James Reed was banished from the party.

The party was bady demoralized before they ever reached the Sierra. Due to the 'short cut' they arrived at the Sierra late, out of provisions, and faced with an early snow. They did not have the strength to ascend through the snow to the summit and most of the party returned to winter over at what was known as Truckee Lake. The Donner brothers and their family were in even worse condition. They had had wagon problems and George Donner injured himself trying to make repairs. The family was forced to endure the winter in tents at Alder Creek.

Apparently none of them had the will or perhaps the skill and knowledge to hunt or fish in the harsh Sierra environment. They had lost all their stock and were essentially without food. The stories of survival by boiling hides and even cannabalism are legendary.

A small group of 15 from within the party elected to attempt to cross the Sierra on foot to seek aid. They have been called "the forlorn hope." Seven of these made it to Sutter's Fort. Meanwhile the banished Reed had made it across on his own and then tried to recruit relief parties. Ultimately four relief parties were sent, but it was not until March that the first party reached the survivors at the Lake.

The tragic story has been pieced together from diaries and interviews of party members and told and retold, with many different interpretations over the years. The first comprehensive History of the Donner Party was researched and produced by the prominent Truckee attorney, Charles F. McGlashan in 1880. A popular book, Ordeal by Hunger was written by historian George Stewart. Another version, Winter of entrapment was published by Joseph King. The McGlashan book attempts to present the facts of the journey without making moral judgement. The Stewart book presents a dramatized version, showing the weaknesses and strengths of the various members. In response to the Stewart book, Joseph King's book presents an alternative view of the supposed villains and heroes of the party.

Many more books--too numerous to mention-- have been written on the subject. One little-known brief history written by Doris Foley of the Nevada County Historical Society is available from that Society's book page. Books are also available from the Truckee-Donner Historical Society.

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Key to codes:

Breen, Isabella (2 & 3)1 Daughter of Breens
Breen, John (2 & 3) 14 Son of Breens
Breen, Simon (1)8Son of Breens
Breen, Edward (1) 13Son of Breens
Breen, James (2 & 3) 5 Son of Breens
Breen, Margret (2 & 3)40 Wife of Patrick Breen
Breen, Patrick (2 & 3) 51 Husband of Margaret Breen
Breen, Peter (2 & 3)3 Son of Breens
Breen, Patrick Jr (2 & 3)9 Son of Breens
Donner, Eliza (3) 2 Daughter of George Donners
Donner, George(1)8 Son of Jacob Donners
Donner, Elitha (1) l3Daughter of George Donner by a former marriage
Donner, Frances (3) 6Daughter of George Donners
Donner, Georgia (3) 3Daughter of George Donners
Donner, Leanna (1) 11 Daughter of George Donner by a former marriage
Donner, Mary (2 & 3) 8 Daughter of Jacob Donners
Eddy, William (S) 29Only survivor ofthe Eddy family
Fosdick, Sarah Graves (S)27Wife of Jay Fosdick; Daughter of Graves
Foster, Sarah Murphy (S)23 Wife of William Foster, Daughter of Lavina Murphy
Foster, William (S) 28 Husband of Sarah Murphy Foster
Graves, Eleanor (1 )15Daughter of Graves
Graves, Elizabeth (2 & 3)1Daughter ot Graves
Graves, Jonathon (2 & 3)6 Son of Graves
Graves, Lovina (1 ) 13 Daughter of Graves
Graves, Mary (S) 19Daughter of the Graves
Graves, Nancy (2) 9Daughter of Graves
Graves, William (9)18 Son of Graves
Herron, Walter (P)25Teamster for Reeds - Left group to join James Reed
Hook, Solomon (2) 13 Son of Elizabeth Donner by a former marriage
James, Noah (1) 20Teamster for the Donners
Keseberg, Lewis (4) 32Husband of Philipine: German
Keseberg, Philipine (1)22Wife of Lewis Keseberg
McCutcheon , William (P)30Husband of Amanda; went to Sutters Fort with Stanton
McCutcheon, Amanda (S) 24Wife of William McCutcheon
Miller, Hiram (P)29 Teamster for Reeds - Left group early
Murphy, Mary (1) 14 Daughter of Lavina Murphy
Murphy, Simon (3) 9 Son of Lavina Murphy
Murphy, William (1) 11 Son of Lavina Murphy
Pike, Harriet Murphy (S) 21 Wife of William Pike; Daughter of Lavina Murphy
Pike, Naomi (1) 2 Daughter of Pikes
Reed , James Jr. (1) 5 Son of Reeds
Reed , Viginia (1)13 Daughter of Margaret Reed by a former marriage
Reed, James F (P)46Husband of Margaret Reed
Reed, Margaret (1) 33 Wife of James Reed
Reed, Martha (Patty) (2)8 Daughter of Reeds
Reed, Thomas (2) 4 Son of Reeds
Trubode, John Baptiste (3)18Teamster for the Donners
Williams, Eliza (1)31 Sister of Baylis Williams; worked for Reeds
Wolfinger, Doris (1) 18 Wife of Jacob Wolfinger
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Those who perished

Antonio ? (S)26Hired hand
Burger , Charles (Karl)30"Dutch Charley ' - Teamster for Keseberg
Denton, John (1)28 Travelling with George Donners
Dolan , Patrick (S)35Popular Irish bachelor
Donner, Elizabeth (A)45 Wife of Jacob Donner
Donner, Isaac (2)5 Son of Jacob Donners
Donner, Jacob (A)65 Brother of George Donne
Donner, Lewis (2) 3 Son of Jacob Donners
Donner, Samuel (A) 4 Son of Jacob Donners
Donner, Tamsen 45 Wife of George Donner
Eddy , Margaret 2 Daughter of Eddys
Eddy, Eleanor 25 Wife of William Eddy
Eddy, James 3 Son of Eddys
Elliot , Milton (Milt) 2BTeamster for Reeds
Fosdick, Jay (5)23 Husband of Sarah Graves
Foster , George (1) 4 Son of Fosters
Graves, Franklin W , Jr. (2) 5 Son of Graves
Graves, Franklin W. (S) 57 "Uncle Billy" - Head of the Graves family
Halloran , Luke(B) 25 invalid travelling with lhe
Hardkoop , Mr. ? (B) 60 Friend of Keseberg; Belgian
Hook, William 12 Son of Elizabeth Donner by a former marriage
Graves, Elizabeth (2) 47 Wife of Franklin W. "Uncle Billy"Graves
Keseberg , Ada (l) 3 Daughter of Kesebergs
Keseberg, Lewis , Jr 2 Son of Kesebergs
Keyes , Sarah(B) 70 Mrs Reed's Mother
Luis ? (S) ? Indian guide - killed by William Foster
McCutcheon , Harriet 2 Daughter of McCutcheor
Murphy, Landrum 15 Son of Lavina Murphy
Murphy, Lavina 50 Widow - Matriarch of the Murphy clan
Donner, George (A) 62 Husband of Tamsen - Wagon Master
Murphy, Lemuel (S) 12 Son of Lavina Murphy
Pike , William (B) 25 Husband of Harriet Pike -
Pike, Catherine 2 Daughter of Pikes
Reinhardt, Joseph (A)30 Spitzer's partner: German
Salvador ? (S)? Indian guide - killed by William Foster
Shoemaker, Samuel (A) 25 Teamster for the Donner:
Smith , James (A) 25 Teamster for the Reeds
Snyder, John (B)25 Teamster for Graves - Killed by Reed
Spitzer , Augustus 30 Partner of Reinhardt; Ge
Stanton, Charles (S) 35 No known family - returned from Sutter's Fort
Williams, Baylis 24 Worked for the Reeds
Wolfinger , Jacob (B)26 Husband of Doris Wolfinger, German

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