Donner Party’s journey through central Nevada
This year marks the 170th anniversary of the Donner Party’s disastrous journey across the continent, a journey that brought the pioneers just 33 miles from present-day Fallon during their ill-fated trek to reach California.
Starvation, cannibalism and murder were all elements of this frightening misadventure, and what befell the emigrants when they were ultimately trapped by heavy snow in the Sierra Nevada remains one of the most horrific and riveting tragedies in American and world history.
The Donner Party’s expedition began in Independence, Missouri, in May of 1846, when 87 men, women, children and infants boarded large covered wagons pulled by oxen. The travelers hoped to reach Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento by late summer before the mountains in eastern California became impassable by the snowfall.
In the heavily-laden wagons that carried the emigrants and their furniture, trunks and household goods, the Donner Party’s members, led by brothers George and Jacob Donner, had initially planned to take the California Trail, a route used by previous travelers, which would have taken them through the Salt Lake Desert country of present-day Utah and then down through the Humboldt Sink in Nevada to the Sierras and Sacramento.
But Lansford Hastings, a young lawyer and huckster who went to California in 1842 and dreamed of a western Yankee republic with himself as its president, convinced them to take a different route, the “Hastings Cutoff,” which he alleged would shave at least 150 miles off their passage.
The Donner Party’s leadership fell for this cruel hoax and took the cutoff, a rash and deadly decision that caused the pioneers to abandon many of their wagons which had fallen to pieces along the dangerous and near-impassable route through the Wasatch Mountains, the onset on hunger and fighting among some of the travelers which caused several deaths and, of critical importance, the loss of precious time.
By the time the group reached the Great Salt Lake, it had traveled countless miles out of its way, the journey had become an endless nightmare, food and water were nearly exhausted, and the oxen, horses and other animals were either stolen or shot by Indians or dying of thirst and starvation.
Continuing, though, along the route south of the Great Salt Lake, the party reached the Ruby Valley in eastern Nevada on Sept. 18, four months after it had set out from Missouri and many weeks behind its schedule to reach Sacramento.
But when they reached the valley, the travelers realized they had lost their way, had once again gone many miles off their intended route, and had to reverse direction and go north and then west along a desert path that years later would be taken by the Pony Express, the transcontinental railroad, the cross-country telephone line and, finally, Interstate Highway 80.
On their westward journey towards California, the travelers passed through the present-day communities of Wells, Elko, Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca and Lovelock. (Near Lovelock, they went by the site of the June 1931 crash-landing of Amelia Earhart’s helicopter-like autogyro, which the famous aviator was piloting from New York to Los Angeles.)
From Lovelock, the starving emigrants and their remaining wagons, oxen and horses moved across the desperately hot desert, and on Oct. 18, 1846, they arrived in what today is Churchill County, Nevada. Their arrival in the county, according to the diaries of several of the travelers and research conducted by archaeologists and historians, occurred at the intersection of what is now Interstate 80 and Highway 95, a point about 33 miles due north of downtown Fallon. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, a tiny hamlet named Brady’s Hot Springs lay at this site. Today, it is occupied by a parking area and rest stop.
Then, continuing to move westward, the pioneers proceeded about 30 more miles through present-day Churchill County, continuing along what was to be the future route of I-80, and then traveled through present-day Fernley, Wadsworth, Sparks, Reno, Verdi and thence into the High Sierras of eastern California.
It was in these high, rugged and almost impassable mountains, where the snow had reached 22 feet in some places, that the travelers met their fates. Unable to move west over the mountain passes in their quest to reach Sacramento, which lay only 100 miles away, the starving and freezing emigrants erected tents and crude cabins near what is present-day Truckee.
Without food, they boiled the hides of their remaining animals to make soup. When the soup ran out, some of the ravenous travelers adopted the savage practice of cannibalism, eating the bodies of their families and fellow travelers who had perished from hunger.
Several members of the Donner Party left the camp and managed to reach nearby communities which sent relief parties to the emigrants. By the time the fourth and final rescue party arrived at the Donner camp, in late February, 1847, only 48 of the original 87 emigrants were still alive.
Today, 170 years after the Donner Party set out for California, a massive stone monument erected in 1918 and several of the emigrants’ cabins may be visited at the Donner Memorial State Park near Donner Lake and Truckee off I-80.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.