Learning more about the Donner Party tragedy | NevadaAppeal.com

Learning more about the Donner Party tragedy

The towering Pioneer Monument at Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee honors those who braved the California Trail during the mid-19th century.
Photo by Richard Moreno |

It seems like every couple of years, someone publishes another book on the tragic events of the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada range.

One of the most recent, “The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Saga of a Donner Party Bride,” by Daniel James Brown, published in 2009, focuses on one survivor’s experiences to recount the now-infamous story.

Of course, most folks know the basic facts of the Donner Party: in April 1846, George and Jacob Donner, along with family and friends, set out from Illinois for California. Eventually 20 wagons and 89 people became part of the group.

The party departed in early November to cross the Sierra Nevada but became snowbound near the lake now named for them, which is just west of Truckee. Several efforts to cross the mountains failed and the party was trapped for months with little food.

When the first rescuers finally reached the Donner Party in late February, they found half-starved survivors and the remains of several people who had died from starvation. They also found evidence of cannibalism.

The last survivor wasn’t removed from the camp until April of 1847, almost exactly one year after the party had set out with such promise and optimism. Only 47 of the original 89 members survived the ordeal.

The story can best be understood by visiting the Donner Memorial State Park near Truckee. The park encompasses several former sites of structures used by members of the Donner Party, including the Shallenberger and Murphy cabins.

The first thing you see at the park is the towering Pioneer Monument. The massive bronze sculpture was built between 1901 and 1918 to honor those who made the arduous journey on the California Trail.

The monument also provides some idea of the enormous difficulty faced by the Donner group. The base of the monument is 22-feet high, which represents the depth of the snow during the winter of 1846-47.

Adjacent to the monument is a large boulder with a bronze sign noting the former site of the Schallenberger cabin. In 1844, 18-year-old Moses Schallenberger and two other men built a small cabin on this site.

The three men were members of the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party, the first group to take wagons across the West to California. That winter, Moses Schallenberger and two other members of the party agreed to stay at the site to guard six wagons that had been left behind.

With supplies running low, the two older men decided to rejoin the main party while Schallenberger, who was in a weakened physical condition, stayed behind. Amazingly, he lived nearly three months in the cabin alone before being rescued.

Two years later, the cabin was used by members of the Breen family, who were part of the Donner Party.

A developed Nature Trail begins south of the museum and leads into the surrounding grove of trees. In addition to winding through flora and fauna, the trail leads to the former site of the Murphy cabin. The cabin was built against a large boulder, which formed the western side of the building.

It was a crude structure, about 25-feet long and 18-feet wide, with a dirt floor. Sixteen members of the Donner Party lived in the cabin for several months. Just east of the trail is scenic Donner Creek.

The park, operated by the California Department of Parks & Recreation, is open year-round and offers a variety of activities including cross-country ski and snowshoe trails—particularly popular at this time of year.

A new $9.6 million museum, the High Sierra Crossing Museum, was recently constructed at the park but hasn’t opened yet due to funding problems. Once it is complete, the museum will offer exhibits on the Donner Party, regional Native American history, the history of the transcontinental railroad through the area and the story of the various highways constructed through the mountains.

For more information about the Donner Memorial State Park go to http://www.parks.gov.

Rich Moreno covers the places and people that make Nevada special.