Sometimes a shortcut isn’t what it seems.
For rugged pioneers in the 1840s, the prospect of traveling to California seemed like a link to a flourishing future. The reports that came back from those who made it there, painted an irresistible picture of a much better life. Growing crops in four seasons. Warmth. Visions of endless wealth. It seemed like the American dream to many who were willing to risk everything to provide their families with a life of greater abundance.
The Westward Call
Despite living prosperous lives in Illinois, brothers George and Jacob Donner heard the westward call. Buoyed by exaggerated stories of the unknown west, in 1846, they packed up their families and began a trek west. They were inexperienced in this type of travel and had no idea what challenges they would face as they explored their dream. Both were born in North Carolina and traveled to Illinois where they were successful farmers. The brothers married sisters named Mary and Elizabeth Blue, who were decedents of the Blaw family, and could trace their roots back to John Blaw of Blawenburg. Many of the Blaws changed their surname to Blue to reflect a more American name. Blaw means blue in Dutch.
George Donner was married three times. Mary was his second wife, with whom he had two daughters. Unfortunately, Mary died before George left his successful farm to venture west. George remarried and took his third wife, Tamzene, and two daughters he had with Mary on the fateful journey.
Elizabeth had two children from a previous marriage, and she and Jacob had five more, seven children altogether. They all traveled west in the Donner Party… but their adventure was no party.
Ox-drawn wagon like those used to travel west on the Oregon Trail
The Long Journey
The original party included the Donner and Reed families with a total population of 31 travelers. Each family had three wagons with hired teamsters to keep the oxen moving. They mobilized on April 14, 1846 in Springfield, Illinois for their long journey to California, bringing all the possessions that would fit in their ox-drawn wagons. They figured they had plenty of time to cross the mountain ranges at the Continental Divide before winter would set in.
On May 12, the party joined another wagon train headed to California in Independence, Missouri, raising the total group size to 91 travelers. They started the journey by traveling on the famous Oregon Trail until they reached Wyoming. This turned out to be the easy part of the trip. In July 1846 at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, the travelers elected George Donner to be the leader of the party. It turned out to be a dubious honor.
The traditional (solid line) and Hastings Cutoff (broken line) trails westward
The Donner Party was not the first group to travel to California. In fact, a guide named Lansford Hastings had written a book entitled The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California to help pioneers travel west more easily. The Donner Party expected to have Hastings as their guide, despite the fact that the party was warned in Illinois and again in Fort Laramie not to use him as a guide or the shortcut he named after himself.
The Hastings Cutoff began in eastern Utah, went around the Wasatch Mountains, across the Great Salt Lake Desert, and around the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, where it rejoined the primary route to California. Hastings was sure that his route would be better than going north around the Great Salt Lake. The Donner Party arrived too late to join a group Hastings was leading. It would have led them along the Hastings Cutoff.
In July, when they arrived in Utah, the Donner Party had to make a decision. Should they follow the traditional route north of the Great Salt Lake or follow the Hastings Cutoff without Hastings? They had been told that the Hastings route would be 200 to 300 miles less than the traditional route, saving them significant time and wear and tear on their oxen and wagons. They thought they could cross the rugged mountain areas before winter set in. On July 31, they reached the point where the trail split. The trail to the left was the Hastings Cutoff, and the trail to the right was the continuation of the Oregon trial. They made the perilous decision to take the cutoff, not knowing that it was 125 miles longer than the primary trail.
The party learned quickly that the trails were not fully developed. Before they could travel over certain areas, they had to cut down trees and remove rocks so the wagons and animals could travel safely. This took time and caused frequent delays. They might spend a week clearing just a mile of trail.
By August 30, they gathered grass and water they would need to traverse the Great Salt Lake Desert, an 80-mile journey.
The Hastings Cutoff looking toward the ominous mountains ahead
The delay in getting through the cutoff cost them precious time. In late September, the party finally rejoined the main trail. They would soon discover that the trek through the Sierra Nevada mountains would prove to be their biggest obstacle. They arrived at a challenging pass in late October. Within a week of their arrival, they encountered snow. Not just an early season snow, but a blizzard that left them snowbound at the pass that would later be renamed Donner’s Pass in recognition of their misadventure. They were stuck at a place called Alder Creek Camp at the pass. There was no way that the animals and wagons could continue. They were stuck there for an intolerable four months.
Food was scarce, and there were few animals to hunt. They ate anything they could. Things got so bad that when the food supplies dwindled, people resorted to eating the oxen that pulled their wagons, their pack animals, and even their dogs. They boiled the leather coverings on their tents, thinking that this would provide nutrition. Eventually, they resorted to cannibalism to survive. As people died, they became food for survival for remaining party members.
On December 16, 17 members of the party bravely left the group and tried desperately to seek help. They traveled on foot wearing snow shoes. Two party members returned soon after they left, so 10 men and five women continued the survival journey. They wanted to find a rescue party that could take food back to the camp and lead the survivors across the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was a valiant effort that was filled with danger. Only seven party members reached the Sacramento Valley in California, but they were able to send rescuers back to the pass to help those they left behind.
The Donner Party struggles in the Sierra Nevadas in 1846-47
When the rescuers arrived at Alder Creek Camp on February 18, the Donner Party was in bad shape. Many had died of starvation, illness, and prolonged exposure to cold weather. Their leader, George Donner, had died of an infection in his hand. There were only 40 people alive in the camp when the rescuers arrived, and most of these were women and children. All of them were suffering from malnutrition.
Jacob and Elizabeth Donner, and four of their seven children perished at the camp. Both George Donner and his third wife, Tamzene, died, but the two daughters George had with Mary survived. By all accounts, the trip west was a disaster for the Donner Party. Many died, and the survivors were scarred for life by memories of their desperate struggle.
The story of the Donner Party is said to be the worst travel disaster among those who traveled west in the mid-nineteenth century. After the Donner disaster, gold was discovered in California, and the trails west were filled with wagon trains bringing fortune seekers to dreamland. You can be sure that the Donner story was known far and wide as a cautionary tale for westward travelers. By the 1860s, the Transcontinental Railroad was built, and it became a preferred way to travel across the country.
While the connection of this story to Blawenburg is indirect, there are lessons to be learned, not the least of which is to be careful when you think you are taking a short cut. Sometimes shortcuts carry consequences no one wants.
You can see a complete timeline of the Donner Party’s trip at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donner_Party_timeline
1. Donner Pass is in California, 26 miles northwest of Lake Tahoe. Route 80 runs near the pass.
2. Depending on which account of this story you read, the number of original people in the party can vary from 83 to 91. Most accounts are consistent with 47 people surviving.
3. It’s no wonder the Donner Party was stuck at the pass. Today, the average yearly snowfall at Donner Pass is 411.5 inches or 34.3 feet.
This monument is at Donner Pass.
In the winter, snow often reaches the top of the pedestal.
Blue, William H. “Blue Descendants Die in Donner Party,” The Chalice, Newsletter of the National Blue Family Association, 18:2, November, 2000.
Lubinski, Jacqueline Wells, “The Somerset County Connection to the Donner Party,” The Somerset County Historical Society Quarterly, July/August/September, 2017.
Donner Party in the Sierra Nevadas – North Wind Picture Archives
Oxen and wagon - https://oregontrailcenter.org/mules-oxen
Hastings Cutoff map - https://jacobbarlow.com/2019/07/11/the-california-trail/
Hastings Cutoff picture – Bob Black, http://www.emigranttrailswest.org
Donner monument – http://www.traveladvisor.com
Copyright © 2021 by David Cochran. All rights reserved.