60 The Donner Party was no Party

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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.