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The Tragic story of the Donner Party

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“My father, with tears in his eyes, tried to smile as one friend after another grasped his hand in a last farewell. Mama was overcome with grief. At last we were all in the wagons. The drivers cracked their whips. The oxen moved slowly forward and the long journey had begun.” — Virginia Reed, daughter of James Reed. A tragic story of the Donner party is a very harrowing adventure through the journey of the big group and how about half of the people lived to tell the tale. On April 16, 1846 nine wagons were reported departing from Springfield Illinois on a journey of what is now called the Oregon Trail.

Formerly known as the northern trail there were a lot of advantages and disadvantages to the Oregon trail there was more land and wonderful glories for some people, but there was also disease and death along the path. With getting lost to starving the Oregon trail was one of the most daring trips to be made by our ancestors. Now as we talk about the Oregon trail and some of the famous people or groups that traveled the trail the Donner party is one of the most famous parties to ever cross. Now here is the story. It was April 16, 1846 nine covered wagons left Springfield, Illinois to go on a harrowing trip to California for a better life for James Reed’s wife and family. There were a couple of reasons why James Reed had made the decision to move to California one of the reasons were his wife suffered with headaches, and hoped that the coastal air would help with her headaches. The other reason was that he had read a book about this short cut through the great Basin which would save 350 – 400 miles off of their travels. James Reed also found a few other families to come with him on this adventure. Some of those groups included the Families of the Donner, Grave’s, Breen’s, Murphy’s, Eddy’s, and some other families with some few odd bachelors and maid’s. James had a mother in-law that was sick with consumption and could barely walk. She had two maids.

Consumption is basically pulmonary tuberculosis. With that in mind the whole group also had the best state of the art wagons, there were built in wood stoves, spring loaded seats, and beds for sleeping. It was so nice that James’s 12 year old child Virginia dubbed it the “Pioneer Palace”. They were very exquisite wagon that took eight oxen to pull one wagon. With all of the wagons and oxen ready they all took off toward Independence, Missouri. One of the Donner’s was 62 and had moved five times before settling in Springfield, Illinois. He and his brother Jacob decided to make another commute to California which would sadly be their last. Ironically the same day that the Donner party the Hasting’s prepared to go east from California to see what his shortcut was like. After three weeks of easy travel the Donner group ended up in Independence, Missouri. After a good nights sleep and a resupply they headed out the date was May 12, 1846 to the west where there was a thunderstorm. About a week later the party came up upon a large wagon train controlled by colonel William H. Russell. They were camped by Indian creek about 100 miles west from Independence, Missouri. By the 25 the trail of wagons had been at a standstill and this is where the first death took place. Sarah Keyes had died and was buried by the river. While on the trail the captain was reassigned to William M. Boggs. The party arrived a week behind schedule to fort laramie on June 27, 1846.

At the fort was an old friend who advised Reed not to go through Hastings path because it was almost impossible to travel by foot, so basically impossible for a wagon. The warning for the impossible route was also heeded by deserts and The Sierra Nevadas. Reed ignored the warning and tries to take the Hastings route anyway. Joined by the other wagons in Fort Laramie they all ran into a man carrying a letter from Lansford Hasting advising them not to take the hasting route because of the impossible travels on wagon. He didn’t listen and decided to go any ways. When they got to the Fork in the road which had the safer route and the Hasting’s route they put George Donner in charge of the route through the Hasting’s cutoff. July 31, 1846 they left a fort they had camped at for a few days and went on with the trail. The group of 74 people with 20 wagons made it 10- 12 miles a day wich was good for them. On August 6 they came upon a note telling them to go on a different path through the Salt Basin that this path was impossible to travel by wagon. While they all sat there pondering if they should take a different route the Graves caught up to them making the party 87 people with 23 wagons. After the vote they all decided to take a new trail than backtracking to the fort. August 11 and everyone is on the new route in the wasatch mountains trying to play it safe. Traveling slowed to two miles a day and some wagons were abandoned and they were blaming Hasting and James Reed when they reached the shore. The 25 Luke Halloran died of consumption also. With crossing the desert 32 oxen ran away and they had to leave four wagons behind.

Realising food was low Reed sent two men to a fort to get supplies but snow was starting to fall on the mountains they were trekking. With tensions rising and James Reed stabbing a driver and banished they went along in the cold unknown of the mountains. With heavy snowfall they could no longer continue they built three cabins that house 59 people and hoped that the snow would soon melt so they could be on their way. With 20 feet of snow built up they realised that they were stuck for the winter. With people dying of malnutrition they resorted to cannibalism eating the fallen members of the group. Sadly only two-thirds of the men perished and two-thirds of the woman and children survived. In the end 41 individuals died and 46 survived making the journey a fifty fifty chance for most people who traveled the trail of what is now America. The story quickly spread and is one of the most famous stories of the westward expansion. ( sited from The Tragic story of the Donner Party. )

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