On July 31, 1846, the band of settlers known as the Donner Party left Fort Bridger, Wyoming, on their journey to California, electing to take a new, untried route recommended by a promoter named Lansford Hastings. “Hastings Cutoff . . . is said to be a saving of 350 or 400 miles,” wrote party member James Reed in a letter that day. It turned out to be a road to disaster.
The nucleus of the emigrant party consisted of the families of George Donner, his brother Jacob, and their friend James Reed. They had set out in April from Springfield, Illinois, with dreams of new lives in California. Others joined them, and eventually the hopeful party numbered 87 people and 23 wagons.
Within a few days of leaving Fort Bridger, they were in trouble. Hastings Cutoff proved a tortuous route. The men had to chop a trail across the Wasatch Mountains in Utah. They ran out of water crossing the deserts. Oxen began to die, and some wagons were abandoned. The emigrants were way behind schedule when they reached the Sierra Nevada. Then came snow – eventually 22 feet of it – trapping them in a mountain pass in northern California.
They set up camp, hoping to ride out the winter, but provisions were dangerously low. Fifteen of them, calling themselves the “Forlorn Hope,” set off across the mountains for help. Only seven survived the trek.
Four relief parties went after the stranded settlers. When the first rescuers reached their camp and called out, a few bony figures crawled out of holes in the snow. “Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?” one emaciated woman asked. Some of the starving settlers had been forced to eat their comrades’ dead bodies to survive.
Only 46 of the 87 Donner Party members lived through the cold and hunger. Their ordeal is a somber reminder of the fortitude of thousands who crossed the mountains and plains.