Daily readings about people, places, and events in American history.
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July 31st
The Donner Party
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.

American History Parade
1790
The government grants the first U.S. patent to Samuel Hopkins of Vermont for a process of making potash and pearlash, ingredients used to produce soap.

1846
The Donner Party leaves Fort Bridger, Wyoming.

1914
The New York Stock exchange closes for four months due to World War I.

1964
Ranger 7 becomes the first U.S. probe to transmit close-up pictures of the moon.

1971
Apollo 15 astronauts become the first to ride a lunar rover on the moon.

1991
President George H. W. Bush and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev sign the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to reduce long-range nuclear weapon stockpiles.
This content is courtesy of The American Patriot's Almanac
© 2008, 2010 by William J. Bennett and John T.E. Cribb
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