The sad fate of 87 men, women and children who began what would become a legendary journey westward is chronicled in “The Donner Party.”The Donner Party was a group of California-bound American emigrants caught up in the “westering fever” of the 1840s. After becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada in the winter of 1846â€“1847, some of them resorted to cannibalism.The nucleus of the party consisted of the families of George Donner, his brother Jacob, and James F. Reed of Springfield, Illinois, plus their hired hands, about 33 people in all, with nine covered wagons. They set out for California in mid-April 1846, arrived at Independence, Missouri, on May 10, 1846, and left two days later.
On May 19, 1846, the Donners and Reeds joined a large wagon train captained by William H. Russell. Most of those who became members of the Donner Party were also in this group. For the next two months the travelers followed the California Trail until they reached the Little Sandy River, in what is now Wyoming, where they camped alongside several other overland parties. There, those emigrants who had decided to take a new route (“Hastings Cutoff,” named after its promoter, Lansford Hastings), formed a new wagon train. They elected George Donner their captain, creating the Donner Party, on July 19. At its height, it numbered 87 emigrants with 23 wagons.
The Donner Party continued westward to Fort Bridger, where Hastings Cutoff began, and set out on the new route on August 31. They endured great hardships while crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert, finally rejoining the California Trail near modern Elko, Nevada, on September 26. The “shortcut” had taken them over three weeks longer than had they used the customary route. They met further setbacks and delays while traveling along Nevada’s Humboldt River.