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Donner Party Grave Mistake

Before gold was discovered in California, there were pioneers who set out across the plains to make new lives for themselves in the west. Among them was a group from Illinois who would go down in history as the Donner Party. Organized by brothers George and Jacob Donner, they set off from Springfield in 1846, became part of a larger wagon train and made a grave mistake when they choose a "short-cut" known as the Hastings cut-off which would take them via Salt Lake. It took 30 days instead of one week. When they reached what is now Reno, Nevada, the Donner Party was able to get badly needed provisions. But, their three to four day rest proved to be a fatal decision. Storms were already brewing in the mountains ahead, and when they arrived at Prosser Creek, east of Truckee on October 28, the storm had set in. The bad weather was a month earlier than usual. Despite the snow, they pressed on, but could not scale the summit and returned to Donner Lake where they set up camp in a ferocious storm.


The party built crude cabins with the main encampment near the lake. The Donner brothers chose to camp six to seven miles to the east. Provisions were soon gone, and as they faced starvation, a party was dispatched on December 16 to attempt passage over the mountains. Two returned, 15 continued including several women. Eight died, but two men and five women stumbled upon an Indian camp, and one man was guided to Johnson's Ranch on the Bear River, the first settlement on the western slope. The other six were brought to the ranch. It had been a 32-day journey. Help was summoned from Fort Sutter, and within a week provisions arrived, and in another 10 to 12 days the first relief party reached Donner Lake where many had died from starvation including numerous children.

In February 1847, a second group attempted the difficult trip over the summit. They encountered a second relief party. A third relief party found George Donner and his family. Donner was dying; his wife would not leave and stayed to die with him. Their children were rescued. The fourth and final relief party arrived on April 7 for the last survivor. Forty-two members of the Donner Party perished, 47 survived. Sadly, the survivors were reduced to cannibalism in an attempt to hold on until help came.  By the way, the rest of the wagon train followed the traditional route and arrived at the intended destination in California.

Donner Memorial State Park
Located two miles west of Truckee just off I-80 is a beautiful recreation area. The 353 acre park includes 140 campsites, 60 picnic sites and frontage on Donner Lake and Creek. In and around the park, you can study some of the Sierra Nevada’s geologic history, fish, hike, and in the winter build snowmen and cross country ski. The Emigrant Trail Museum which deals with the history of the area is open year around.

At Donner Lake, two miles west of I-80. Take exit 184. 140 campsites, 60 picnic sites and frontage on Donner Lake. There is a half-mile interpretive nature trail, and year-round planned activities. For campground reservations call: Reserve America (800) 444-7275. Park and museum information: (530) 582-7892.

Emigrant Trail Museum
Exhibit on the Donner Party & Video. Nearby are two of the cabin sites. Interpretive trail. Off I-80 near Truckee, 12593 Donner Pass Road. (530) 582-7892.

Donner Camp Picnic Area
Site of the Donner Family Camp. Interpretive trail. Hwy 89 North, 4 miles North of Truckee.

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