September 18

This Day in History

Old West

Sep 18, 1846:

The struggling Donner Party sends ahead to California for food

Weeks behind schedule and the massive Sierra Nevada mountains still to be crossed, on this day in 1846, the members of the ill-fated Donner party realize they are running short of supplies and send two men ahead to California to bring back food.

The group of 89 emigrants had begun their western trek earlier that summer in Springfield, Illinois, under the leadership of the brothers Jacob and George Donner. Unfortunately, the Donner brothers had recently read The Emigrant's Guide to Oregon and California, the imaginative creation of an irresponsible author-adventurer named Lansford Hastings, who wanted to encourage more overland emigrants to travel to the Sacramento Valley of California. The Donners innocently accepted Hastings' claim that a shorter route he had blazed to California would cut weeks off the usual trip and agreed to place the fate of the wagon train in his hands once they reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming. From that point forward, the men, women, and children of the Donner Party were in trouble.

Though the so-called Hastings Cutoff was indeed shorter than the usual route, Hastings' glowing descriptions of his trail irresponsibly downplayed its many difficulties, as the Donner party soon discovered. After following a boulder-strewn and nearly impassable route over the Wasatch Range in Utah, the party embarked on an arduous six-day trek across the desert-a journey that Hastings had promised would take only two days. Lightening their loads by abandoning chairs, family heirlooms, wagons, and livestock to be swallowed up by the blazing sands, the emigrants struggled onward towards the Sierra Nevada.

A month after the two men had left for California, one returned with the desperately needed provisions as well as two Indian guides to help lead the party on the final stage of the trip through the Sierras. But by then it was already late October. Hastings' "shortcut" had cost the Donner group so much time that they now risked being trapped in the high mountains if an early snowstorm chanced to fall. Unfortunately for the luckless emigrants, just such a snowstorm arrived on the night of October 28. The next day the Donner party was snowbound in the Sierras.

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