Category Archives: Donner Trail

Donner Trail, 1846

Published / by Connor VanWagoner / Leave a Comment

Write-up by Connor Van Wagoner

Placed by: Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association, 1931

GPS Coordinates: 40.772159, -111.920372

Historical Marker Text:

 The Donner Party led by George and Jacob Donner and James F. Reed passed here and crossed Jordan River nearby About September 2, 1846 This party, consisting of 91 persons, 35 of them children, was delayed 2 weeks building a road via Emigration Canyon, lost some wagons and many animals crossing Great Salt Lake Desert and became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains where 35 of them perished that winter

 

Extended Research:

            During the 19th century, “Manifest Destiny” came to dominate American culture. Manifest Destiny asserted that the United States had a god-given right to settle and expand the country westward. In hindsight, it is difficult to explain just how influential the idea of “Manifest Destiny” was on the average American. The coinage of this term in 1845 was coming fresh off the Second Great Awakening in the early 19th century, a strong and widespread religious revival that instilled deep religious beliefs and values amongst many Americans. These beliefs at the time related Christian values with civility. America largely viewed the “unsettled” West as a region lacking Christianity and thus lacking civility. Christianity provided justification for Americans to expand westward and the continued encroachment on Native lands to fill the region with America’s idea of civilization.[1] As this intense religious and expansionist fervor spread widely across the United States, Americans were much more inclined to grip tight in their minds their religious right to settle in the west. As a result, settlers from far and wide packed up their things to seek fortune and better lives in the west.[2]

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. https://www.loc.gov/item/97507547/)

            One of these groups of settlers was known as the Donner Party, also referred to as the Donner-Reed Party. In 1846, just one year after the coinage of “Manifest Destiny,” this group of settlers left their hometown of Illinois to follow through on their own Manifest Destiny. The Donner party itself can be seen as a reflection on the broader rhetoric of westward expansion and the “development of American national identity” following the Second Great Awakening and with the expansion of “Manifest Destiny.”[3] A man named James Clyman, who was part of the Lansford W. Hastings party, traveled east from California to Utah. Hastings was the author of a prominent Emigrant’s Guide to California and he hoped to attract overland migrants to try a new route across the salt desert, a route he promoted as a short cut. Clyman, as a member of Hasting’s group, would prove to be incredibly influential among several Donner Party members.

Along this trek, Clyman wrote in detail about his experience on this journey from west to east and the potential roadblocks that other settlers might encounter. Within Clyman’s diaries, historians can see early signs of potential struggles that settlers may encounter in the Mountain Dell area. Clyman wrote, “A Large vally seem[s] to run a great distance north waard [sic] The…earthe is much dryer so also it is much Looser in as much that our animals many timis sink up to their knees in the dry earth…[we have] too many for this rout at so early a season of the year… we will probably divide our company in a few days.”[4]

The difficult terrain of the region caused immense difficulties for travelers as their horses would oftentimes get stuck in the terrain. “I begin to conclude that californea Horses are not a hardy race of animals,” Clyman says with a sense of hubris, putting the blame of the difficulties on the animals instead of the route and the company itself. Within this diary, Clyman also discusses the vast and oddly shaped “concreete” rocks that devour the region. In his writings, he seems to downplay the rough terrain and instead describe the region as barren and desolate.[5] Many people like the Donner Party interpreted this as a safe route. The Donner Party, at least many of its members, were heavily influenced by Clyman and other Hastings party members to try the Hasting’s cutoff. This reliance on the Hastings party route in the Mountain Dell area would prove to be an absolutely disastrous decision for the Donner Party.

(Photo of James Clyman. Photo within the public domain)

            Had the Donner Party taken already established routes, perhaps the well known disaster of their group could have been avoided. Nevertheless, members of the Donner Party decided to follow the so-called “Hastings Route.” After Clyman’s eventual successful trek through this passage, Lansford Hastings (who never actually went on the trek himself before publishing his emigrant’s guide) then began to encourage emigrants to travel his supposed cutoff. He claimed that this route was a direct passage to California.[6] He attracted four migrant companies to try his route. The fourth settler group to test out this new route was the Donner Party.

Even before the Donner Party reached the Salt Lake Valley, the difficult decision on which route to take dominated the party’s daily conversations. After fierce arguments and a potential murder in cold blood, the party made their way down the “Hastings Route.” The first three migrant groups went via Weber Canyon, a difficult route for wagons. The Donner Party instead blazed a new route through what came to be called Emigration Canyon. In blazing the new trail they lost valuable time and made slow progress. There were no signs, no markers, and hardly any trails left behind from the Hastings route. One scholar writes, “They had no road to follow, only the faintest markings of a trail left by Clyman.”[7] In an account from Donner Party member Jacob Wright Harlon, he describes how the trek from Fort Bridger to Salt Lake was “difficult and disagreeable.” He discusses how the grassy and rocky terrain made it incredibly hard to travel and that many members of the party argued about which way to go. He notes how some members went ahead of others, rendering other subgroups of the Donner Party to be left behind for several days. He also describes traveling through the Great Salt Lake. They lost multiple cattle and the saltiness of the water made it almost undrinkable. “They were so exhausted and spirit-broken,” Harlan writes.[8]

(An area in which the Donner Party traveled through the Great Salt Lake Desert. P0220 The Great Salt Lake Photograph Collection, P0220n01_01_02a)

The challenges faced by the Donner Party are difficult to put into words and accurately explain just how terrible the conditions were for this group of settlers. The Donner Party encountered incredibly difficult terrain to traverse, as described by Clyman in his diaries, which inevitably resulted in a plethora of setbacks and delays. Their struggles crossing Utah cost them valuable time and led to them being pinned down in an early winter storm in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Their wagons and animals were finding it increasingly difficult to continue their journey. As they continued to face difficult terrain, many of the emigrants crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert. Traveling through the desert resulted in many of their animals stampeding to search for water. Evidently, the Donner Party lost many of these animals. The loss of these animals had severe implications for the Donner Party. Not only did they depend on many of these animals for food, they also depended on them for pulling the enormous weight of their wagons.[9] Facing yet another setback, the Donner Party needed to regroup and cache their supplies.

The Donner Party continued through the desert to the Sierra Nevada region in which Native American attacks saw even further reduction in their livestock supply. These Native American encounters display the disconnect between “Manifest Destiny’s” ideas of the west as an empty and tameable land to what this area really was: an already widely inhabited region filled with distinct and rich cultures, practices, societies, and groups of people. Native attacks on the Donner Party were far from baseless. Settlers encroached onto their land and they attacked the Donner Party in an attempt to preserve their land and their people. While the attacks were incredibly damaging for the Donner Party, it is imperative to understand the threat the Donner Party posed to Native Americans in this region.[10]

Just when they thought it could not get any worse, an early disastrous snowstorm struck the Sierra Nevadas. This resulted in the Donner Party being stranded in the region for nearly four months.[11] Mary Ann Graves, another member of the Donner Party, documents the struggles she and the party faced. She writes, “Our travels and sufferings are too horrible to relate.” In her company of 25-30 men, she states that only four survived the perilous winter. Her father died on Christmas eve and they were left without fire and food to endure the storm. She describes how two Native Americans were murdered in order to eat their flesh. It is unclear just how this decision came to fruition, but it highlights the unbelievable desperation the Donner Party faced. Not wanting to kill their own and looking down the barrel of death, the party decided to commit two murders in an attempt to alleviate their dire situation. Perhaps it was revenge for the previous attacks they faced or simply just desperation, but these murders display how the Donner Party was now willing to do anything in order to increase their chances of survival no matter how unjustifiable their actions may be. Her own family members died and they had to resort to eating their corpses. Once relief from other companies came, she described how some had to be left behind as they were too weak to continue. An argument ensued between two men in the party resulting in one of them being stabbed to death. She beautifully yet horrifyingly says, “No tongue can exceed in description the reality.”[12]

           (Artist’s interpretation of the Donner Party winter Courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica, © North Wind Picture Archives. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Donner-party#/media/1/909927/242913)

The Second Great Awakening and the idea of “Manifest Destiny” drastically altered the societal and cultural dynamic of the United States in the 19th century. Americans migrated West because they believed they could live better lives there. It is important to remember at this time, these western regions of the United States still belonged to Mexico and not the United States. Nevertheless, this cultural and societal shift in the United States resulted in emigration to Mexican and Western American regions. Influenced by this changing rhetoric, the Donner Party was one of the groups that decided to manifest their own destiny in the West following the religious revival in the Second Great Awakening. After reading about an alleged shortcut to California, the Donner Party faced indescribable hardships in the Great Salt Lake and Sierra Nevada Regions. The Donner Party might have been using the best information available at the time when deciding to take the “Hastings Route” instead of established routes. Nevertheless, understanding the decision making process behind this decision, the encounters they faced on their westward journey, and the harrowing struggles they faced allows us to better understand and remember the story of the Donner Party. Through analyzing the Donner Party, we can better understand how the general shifts in American beliefs affected the average American, how distrust and dissent amongst a group can lead to disaster, and how, maybe, arrogance can lead to disaster for others, as it did with the Donner Party.

The historical marker placed by the Utah Trails and Landmarks Association offers no explanation of the encounters the Donner Party faced when traveling west or even the reasons why they traveled west. Though Americans might identify the party with cannibalism and death, the more nuanced information of their travels westward has fallen by the wayside. As this marker was placed over ninety years ago, it is crucial we update this marker to better remember the Donner Party’s story in the modern day. In doing so, we can remember the deeper and more powerful story of the Donner Party that has been eroded over the years.

For Further Reference:

Battle, Cullen. “Ghosts of Mountain Dell: Transportation and Technological Change in the Wasatch Mountains.” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 1 (2018): 6–23.

Clyman, James, and Charles L. Camp. “James Clyman: His Diaries and Reminiscences (Continued).” California Historical Society Quarterly 5, no. 2 (1926): 109–38.

Conroy-Krutz, Emily. “Introduction.” In Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early American Republic. Cornell University Press, 2018.

Dixon, Kelly J., Shannon A. Novak, Gwen Robbins, Julie M. Schablitsky, G. Richard Scott, and Guy L. Tasa. “Men, Women, and Children Starving: Archeology of the Donner Family Camp.” American Antiquity 75, no. 3 (2010): 627–56.

Graves, Mary Ann and Johnson, Kristin, ed. “Mary Ann Graves (1826–1891).” In Unfortunate Emigrants, 126–31. Logan, UT. Utah State University Press, 1996.

Grayson, Donald K. “Donner Party Deaths: A Demographic Assessment.” Journal of Anthropological Research 46, no. 3 (1990): 223–42.

Harlan, Jacob Wright and Kristin Johnson, ed . “Jacob Wright Harlan (1828–1902).” In Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996.

Isenberg, Andrew C., and Thomas Richards. “Alternative Wests: Rethinking Manifest Destiny.” Pacific Historical Review 86, no. 1 (2017): 4–17.

Johnson, Kristin. “Sufferers in the Mountains .” In An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp. University of Oklahoma Press, 2020.

Stuckey, Mary E. “The Donner Party and the Rhetoric of Westward Expansion.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 14, no. 2 (2011): 229–60


[1] Emily Conroy-Krutz, “Introduction,” in Christian Imperialism: Converting the World in the Early

American Republic (Cornell University Press, 2018).

[2] Andrew C. Isenberg and Thomas Richards , “Alternative Wests: Rethinking Manifest Destiny,” Pacific Historical Review 86, no. 1 (2017): pp. 4-17.

[3] Mary E. Stuckey, “The Donner Party and the Rhetoric of Westward Expansion,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14, no. 2 (2011): pp. 229-260,

[4] James Clyman and Charles L. Camp, “James Clyman: His Diaries and Reminiscences (Continued),”California Historical Society Quarterly 5, no. 4 (1926): pp. 378-401.

[5] ibid

[6] Donald K. Grayson, “Donner Party Deaths: A Demographic Assessment,” Journal of Anthropological Research 46, no. 3 (1990): pp. 223-242.

[7] Cullen Battle, “Ghosts of Mountain Dell: Transportation and Technological Change in the Wasatch Mountains,” Utah Historical Quarterly 86, no. 1 (January 2018): pp. 6-23.

[8] Jacob Wright Harlan , “Jacob Wright Harlan (1828–1902),” in Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996).

[9] Kelly J. Dixon et al., “‘Men, Women, and Children Starving’: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp,” American Antiquity 75, no. 3 (2010): pp. 627-656.

[10] Kristin Johnson, “Sufferers in the Mountains,” in An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party’s Alder Creek Camp (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2020).

[11] Kelly J. Dixon et al., “‘Men, Women, and Children Starving’: Archaeology of the Donner Family Camp,”

[12] Mary Ann Graves, “Mary Ann Graves (1826–1891),” in Unfortunate Emigrants: Narratives of the Donner Party (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1996).

Donner-Reed Memorial Museum and Early Bldgs.

Published / by Alex Mower / Leave a Comment

Write-Up by Alex Mower

Placed By: Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association (Now overseen by the Sons of Utah Pioneers)

GPS Coordinates: (40.6019445, -112.4738719)

Historical Marker Text:

This property was within the walls of the Willow Creek Fort, (Grantsville), which was built shortly after the first white settlers arrived. The main building was erected in 1852. J. Reuben Clark II purchased the property in later years and restored the building. The site was eventually donated to Grantsville City for use as a museum. The log cabin and blacksmith shop were placed here in later years.

            This museum is named for the Donner-Reed Party. In 1846 they stopped at nearby Twenty Wells to let their animals rest and gain strength before continuing their ill fated trip. While crossing the Salt Desert they lost many wagons and other belongings on the mud flats east of Pilot Mountain. The hardships suffered in Utah delayed their journey. Winter overtook them in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, resulting in their well known catastrophe. Some of the articles left by the Donner-Reed Party are displayed in the museum, along with other pioneer and Indian relics.

            This monument contains cornerstones and markers from early Grantsville buildings. Refurbishment of the area began July 1975 and was completed July 1976. Funds were from Utah American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and Grantsville City Corporation.

Extended Research:

            The highly publicized story of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party is one of America’s truly great cautionary tales. Having left the midwest en route to California in the spring of 1846 for greater economic opportunity, the group of pioneers officially set out on the dangerous journey many other Americans would attempt both before and after them.[1] Taking direction from Lansford Hastings’ The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California, a guide written more based on theory than experience, the group set off for the west, utilizing a “shortcut” through Utah and the Salt Desert. After delays forced them to winter high atop the Sierra Nevada mountains, the group was compelled to resort to cannibalism to survive.

Donner-Reed Party Artifacts

While no one in the group participated in cannibalism while they traveled across Utah, many of the delays the party incurred were the direct result of the group’s decision to blaze the “shortcut” through the Salt Lake Valley and forge their way through the muddy trenches of the Salt Desert.[2] Over ten days in 1846, the Donner-Reed Party created and navigated a road through Emigration Canyon that Mormon pioneers traveled through and enhanced the next year when they entered the valley for the first time.[3] After navigating the canyons, the group endured more delays in the Salt Desert, setting them even further behind on their journey west. On the salt flats, the Donner-Reed Party left behind material goods like wagon parts, animal equipment, and gun fragments. These artifacts now reside at the Donner-Reed Memorial Museum.

The “Old Adobe Schoolhouse”

            The building housing the artifacts has served many different purposes over the years. Known locally as the “Old Adobe Schoolhouse ” it was, unsurprisingly, originally built as a school. It was later adapted to function as a meetinghouse for religious services before eventually serving as the town’s city hall and jail from 1894 to 1917.[4] The building was then sold by Emma Burmester to J. Reuben Clark, Jr. in 1941, who gifted the building for use for meetings by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.[5] In 1969 the building came under the ownership of Grantsville City. It then began its life as a museum, and the home of many pioneer artifacts, including but not limited to those of the famed Donner-Reed Party.[6] The building has become a landmark for the community, and was added to the National Register as a Utah Historic Site in 1995.

Museum Contents

            Inside the museum, patrons can view a wide array of Donner-Reed and other pioneer relics. From guns to wagon remnants, artifacts in the museum tell a story of cost and loss for the Donner-Reed Party as they traveled across the salt flats, and it was possibly the most costly leg of the journey before the group would make it to the Sierra Nevada mountains, as the group experienced many delays in the Salt Desert. Not only was the desert larger than they had anticipated, it also proved more difficult to traverse than expected. On the Salt Desert, with water and grass all but impossible to acquire, the group was forced to abandon several wagons and lost an estimated 36 oxen.[7] Because of the Salt Desert’s “mud that never dries,” the Donner’s “Pioneer Palace Car” embedded itself and its wheels deep in the desert floor, and was left behind; it was one of many wagons that would reach the same demise in the desert.[8]

            The delays in both the Salt Lake Valley as well as the Salt Desert would contribute directly to the group’s late arrival to the Sierra Nevada mountain passes, which would ultimately lead to so many of their unfortunate and untimely deaths. The artifacts found in the museum help to ground one of the nation’s most hazardous tales to its connection to the state of Utah, and highlights the role played by the environment of the state in the tale of the Donner-Reed Party.

For Further Reference:

Primary Sources:

Hastings, Lansford Warren, Newberry Library, and Adam Matthew Digital. The Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California : Containing Scenes and Incidents of a Party of Oregon Emigrants; a Description of Oregon : Scenes and Incidents of a Party of California Emigrants; and a Description of California; with a Description of the Different Routes to Those Countries; and All Necessary Information Relative to the Equipment, Supplies, and the Method of Traveling. Selected Americana from Sabin’s Dictionary of Books Relating to America. Unit 170 ; Fiches 14,252-14,253. 1845.

Secondary Sources:

Hardesty, Donald L. The Archaeology Of The Donner Party. Wilbur S. Shepperson Series in History and Humanities. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1997.

Hawkins, Bruce R., and Madsen, David B. Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons : Historic Archaeology along the Hastings Cutoff. Paper ed. 1999.

Johnson, Kristin. 1996. Unfortunate Emigrants. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press.

McGill, Sara Ann. Donner Party. 2009.

National Register of Historic Places Registration: Grantsville School and Meetinghouse https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/95001432_text

Stookey, Walter M., 1869. Fatal Decision : The Tragic Story of the Donner Party. Utah: Desert Book Company, 1950, 1950.

Spedden, Rush. The Donner Trail across the Salt Lake Valley. 2008.

All photos taken by Alex Mower


[1] McGill, Sara Ann. Donner Party. 2009.

[2] Hardesty, Donald. The Archaeology Of The Donner Party. Wilbur S. Shepperson Series in History and Humanities. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1997. P. 10

[3] Spedden, Rush. The Donner Trail across the Salt Lake Valley. 2008.

[4] National Register of Historic Places Registration: Grantsville School and Meetinghouse https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/95001432_text

[5] National Register of Historic Places Registration: Grantsville School and Meetinghouse https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/95001432_text

[6] National Register of Historic Places Registration: Grantsville School and Meetinghouse https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/95001432_text

[7] Hawkins, Bruce R., and Madsen, David B. Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons : Historic Archaeology along the Hastings Cutoff. Paper ed. 1999. And Johnson, Kristin. 1996. Unfortunate Emigrants. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press. P. 143

[8] Stookey, Walter M., 1869. Fatal Decision : The Tragic Story of the Donner Party. Utah: Desert Book Company, 1950, 1950. P. 99 And Donald L Hardesty. The Archaeology Of The Donner Party. Wilbur S. Shepperson Series in History and Humanities. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1997. P. 5

Donner Hill

Published / by William Root / Leave a Comment

Placed by: LDS 38th North Ward Priests[1]

GPS Coordinates: 40° 45’5.76″N, 111° 48’3.28″W

Historical Marker Text:
Lured by Lansford Hasting’s assurance that his shortcut from the well-known trail to Oregon and California would save 250 miles and weeks of travel, the ill-fated Donner-Reed party reached this place August 23, 1846, after spending 16 days to hack out a 36-mile road through the Wasatch Mountains. Here at this narrow mouth of the canyon, they were stopped by what seemed impenetrable brush and boulders. Bone-weary of that kind of labor, they decided instead to goad the oxen to climb the hill in front of you. Twelve-year-old Virginia Reed, later recalled that nearly every yoke of oxen was required to pull each of the party’s twenty-three wagons up the hill. After this ordeal, the oxen needed rest, but there was no time. The party pushed on to the Salt Flats, where many of the oxen gave out. This caused delays, which led to disaster in the Sierra Mountains.

A year later, July 22, 1847, Brigham Young’s Pioneer Party, following the Donners and benefitting from their labor, reached this spot. William Clayton recorded their decision: “We found the road crossing the creek again to the south and then ascending a very steep, high hill. It is so very steep as to be almost impossible for heavy wagons to ascend…Colonel Markham and another man went over the hill and returned up the canyon to see if a road cannot be cut through and avoid this hill. Brother Markham says a good road can soon be made through the bushes some ten or fifteen rods. A number of men went to work immediately to make the road…After spending about four hours of labor the brethren succeeded in cutting a pretty good road along the creek and the wagons proceeded on.”

Donner Hill looking east towards Emigration Canyon

Among the lesson learned that day was one stated succinctly by Virginia Reed in a letter to prospective emigrants back home: “Hurry along as fast as you can, and never take no shortcuts.”

Extended Research:

In 1846 a wagon party led by George Donner departed Independence, Missouri and began a perilous journey from the United States towards Alta California in Mexico. The wagons were late in reaching the Sierra Nevada mountain range and disaster awaited the 88 members of the Donner Party. Extreme suffering and starvation followed, with 41 members of the group dying and eventually the incident drew national attention over reports that some members of the ill-fated party resorted to cannibalism in order to survive.[2] The Donner Party originally planned to travel to California via Oregon, but real estate speculator Lansford Hastings promoted an alternate route published in his famous Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California in 1845, and the Donner Party opted to try it.³

Hastings was not certain if he should promote the cutoff from Fort Bridger through the Salt Lake Valley and westward following John C. Fremont’s expedition in 1845, but he received support in favor of the cutoff from Fremont and Jim Bridger. Hastings thus advised the Donner-Reed party that they would save some 350-400 miles if they took his “cutoff.” One of his partners, James Clyman, however became convinced that the route was not suited for wagons and therefore tried to dissuade members of Donner-Reed Party from taking the cutoff. Joseph R. Walker, who successfully guided the first wagons over the California Trail by way of Fort Hall, also thought the route an unproven risk.[3]

Other migrant groups, which included the Bryant-Russell Party and Harlan-Young wagons, left Fort Bridger in mid-July 1848, following the Bear River into East Canyon where they passed through Devil’s Gate with difficulty along the Weber River. Hastings subsequently directed a group of German migrants from the Heinrich Lienhard party on a direct route through Echo Canyon into Devil’s Gate, where they caught up with the Harlan-Young party near the Jordan River. The Donner Party departed Fort Bridger two weeks later on July 31 and Hastings talked them out of going via Weber Canyon and Devil’s Gate, instead telling them to blaze a new path over to what would come to be called Emigration Canyon. On August 7, 1846, James Reed began carving a trail for the wagon train, chopping down bushes and trees in the Wasatch Mountains towards the canyon. Reed was joined by the remaining members of the wagon party who continued to hack and dig their way for 35 miles from present-day Henefer, Summit County, to Salt Lake City.²

Emigration Creek along Donner Hill

The Bryant-Russell, Harlan-Young and Lienhard parties would successfully pass through the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California, while the time the Donner Party spent trailblazing in Utah foreshadowed later events. After the three week trek through the Wasatch Mountains, the oxen were already exhausted and their supplies began to run low.

After entering the Salt Lake Valley, the first member of the party died of tuberculosis near the Great Salt Lake. A site near Grantsville, Utah provided temporary relief with underground water springs, their last source of water until reaching the Humboldt River. In the Salt Flats, Reed’s thirsty oxen ran off and were never seen again. Upon reaching Iron Hill, a fight broke out between one of Reed’s teamsters and John Snyder, a driver for the Graves wagon. Reed stabbed Snyder in the chest and was banished by the Donners after Snyder died. Reed thus avoided being pinned down by the early winter storms which trapped the rest of the party. His departure in October towards Sutter’s Fort allowed him to organize a rescue party in Sacramento that arrived in February 1847. Along the Humboldt River a band of Paiute Indians killed 21 of the Donner Party’s oxen and stole another 18, with more than 100 of the party’s cattle now gone. Two Indian guides assisted the Donner Party in reaching the summit of the Sierra Nevada, but turned back with the first sign of snowfall in early November.1

Donner-Reed Party burial remains discovered in the Salt Lake Desert

The delayed timing and trek through the west desert led to the party becoming snowbound in the Sierras. Malnutrition was a common cause of death, and Irish immigrant Patrick Breen wrote in his journal on Christmas Eve that he was living in a “Camp of Death”. 1 Some of the members of the party camped along the banks of Alder Creek and frozen Truckee Lake, now Donner Lake, where most of the cannibalism occurred. The first rescuers arrived at Truckee Lake in February 1847, composed of soldiers from the U.S. Army stationed in California during the U.S.-Mexican War, among them were members of the Mormon Battalion. One week after rescuers arrived, other isolated camp sites were still using the corpses of the dead for food. Breen wrote in his diary on February 26:

Martha’s jaw swelled with the toothache: hungry times in camp; plenty hides, but the folks will not eat them. We eat them with a tolerable good apetite. Thanks be to Almighty God. Amen. Mrs Murphy said here yesterday that [she] thought she would Commence on Milt. & eat him. I don’t [think] that she has done so yet; it is distressing. The Donners, 4 days ago, told the California folks that they[would] commence to eat the dead people if they did not succeed, that day or next, in finding their cattle.1

Patrick Breen’s diary entry describing the routine cannibalism in the encampment

Three additional relief efforts occurred in April in an attempt to find members who had become separated while camping along Truckee Lake. In the last effort they found only one survivor, Louis Keesberg, who was surrounded by half-eaten corpses. As the survivors departed with the rescuers, members of the Mormon Battalion were ordered to bury the dead bodies inside the main cabin on what is today Donner Pass and then set fire to the cabin.[4]

The Donner Party, in essence, blazed the trail into the Salt Lake Valley which Brigham Young and the Mormon Pioneers used the following year. Young left Winter Quarters, Nebraska with his encampment and passed through the mouth of Echo Canyon by mid-July 1847; he then picked up the Donner-Reed trail and followed it into the Salt Lake Valley. Instead of three weeks, it took Young’s party one week, a matter of great importance since it enabled the Mormons to plant wheat and potato crops in time for their first harvest in the fall. In the last quarter-mile, rather than hauling their wagons over Donner Hill, the Mormons decided to hack through the brush and go around Donner Hill. The Mormons emerged four hours later at what is now This is the Place State Park.[5]

For Further Reference:

Primary Sources:

Breen, Patrick. Diary of Patrick Breen of the Donner Party, 1846-7. Berkeley: University  of         California Bancroft Library, 1910.

Secondary Sources:

Campbell, Eugene. “The Mormons and the Donner Party.” BYU Studies Quarterly, Vol. 11 no. 3 (1971).

Miller, David. “The Donner Road through the Great Salt Lake Desert.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 27, no. 1 (February 1958): 39-44


[1] Originally installed by “Mormon Explorers” Y.M.M.I.A. In 2010, the original plaque was stolen and re-erected in 2016 by the LDS 38th North Ward High Priests

[2] Campbell, “The Mormons and the Donner Party.”

[3] Miller, “The Donner Road through the Great Salt Lake Desert,” 39-44

1 Breen, 18

1 Breen, 28

[5] Campbell, “The Mormons and the Donner Party.”

Big Mountain

Published / by Grace Fahey / Leave a Comment

-Write up by: Grace Fahey

Placed By: Sons of Utah Pioneers

GPS Coordinates:  N 40° 49.683 W 111° 39.217

Historical Marker Text 1:

“On 19 July 1847, scouts Orson Pratt and John Brown climbed the mountain and became the first Latter-Day Saints to see the Salt Lake Valley. Due to illness, the pioneer camp had divided into three small companies. On 23 July, the last party led by Brigham Young reached the Big Mountain. By this time most of the first companies were already in the valley and planting crops. Mormons were not the first immigrant group to use this route into the Salt Lake Valley. The ill-fated Donner Party blazed the original trail one year earlier. They spent thirteen days cutting the trails from present day Henefer into the valley. That delay proved disastrous later on when the party was caught in a severe winter storm in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Mormons traveled the same distance in only six days. Until 1861, this trail was also the route of California gold seekers, Overland Stage, Pony Express, original telegraph line, and the other Mormon immigrant companies, after which Parley’s Canyon was used. This monument, erected and dedicated 25 August 1984, by South Davis Chapter, Sons of Utah Pioneers, replaces the original plaque erected 23 July 1933, by Utah Pioneer Trails and Landmarks Association and the Vanguard Association of the Salt Lake County, Boy Scouts of America”.

Nearby Markers: Little Mountain

Historical Marker Text 2:

“This is the last summit in the Wasatch Mountains along the pioneer trail. From this point the trail descends northwest until it reaches Emigration Creek. As William Clayton’s emigrants guide warns, “The descent is very steep all the way.”

The Donner Party passed over the summit August 21, 1846 and the Mormons on July 21, 1847.

Salt Lake City Chapter Son of Utah Pioneers

Extended Research:

Big Mountain is a landmark on the Utah section of the Mormon trail. The journey from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake City, Utah is now known as The Great Mormon Migration[1]. The Mormons embarked on this journey after facing violent religious persecution in both Missouri and Illinois. After their prophet and leader, Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, Brigham Young became the new leader of the main body of Saints and decided to flee persecution and seek a new home in the West.[2] As early as September 1845, Young favored the Salt Lake Valley as a potential new home for his followers.[3]

The Great Basin was attractive to the Mormons because of its isolation. At the time it was still a part of Mexico and largely unsettled. The Great Basin presented an opportunity for the Mormons to escape the religious persecution which they had endured in the United States. Brigham Young liked the idea that it was isolated and not under firm Mexican control, because he hoped no one else would want to settle there. The Mormon migration was thus a journey to escape persecution and find religious freedom.[4]

The Mormon migration began in February of 1846. During the first leg of the journey, Mormons suffered a loss of over 400 people. In response, they decided to stop in Omaha, Nebraska, for the winter. Then, in April 1847, the Mormons continued to the Rocky Mountains. Brigham Young led 142 men, 3 women, 2 children, 72 wagons, and cattle into the Great Basin. The steep, rocky conditions of the last portion of the trail made the migration treacherous.[5] At Fort Bridger, the Mormons took the Donner-Reed trail through the Rocky Mountains and into the Great Basin. The final leg of the trek was the most challenging yet. [6]

After months of climbing steep and rocky terrain, the journey soon came to an end. On 21 July, pioneers Orson Pratt and John Brown saw the Salt Lake Valley for the first time. Orson Pratt was enthusiastic in his assessment:

“After issuing from the mountains among which we had been shut up for many days, and beholding in a moment such an extensive scenery open before us, we could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view.”[7]

One day later, after months of hardship and traveling, the advanced party of Mormon pioneers finally looked out over the Great Basin from atop what is now called, Big Mountain. Pioneer Thomas Bullock wrote that they viewed

“the Salt Lake in the distance with its bold hills on its islands towering up in bold relief behind the silvery lake —a very extensive valley burst upon our view, dotted in 3 or 4 places with Timber. I should expect the valley to be about 30 miles long & 20 miles wide. I could not help shouting ‘hurra, hurra, hurra, heres my home at last’—the Sky is very clear, the air delightful & altogether looks glorious; the only drawback appearing to be the absence of timber—but there is an Ocean of Stone in the mountains, to build Stone houses, & Walls for fencing. if we can only find a bed of Coal we can do well; & be hidden up in the Mountains unto the Lord.”[8]

On July 22nd 1847, after a final trek down the canyon, the first emigrant group camped in the Salt Lake Valley.[9]

Brigham Young, sick from Mountain Fever, followed behind and reached Big Mountain the next day. On July 23, his history records,

“I ascended and crossed over the Big Mountain, when on its summit I directed Elder Woodruff, who had kindly tendered me the use of his carriage, to turn the same half way round so that I could have a view of a portion of Salt Lake Valley. The spirit of light rested upon me and hovered over the valley, and I felt that there the Saints would find protection and safety. We descended and encamped at the foot of the Little Mountain.”[10]

Young and his group entered the valley on July 24th and joined the members of the advanced camp who were already plowing the land and planting crops.

Big Mountain is more than just a landmark on the Mormon Trail. Big Mountain marks the first time that the Mormon pioneers witnessed their destination stretched out before them.

Photo of Emigration Canyon from Big Mountain, 2017, by Grace Fahey

[1]Mormon Trail HistoryUtah.com, accessed March 27, 2017.

[2]Brigham Young; 1801-1877” PBS.org; New Perspectives on the West, accessed March 27th, 2017.

[3] Council of Fifty, Minutes, Sep. 9, 1845, in Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Jeffrey D. Mahas, eds., Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, first volume of the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers, ed. Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 472.

[4] This is the place’: The Mormon PioneersNational Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide; Utah- Crossroads of the West, National Park Services, Salt Lake City, UT, September 2010.

[5]Mormon PioneerNational Parks Service, accessed March 29, 2017.

[6] Stanley B, Kimball, “The Mormon Pioneer Trail, 1846-1847”. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed March 27, 2017

[7] Orson Pratt, “Interesting Items Concerning the Journeying of the Latter-day Saints from the City of Nauvoo, Until Their Location in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake (Extracted from the Private Journal of Orson Pratt),” digital copy, LDS Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[8] Thomas Bullock Journals, Vol. 4, 1843-1849, LDS Church History Library, digital copy, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[9] ‘This is the place’: The Mormon Pioneers” National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide; Utah- Crossroads of the West, National Park Services, Salt Lake City, UT, September 2010

[10] Brigham Young history, 23 July 1847, in Richard E. Turley Jr. and Lael Littke, Wagons West: Brigham Young and the First Pioneers (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016), 142.

For Further Research:

Primary Sources:

LDS Overland Trails Datatbase: Brigham Young Pioneer Company 

Thomas Bullocks Journal Entry 

Orson Pratt’s Journal Entry 

Secondary Sources:

Mormon Trail HistoryUtah.com, accessed March 27, 2017.

Brigham Young; 1801-1877PBS; New Persectives on the West, accessed March 27th, 2017.

Mormon PioneerNationalParksService, accessed March 29, 2017.

‘This is the place’: The Mormon Pioneers” National Historic Trails Auto Tour Route Interpretive Guide; Utah- Crossroads of the West, National Park Services, Salt Lake City, UT, September 2010

Will Bagley, The Pioneer Camp of the Saints: The 1846 and 1847 Mormon Trail Journals of Thomas Bullock (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2001).

Richard E. Turley Jr. and Lael Littke, Wagons West: Brigham Young and the First Pioneers (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2016).

Adobe Rock

Published / by Ben Kiser / Leave a Comment

Written by Benjamin Kiser, MA History Student, University of Utah

Placed By:  Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers

GPS Coordinates: 40°39’36.2″N 112°17’18.4″W

Historical Marker Text:

DUP Marker Jan 22, 2017

DAUGHTERS OF UTAH PIONEERS No 103

ERECTED JULY 27, 1947.

ADOBE ROCK

On July 27, 1847, three horsemen from the scouting party sent out by Brigham Young, obtained an excellent view of the surrounding valley, from the top of this rock.  In 1849, Captain Howard Stansbury of the United States Topographical Engineers built a small adobe house by this rock, for his herders, hence the name “Adobe Rock”.  The near by highway follows the same route as the old pioneer trail used by explorers, trappers, emigrants and gold seekers.A spring near by made this a favorite camp site.

Extended Research:

Adobe Rock Jan 22, 2017

Adobe Rock is a large stone promontory in the northeast corner of Tooele Valley.  Early explorers of the Great Basin, California-bound pioneers, and Mormon residents of the valley saw Adobe Rock, a collection of three individual boulders, as a prominent landmark.  According to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers historical marker that was placed on the rock in 1947, three men from Brigham Young’s scouting party surveyed the valley from atop the rock. [1]  Unfortunately, a written account of this much-referenced incidence is nowhere to be found. However, Mormons weren’t the first to distinguish the rock as a significant spot in the valley’s landscape.  Though no written record exists, Goshutes who occupied the Tooele area were well acquainted with the valley’s geologic landmarks.  The first Euro-Americans to describe Adobe Rock and the surrounding area were overland migrants who took Hastings Cutoff in 1846 on their way to California.  Edwin Bryant, a California immigrant with a book deal to publish his expedition’s journal, recounts that on July 31, 1846 “we passed several remarkable rocks rising in tower-like shapes from the plain, to the height of sixty or eighty feet.”[2]   A few short weeks later, Henrich Lienhard, a Swiss emigrant to California, recorded his entrance to the Tooele Valley, camping at a spring that modern historians interpret to be near Adobe Rock.[3]

Perhaps the most prolific character to venture near Adobe Rock was U.S. Army Captain Howard Stansbury.  In an 1849 expedition around the Great Salt Lake to study its environs and the geology of the mountains bordering it, Stansbury entered the Tooele Valley from the west, exiting toward Salt Lake to the east near Black Rock.[4]  A variety of secondary sources, including the DUP marker on Adobe Rock, reference the construction of an adobe hut near the rock for Stansbury’s herdsman to occupy while wintering cattle in the “Tuilla” Valley.[5]  However, in Stansbury’s report, no reference is made to Adobe Rock or the construction of a hut for his herdsman. In fact, Stansbury does not even include Adobe Rock on the map he attaches to his report.[6]  References are made to herds wintering in the valley, but there is no specific mention of the adobe hut.

Regardless of whether or not reports on the construction of a herdsman hut are accurate, Adobe Rock was a striking feature on the landscape for overland travelers who took Hastings Cutoff, government explorers, and Mormon pioneers.  The boulder remains an iconic Tooele County landmark as State Route 36, the main highway to Tooele, passes nearby to the west.

Howard Stansbury’s Map of the Great Salt Lake and Adjacent Country in the Territory of Utah
Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society

 

[1] Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, History of Utah’s Tooele County: From the Edge of the Great Basin Frontier (Tooele, UT: Transcript Bulletin Publishing, 2012), 169-170.

[2] Edwin Bryant, “The Journal of Edwin Bryant,” in Utah Historical Quarterly 19 (1951), ed. J. Roderic Korns, 78.

[3] Heinrich Lienhard “The Journal of Heinrich Lienhard,” in Utah Historical Quarterly 19 (1951), ed. J. Roderic Korns, 138.

[4] Howard Stansbury, Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains (Washington, D.C.: Robert Armstrong, 1853), 117-199, accessed March 29, 2017, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015073282918;view=1up;seq=146.

[5] Ouida Blanthorn, comp., A History of Tooele County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1998), 55.

DUP, History of Utah’s Tooele County, 161-162.

[6]  Howard Stansbury, Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co., 1852), 3, accessed March 29, 2017, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015070221182;view=1up;seq=9;size=400.

For Further Reference:

Primary Sources

Edwin Bryant, “The Journal of Edwin Bryant,” in Utah Historical Quarterly 19 (1951), ed. J. Roderic Korns.

Heinrich Lienhard “The Journal of Heinrich Lienhard,” in Utah Historical Quarterly 19 (1951), ed. J. Roderic Korns.

Howard Stansbury, Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains (Washington, D.C.: Robert Armstrong, 1853), accessed March 29, 2017, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015073282918;view=1up;seq=146.

Howard Stansbury, Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah, Including a Reconnaissance of a New Route Through the Rocky Mountains (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, and Co., 1852), accessed March 29, 2017, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015070221182;view=1up;seq=9;size=400.

Secondary Sources

Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers, History of Utah’s Tooele County: From the Edge of the Great Basin Frontier (Tooele, UT: Transcript Bulletin Publishing, 2012.)

Ouida Blanthorn, comp., A History of Tooele County (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1998.)