Donner Trail, 1846

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).

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