Donner-Reed Memorial Museum and Early Bldgs.

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

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