Jacob Donner, the brother of George Donner, was born in North Carolina in about 1781. He lived for a while in Kentucky before moving to Sangamon County, Illinois.
Jacob and George Donner decided to move to California. In April, 1846, Jacob and his wife Elizabeth, and their seven children joined what what became known as the Donner Party. The party followed the Oregon Trail until they reached Fort Bridger on 28th July.
At the fort the party met Lansford Hastings. He was busy attempting to persuade Oregon-bound emigrants to go to California by way of what became known as the Hastings Cutoff. Hastings claimed that his route would remove 300 miles from the distance to Sutter's Fort. His cut-off involved crossing the Wasatch Mountains, round the Great Salt Lake to the south, then due west to the Humboldt River in Nevada, before returning to the main trail from Fort Hall.
Hastings told people that the desert was only 40 miles across and that they would find water after 24 hours. It was in fact 82 miles wide and water was only to be found after 48 hours of travelling. Hastings told Donner and James Reed that three wagon trains had already opted for this route.
The Donner Party had made poor time so far and was already some way behind most of the other wagon trains travelling from Independence to Sutter's Fort. They knew they had to cross the Sierra Nevada before the snowfalls that would their path to Sutter's Fort. This usually happened in early November. Although they were on schedule to reach the mountains by late summer they were worried about other delays that could mean being blocked by the winter weather. They therefore made the decision to take the advice of Lansford Hastings and take the proposed short-cut.
On 31st July the Donner Party left Fort Bridger. They did not come out of the Echo Canyon until the 6th August. What they expected to take them four days had actually taken them seven days. They found a letter from Lansford Hastings advising them to camp at the Weber River and to send a man ahead to find him so he could show them a new route to California. James Reed and Charles T. Stanton went off in pursuit of Hastings. When they found him he refused the offer of becoming the personal guide to the Donner wagon train. Instead he drew a rough map of the new route.
The Donner Party entered the Wasatch Mountains on 12th August. They soon discovered they had to chop their way through aspen, cottonwood and tangled undergrowth to make a route for the wagons. Over the next few days they had to dislodge boulders and build causeways across swamps in order to reach the valley of the Great Salt Lake. The twenty-three wagons of the Donner Party was now joined by the Graves family and their three wagons. As Virginia Reed later recorded the new group consisted "of Franklin Graves, his wife and eight children, his son-in-law Jay Fosdick, and a young man by the name of John Snyder."
It was now the 27th August and they still had to cross the Salt Desert. Members of the party now realised they were in serious trouble and now had only a small chance of crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains before the winter snows blocked their route. The faster wagons pushed on ahead and the slow, heavily laden wagons of the Reeds and Donners were by now falling further and further behind.
The Donner Party reached Pilot Peak on 8th September. To enable them to keep up, the Reeds and Donners had to abandon some of the heavy goods they were carrying. They also abandoned three wagons and increased the number of oxen pulling the remaining wagons. Members of the party were also having doubts about whether they had enough food to last them before they reached California. It was therefore decided to send two men, Charles T. Stanton and William McCutcheon ahead to Sutter's Fort in order to purchase provisions for the wagon train.
The Donner Party now started out towards the Humboldt River. On the 30th September they reached the main trail from Fort Hall to Sutter's Fort. However, by this time the rest of the 1846 wagon trains had long gone and were already in California. The Donner Party now had trouble from the Paiute. They stole two oxen and two horses. They also fired several arrows at the wagon train and wounded some of the animals.
On 5th October, 1846, another disaster struck the Donner Party. James Reed and John Snyder had an argument about one of the wagons. Snyder lost his temper and hit him over the head with a bullwhip. Reed drew his knife and stuck it into Snyder's body. Snyder mumbled: "Uncle Patrick, I am dead." His prediction was correct and Lewis Keseberg immediately began to set up a wagon tongue as a makeshift gallows. William Eddy used his gun to insist that Reed would not be lynched. The others agreed and after much discussion it was decided that Reed should be banished from the wagon train. He was forced to make his way to Sutter's Fort on horseback without weapons. To many in the party this was equivalent to sentencing Reed to death.
Soon afterwards Lewis Keseberg ejected one of his employees, Hardkoop, from his wagon. He was never seen again and it is not known whether he died of starvation or was killed by local Native American tribes. This was followed by the disappearance of another German named Wolfinger. Joseph Reinhardt and Augustus Spitzer later confessed they had robbed and murdered Wolfinger.
The Donner Party now had to cross a 40 mile desert. Over the next three days the wagon train suffered repeated attacks from groups of warriors. During this time they stole 18 oxen, killed another 21 and wounded many others. Since most of their animals were now dead or stolen, the party was forced to abandon their wagons. The party reached the Truckee Lake at the end of October.
On 19th October Charles T. Stanton arrived back from Sutter's Fort with seven mules loaded with food. William McCutcheon had been taken ill and had been forced to stay at the fort. However, Stanton had brought back with him two Indian guides to help them get to California. Stanton also brought news that James Reed had successfully reached California. On 20th October William Foster killed his brother-in-law in a shooting accident.
The Donner Party now began its attempt to cross the the Sierra Nevada mountains. A few snow flurries made them realise they were in a desperate race for time. In the distance they could see that the peaks were covered in snow. On 25th October a Paiute warrior opened fire on what was left of the animals. He hit nineteen oxen before being killed by William Eddy.
The migrants ploughed on but when they got to within three miles of the summit they found their way blocked by five-foot snowdrifts. They were now forced to turn back and seek cover in a cabin they had passed at the foot of the mountain. Meanwhile James Reed and William McCutcheon had set out with enough food to keep the Donner Party alive for the winter. However, they had found their path blocked and had to return with their pack mules to Sutter's Fort.
The surviving members of the wagon train now set about constructing a camp next to what later became known as Donner Lake. Patrick Dolan, Patrick Breen and his family moved into the abandoned cabin whereas Lewis Keseberg built a lean-to against one of the walls. William Eddy and William Foster built a log cabin. So also did Charles T. Stanton. His cabin was to house the Graves family and Margaret Reed and her children. Donner managed to construct a primitive shelter for his family.
The Donner Party was desperately short of food. The remaining animals were killed and eaten. Attempts to catch fish in the river was unsuccessful. Some of the men went hunting but during the next two weeks they were only able to kill one bear, a coyote, an owl and a grey squirrel. It was clear that if they stayed in the camp they would all die of starvation and on 12th November thirteen men and two women made another attempt to get to Sutter's Fort. However, they found their way blocked by a 10 foot snow drift and returned to camp.
The party rested for a few days and then a party led by William Eddy and Charles T. Stanton made another attempt to reach safety. On 21st November they returned to camp defeated. Soon afterwards Baylis Williams died. This motivated the stronger members of the party to make one last attempt to cross the mountains.
On 16th December fifteen members of the party left the camp and headed for the summit. This became known as the Forlorn Hope group. Aided by better weather, this time they managed to cross the mountain pass. On 20th December they had reached a place called Yuba Bottoms. The following morning Stanton was not strong enough to leave the camp. The rest were forced to leave him to die.
William Eddy now took responsibility for leading the group to safety. On 24th December they were out of food and too weak to go on. The group came to the decision that the only way they could survive was to resort to cannibalism. That night Billy Graves and a Mexican called Antoine died. The following day Patrick Dolan also passed away and on 26th December they began cooking Dolan's arms and legs. At first only three members of the party, Eddy and the two Indian guides, refused to eat the meat. However, over the next two days they succumbed to temptation and resorted to cannibalism. They now had a fourth body to consume as Lemeul Murphy died that night.
On 30th December the party, much stronger after their cannibal feast, set off again. However, the weather deteriorated and they were once again forced to halt and make a camp. Out of food, the group began talking about murdering Luis and Salvador, the two Indian guides. Eddy argued against this idea and he secretly told Luis and Salvador that they were likely to be murdered if they remained. That night, while the others slept, they left the camp.
William Eddy and Mary Graves now volunteered to go out hunting. Eddy managed to kill a deer but by the time they got back to the camp Jay Fosdick had died. This supplied more meat for the six remaining members of the group.
The next day the party found the dying bodies of Luis and Salvador. Eddy was unable to stop William Foster killing the two Indians. This created conflict between Eddy and Foster and it was decided that they could no longer work together. The group now split up: Foster, his wife and sister, Harriet Pike made up one party whereas Eddy travelled with Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick and Amanda McCutcheon.
On 12th January, Eddy's group reached a Paiute village. They took pity on the travellers and gave them a corn meal. This gave them the strength to move on and five days later found another village. This time they were given a meal of pine nuts. Eddy then paid a warrior a pouch of tobacco to act as a guide to Sutter's Fort. This he agreed to do and after a further six mile walker, Eddy reached his destination. When he heard the news James Reed quickly organized a relief party to go back and find the rest of the Forlorn Hope group.
Johann Sutter and Captain Edward Kern, the commanding officer at Sutter's Fort, offered to pay $3 a day for anyone willing to form a relief party to rescue those still camped at Donner Lake. Only seven men agreed to accept this dangerous task and on 31st January the small team led by Daniel Tucker left the fort.
James Reed successfully brought back William Foster, Sarah Foster, Harriet Pike, Mary Graves, Sarah Fosdick and Amanda McCutcheon. He now began preparing a second relief party. He organized a public meeting where he raised $1,300. He used this money to buy supplies and to hire six more men. William Eddy also agreed to guide the team back to the Donner Lake and they departed on 7th February.
Several members of Tucker's party threatened to turn back reached Bear Valley where the snow was ten feet deep. Tucker was forced to pay the men $5 a day to anyone who completed the journey. On 18th February they managed to reach Donner Lake. The first person they came across asked: "Are you men from California, or do you come from heaven?" They discovered that a large number had died. This included Jacob Donner (16th December, 1846) and his wife Elizabeth (7th March, 1847). Four of their seven children also died while in the winter camp. His brother George Donner (13th March, 1847) also died in the tragedy.
The Donner Party was the worst disaster in wagon train history. Forty-two emigrants and two Indian guides had died. However, the remaining forty-seven travellers survived.