Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tragedy in the Sierra Nevada, Part II

Read Part I


Heading southwest into Utah, the Donner Party found a note from Hastings stuck inside a bush along the trail. He advised them not to take the route his own party was taking – through the rocky Weber Canyon of the Wasatch Mountains in northeastern Utah. Reed and several others left the party and rode ahead to meet Hastings for advice. With the help of Hastings, Reed scouted out a slightly different course, then met back up with the Donner Party wagon train on August 10th, 1846.

The Wasatch Mountains

With James Reed piloting the group, the Donner Party made their way through the mountainous area east of the Great Salt Lake.

James Reed

James’s daughter Virginia, who was about twelve years old at the time, later said:

Only those who have passed through this country on horseback can appreciate the situation. There was absolutely no road, not even a trail…Heavy underbrush had to be cut away and used for making a road bed.

It was during the early part of August that the Graves family joined the Donner Party. Until this time, they had been part of a different wagon train several weeks behind. With the Donner Party slowed down in the mountains of Utah, the Graves’ caught up with them, swelling the numbers of the group to well over 80.

On August 22nd, after a final grueling ascent across a hill now famously known as Donner Hill, the Donner Party came into the Salt Lake valley, to the place where Brigham Young and his Mormons would plant their new holy city just a year later.

A plaque at the base of Donner Hill, near Salt Lake City

The members of the Donner Party were justifiably glad to be through the mountains, but the detour had taken a toll on the group’s unanimity. Already Hastings Cutoff was taking longer than expected, and the detour to avoid the tortuous Weber Canyon – as advised by Hastings and agreed upon by Reed – had ultimately taken the Donner Party longer to navigate, and had required extremely hard, backbreaking work.

On August 25th, a few days after reaching the flatter, desert area west of the Wasatch Mountains, the Donner Party suffered its first loss (the death of James Reed’s mother-in-law several months earlier had occurred well before the Donner Party was officially organized in Fort Bridger). Luke Halloran, a young man about whom very little is known, succumbed to tuberculosis. He had been traveling with a different group to California in hopes of finding the climate better suited to his condition. He fell ill along the way, however, and was abandoned by the group he was traveling with. George Donner had taken him in, allowing him to ride in the Donner wagons.

Continuing westward, the Donner Party trundled across the desert in the scorching heat of late August.

Satellite image of the Great Salt Lake. The Wasatch range is to the lower right of the picture. The Great Salt Desert extends along the left side of the picture.

Virginia Reed and Charles Stanton both wrote letters referring to temperatures consistently above 100 degrees. At the end of August, the party reached an area abundant with clean water, which they dubbed “Twenty Wells.” Camping there for a few days and stocking up as much as possible, they began a long, arduous trek through the waterless Salt Desert – west of modern day Salt Lake City.

The Great Salt Desert

They expected this journey to last two days. It ended up taking about ten.

Several days into the journey across the Salt Desert, the party began to run low on water and it became apparent that the cattle would have to be taken ahead to the watering holes known to exist on the other side of the salt pans. Leaving the wagons behind, the teamsters took the oxen and other cattle on ahead. The rest of the party waited for several days for them to return. When they didn’t come back, James Reed and several others went ahead to search for them. They discovered that many of the cattle had bolted upon smelling fresh water, and the teamsters had lost complete control over them. For nearly a full week the party searched for their cattle; many oxen and cows were recovered, but far more were lost. The Reed family lost more than anyone else, recovering only a single cow and a single ox. Reed was forced to abandon two of his wagons, piling necessities into the one remaining vehicle and distributing the rest among the other families. Virginia Reed would later write:

Our provisions were divided among the company. Before leaving the desert camp, an inventory of provisions on hand was taken, and it was found that the supply was not sufficient to last us through to California.

George Donner and another pioneer named Louis Keseberg were also forced to abandon a wagon each. These four wagons, left sitting in the sun in the Salt Desert, would remain there until rediscovered in the 1920’s.

Donner Party wagon remains photographed in the 1920's

After regrouping, the party finally came out of the Salt Desert, resting several days at the foot of Pilot Peak, at a spring now known as Donner Spring in northwest Utah.

Donner Spring

On September 10th, the caravan headed west again into Nevada, passing south of Pilot Peak and trundling across Nevada to intercept the California Trail that they had abandoned in Wyoming. Realizing, however, that their provisions were running low, the company decided to send two men ahead to Sutter’s Fort to gather the provisions the company would need to finish its journey. The two men who volunteered were Charles Stanton – the aforementioned Chicago bachelor who was traveling with the Donners – and Kentuckian William McCutchen, who left his wife and young daughter in the care of the Reeds.

With Stanton and McCutchen riding ahead, the caravan traveled across Nevada for the next two weeks, finally reaching the junction with the California Trail on September 26th. In a letter in July, as noted earlier, Reed had expected to reach Sutter’s Fort by the end of September. Instead, it took that long just to complete the Hastings Cutoff – a “shortcut.” It had taken the Donner Party about two weeks longer to complete the trek than the party led by Hastings, and compared to the time most parties took to follow the original route through Idaho, the Donner Party’s “shortcut” cost them a whole month.

This delay, of course, would ultimately lead to tragic consequences.


Continuing now along the California Trail, the party followed Mary’s River (now called the Humboldt River) through central and western Nevada.

The Humboldt River

They were raided several times in the night by small bands of Indians, who stole cattle and oxen. Already short of these precious commodities, the company was slowed down even further, with many members now walking much of the time to relieve the burden on the depleted cattle teams.

By now, the Donner Party was understandably beginning to show signs of emotional as well as physical fatigue. John Breen, one of the children of the Breen family, would later write that “the men were irritable and impatient.”

John Breen

Because of poor decisions and some bad luck, they had already endured more hardships than the average wagon train heading along the California Trail. They were already several weeks beyond their hoped-for arrival date, and still had several hundred miles and a major mountain range to pass through before reaching Sutter’s Fort.

The first glimpse of a true breakdown in emotions occurred on October 5th, 1846. The events of that day are not entirely clear, but an argument broke out between the driver of the Reed’s wagon, Milt Elliot of Cynthiana, Kentucky, and the driver of the Graves’ wagon, John Snyder of Ohio. While ascending a particularly steep hill, Elliot’s cattle team became entangled with the team driven by John Snyder. This led to an argument which James Reed intervened in.

According to an early biography by writer Quinn Thornton – who wrote his story of the Donner Party primarily from interviews with survivor William Eddy – Snyder threatened to lash Reed with his whip, which caused Reed to produce a knife. Thornton stated:

[Reed] told Snyder that he did not wish to have any difficulty with him. Snyder told him that he would whip him “anyhow;” and turning the butt of his whip, gave Mr. Reed a severe blow upon the head, which cut it very much.

Reed responded by stabbing Snyder near the collarbone, puncturing a lung. According to Thornton’s account (as related by William Eddy), Snyder lashed Reed twice more, bringing Reed to the ground, but the damage to Snyder was already done. He died “in about fifteen minutes.”

Other accounts differ, however. Those whose sympathies lay with Snyder depicted the event as one entirely caused by Reed, who tried to cut his team in ahead of Snyder’s. William Graves, seventeen at the time and the son of Franklin Graves, for whom Snyder worked, later said:

Reed, at this time, was on the opposite side of the oxen from Snyder, and said to Snyder, “You have no business here in the way;” Snyder said, “It is my place.” Reed started toward him, and jumping over the wagon tongue, said, “You are a damned liar, and I’ll cut your heart out!” Snyder pulled his clothes open on his breast and said, “Cut away.” Reed ran to him and stuck a large six-inch butcher’s knife into his heart and cut off two ribs.

That account, of course, sounds unrealistic and melodramatic. What seems clear is that the two men got into an altercation of some sort, Snyder whipped Reed several times, Reed struck back, and Snyder ended up being mortally wounded. Other accounts from the day also suggest that Reed’s wife, Margaret, tried to stop the fight and was herself lashed by Snyder; whether on purpose or on accident is unclear.

Margaret Reed

Though he wrote often of the events of 1846-1847, Reed never gave his side of the story publically. It was apparently a touchy and difficult subject over which he must have felt enormous guilt. Writer Quinn Thornton confirmed this when he stated:

Mr. Reed, although the blood was running down over his face and shoulders from his own wounds, manifested great anguish of spirit, and threw the knife away from him and into the river.

Regardless of who was at fault or whether the killing was done in self-defense, it caused great trouble among the members of the Donner Party. Members of the Graves’ clan called for Reed to be hanged on the spot. Others acted with more moderation, assuring the Graves’ that Reed would be brought to trial upon the caravan’s arrival in California. In any case, Reed’s continued presence with the group promised to create unwanted friction, so the party voted to banish him from the caravan. Reed seems to have taken the decision with equanimity, helping first to bury the deceased Snyder, then heading off on horseback, promising to find Stanton and McCutchen –the two who had gone ahead for provisions and who had now been gone for about a month.

In the end, despite the party’s belief that Reed would stand trial for the death of Snyder, Reed was never charged or tried for any crime. This is no doubt the result of at least two reasons. First, with conflicting eyewitness accounts, it was never clear whether Reed had actually done anything other than justifiably defend himself against an attack. Secondly, after the unthinkable tragedies that would eventually befall the Donner Party, trying anyone for a crime afterward must have seemed rather silly.

Read Part III


Anonymous said...

Do you think Luke Halloran, who died on my birthday, was any relation to Dick Halloran who died at the Overlook? :)


Scott said...

Probably a different color :)